The cento: I can write like my favorite poet!

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Editor’s Note: this post has been written by Tonya Peterson, an English major at Lewis University. Tonya is interning with the Jet Fuel Review this semester and will be contributing blog posts periodically.

A few years ago I would have never considered myself a poet. I could barely read and understand most poems let alone write one of any significance. I mean really, what more can I say about love or loss or nature or anything that has not already been written? And written by authors with a much better vocabulary than me! But poetry was going to plague me during my  college endeavors and so I thought I better learn to understand it if I was to have any chance of surviving the next two years as an English major. But how do I start creating – like so many have already? Then I recalled a statement by T.S. Eliot regarding literary “theft”:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”


But as a poet, how do you do this and still succeed without crossing into the forbidden land of “plagiarism”? I found Centos!  The word “cento” is Latin for “patchwork” and comes from pieced together lines taken from other poems. It can be considered a collage of poems. This technique is not something that is new by any means and early examples of cento poems can be found in the work of Homer and Virgil.  We know from literary history, poets often quote other poets and have even “stolen” phrases or lines and reworked them into their own writings. But to be a good poet you can start by taking something you like and making it different and in some cases — dare I say it — better! So how do you do this Cento thing?

The rules for writing a cento are actually quite simple and the form is often a great starting point for new writers. When done correctly, it becomes a way of paying homage to the poet and can bring new life and an added depth to the words of others.

Simple rules of a cento poem:

  • Lines must be gathered from poetry
  • You can borrow only ONE line for a poem
  • You can repeat it throughout your new cento
  • The subject choice for your cento is yours
  • It can be as long or short as you like
  • It can rhyme or may not rhyme
  • Never remove or add any words
  • ALWAYS include both the name of the author you found inspiration from and Cento in the title of your poem

I personally found this poetic form especially fulfilling as a cento poem I wrote was picked for an e-publication. My poem title, Driftwood: Larry Levis Cento will be included in a poetry anthology on Poetryark.org

Tonya Peterson

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