Cento Poetry Form: Inspire With Melodic Blend

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Here’s what the Cento poetry form is:

A cento is, in essence, a collage poem because it consists entirely of poetic lines taken from poems written by other authors.

Cento is in fact from a Latin term that means “patchwork garment“.

So if you want to learn all about the Cento poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s jump into it!

Cento Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Cento (or Patchwork Poem)

Book with flower and heart

The cento (modernly called the patchwork poem) is one of the oldest forms of found poetry, tracing its origins all the way back to ancient Rome.

Found poetry is a branch of poetry that utilizes words that were “found” in existing works instead of written out of the writer’s own imagination.

It should be noted that there is some contention about how much borrowing is too much and found poetry, including centos, can come afoul of copyright law if all works borrowed from are not properly cited (usually in a footer of some kind).

Centos are nearly synonymous with patchwork poems in the modern era, but there are some minor nuances that we will go into detail on in this article.

Basic Properties of the Cento

The Roman Forum in Rome, Italy
Rhyme StructureUsually none
MeterDepending on the source material
OriginAncient Greece and Rome
PopularityEvolved into the modern “patchwork poem” but is typically treated as a hobby format

How Are Centos Structured?

dried pink wildflowers and opened empty notebook

Going by the first tradition laid out for centos, they would be a poem in which the poet borrows sections from poems ranging from half a line to a line and a half.

No original writing is featured, opting instead to combine the works of other writers into a sort of literary collage.

These centos could borrow from the works of a single poet, especially classical figures like Homer and Virgil, but could also potentially borrow sections from several poets.

The form has not been incredibly popular throughout history, having seen its prime in ancient Rome and Greece, then slowly fading into a more casual role.

While the underlying concept of the cento has never truly died out, most poets today would recognize a cento as a ‘patchwork poem’ since the differences between the two terms are fairly superficial.

It should be noted that patchwork poems are most likely the natural evolution of centos since the word cento itself has meanings similar in nature to the modern world.

The terms are often used interchangeably.

The modern version, more commonly called the patchwork poem than the cento, is typically expected to take exactly one line from each source and ideally take from as many sources as possible.

Ancient centos were more likely to pull multiple lines from a single poet, whereas writers today would be more likely to be accused of laziness for doing the same.

One possible reason for this is that poetry is simply more accessible now than ever before.

Even before the digital age, libraries have been an institution for generations now where a writer can easily go to find poetry from various eras throughout history, so there is less incentive to only use the work of one or two poets you’re familiar with.

Example of the Cento

Lighthouse at sunset

Some say the world will end in fire,
in a kingdom by the sea.
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
Their very memory is fair and bright.

The above example acts more upon the modern definition of the patchwork poem than the original traditions of the cento.

As such, you’ll note that it borrows from famous poems that have nothing to do with the Greco-Roman classics.

In this case, the sourced lines are from Fire and Ice by Robert Frost, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas, and They are all Gone into the World of Light by Henry Vaughan.

Each of the original poems deals with the overarching concept of loss and the patchwork poem presented here combines some of the most iconic lines from each poem to create something with a much more vague feeling to it.

Part of the intrigue of a cento is in how it can communicate a feeling even if the lines chosen do not flow easily into each other grammatically, by virtue of careful selection and juxtaposition.

History of the Cento

candle and ancient literature books

Centos probably got their start around the 3rd or 4th century, though some experts believe there may be evidence that they predate this range.

The earliest known cento is Medea, a work by the ancient playwright Hosidius Geta which took its lines directly from Virgil’s body of work.

It was Ausonius, in the 4th century, who first laid out what he believed to be the rules of a cento, as outlined in the previous section.

The modern definition of a cento has been somewhat muddied and intermingled with the extremely similar patchwork poem, but the cento has some unique historical properties and traditions that differentiate it slightly.

One noteworthy difference is that centos traditionally borrow specifically from classical poets.

This was not a tradition explicitly laid out by Ausonius, but one that poets of subsequent centuries followed from one generation to the next.

Poets have sought more freedom in the modern era, so this practice has been fading.

The shift in dynamic may also be related to the gradual abandonment of the idealization of Rome, a property of western thought that was incredibly dominant for many centuries.

This too is one of the minor differences between the historical cento and the modern patchwork poem (or modern cento, if you prefer).

It’s much more common now for centos to be built up from the lines taken from contemporaries or from across the ages.

While a cento based on the works of Homer and Ovid wouldn’t be out of place, it’s not something you’re likely to run into.

How to Write a Cento?

There are many ways to approach a cento, but the main concern is knowing where to start.

One option is to simply read poetry until you see a line that you want to borrow, then look for lines in other poems that go well with that line, one by one, until you reach the desired length.

This will naturally go faster if you’re well-versed in poetry, since lines you’ve seen before may immediately spring to mind.

Another option is to choose your intended tone or meaning first.

Perhaps you want the poem to be about heartbreak.

In this case, you could look for poems that are about unrequited love or failed relationships.

You might even get some hints about what genres to read through from the topic.

So for heartbreak, blues poems and Greek tragedies might be interesting places to borrow from.

I would personally advise against trying for a certain rhyme scheme or meter.

This severely limits your options overall since you’re not allowed to write any lines of your own to fill in the gaps unless you’re inventing a bastardized form.

Simply focus on getting a feeling or meaning across and put your effort into that.

Before we end, one quick word of warning: As mentioned at the beginning of the article, centos/patchwork poems do run the risk of breaking copyright laws.

Make sure you’re familiar with the laws regarding intellectual property rights in your local area.

While it is generally safe to use borrowed lines from very old works, you need to be completely certain you know the author’s rights when dealing with anything that is not in the public domain.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

This is a whole poem form that started just because famous ancient Roman poets had famous ancient fanboys.

Let that sink in.

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