An All-Access Poetry Challenge

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to write a form poem a week, using the guidance and challenges that writing a form poem can bring as a way to shake off my 2013 writer’s rust and get back in the saddle.  It was this charge to myself that lead to my discovery of an ancient type of form poetry I’d never heard of before, called the cento.  And when I say ancient, I mean it – this is a poetic form as old as ancient Greece and Rome.  I loved the process of creating a cento, so I’m thrilled to highlight it as my first poetry-based activity.  Even if you don’t fancy yourself a poet, keep reading!  There are a couple of variations on the cento below which might better suit your comfort.


Writing Process: Idea Generator/Form Poetry

Genre: Poetry

The cento falls into the category of “borrowed poetry.”  In fact, a cento in its truest form is ALL borrowed; it’s a cohesive poem which is made up entirely of lines of poetry written by other poets.  A poetry version of Frankenstein’s monster, so to speak.  Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, however, a strong cento doesn’t show its stitches and flows from one line to the next as if all of the words were written by one hand in one sitting, instead of many hands over centuries.  This is the biggest challenge in creating a cento, because truly honoring the poets that you borrow lines from means that you can’t add, remove, or change anything from each line you’re borrowing.  Other than this cardinal rule, a cento can be as long or short as you like and it certainly doesn’t have to rhyme if you don’t want it to.

For me, writing a cento was like diving into the ocean of poems that came before me, and my enjoyment came in three waves.  The first wave was the “research phase.”  It felt so luxurious to look up poets with the goal of reading their words for lines that grabbed me.  If you need a place to start your research, I recommend here .  The second wave of joy came with construction.  It was so cool to put a line from Langston Hughes under a line from Dylan Thomas under a line from Sylvia Plath, like I was making a poetic daisy chain that connected these poets across time.  The final wave came when I was finished.  Reading my cento aloud, it was incredible how seamless it sounded.  Like it really was written by one hand instead of many.  In a way, that’s true.  By writing a cento, you’re taking words that were written before you and connecting them together to create new meaning.

Feeling a little intimidated by the poetry aspect?  Here are two other ways you can dive into this patchwork form:

The Song Lyric Cento.  Instead of diving into the ocean of poems that came before you, borrow your lines from lyrics of songs from different time periods and/or genres instead. Added bonus? It makes for an awesome soundtrack as you work.

Headline Poetry
A headline poem that I created with Jan which still hangs in my office to this day.

The Headline Cento.  Cut out headlines from newspapers or magazines, or cut and paste headlines from online articles.  These headlines become your borrowed lines, and just like with the traditional cento, you can use as few or as many of the headlines as you want.  This version is also a great go-to beginner’s poetry activity for teachers and teaching artists to have in their toolkit.  In fact, I learned this Headline Poetry activity from Jan Michener, a veteran teaching artist and current Executive Director of Arts Holding Hands and Hearts.

A Suggested Approach
Since the ocean of poetry is vast, here are some tips on process to help you navigate the uncharted cento waters:

1. Start with what you know and who you love. This form of poetry began as a way for writers to honor each other’s work. Who do you want to honor?

2. As you start to read, look for the “MUST HAVE” of your cento.  The “must have” might be one line you’ve fallen in love with that you have to make fit no matter what.  Or, it could be a topic or subject in a poem that peaks your interest.  Or, it could be a rhyme scheme you see that you like.  Whatever your “must have” is, it’ll be your lens to look through as you read, and this in turn will help you know what you’re looking for.

3.  Whenever you find a line for your cento, write the poet and/or title in parenthesis next to the line so you can remember where it’s from.  That way you can be sure that each line of your cento is coming from a different poet.

4.  Keep a bank of “almost but not quite” lines underneath your cento, or in another document.  As you continue to find new lines for your cento, or change the order of the ones you already have, a line that didn’t quite fit before might fit perfectly a few minutes down the road.

5.  Let your cento evolve, and evolve with it.  Does your “must have” suddenly not fit anymore?  That’s okay.  Thank it for being your initial inspiration and let it go.

6. Segue to what you don’t know and who you don’t love. The closer you come to completing your cento, the more challenging it might be. Sometimes jumping into a genre or time period you know nothing about can help you find what you’re looking for.  Even better, sometimes that poet you didn’t like before will come through with a line that’s a perfect fit.

7. Do you know what you want to say, but no matter how much you search you can’t find the line that says it just right? You won’t, because you’ve just found an idea for an original poem. Don’t be afraid – this is one of the awesome gifts the cento can give you. So put your cento on hold, and start writing. Don’t worry, your cento will still be there when you’re ready to come back to it.

I hope you decide to try your hand at a cento in some form, and that you enjoy the process as much as I did  In fact, please share your cento in the comments – especially those of you who do the song lyric centos, I would love to see some of those!


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