Monday, August 18, 2008

Cento Contest

All right, this is it: the next contest. I hope more people submit to this one. It's a little difficult, but be brave: once you manage to write one at all, it's likely to sound really good. I know mine did.

A cento is a poem made entirely of lines from other poems. The name comes from the Latin word meaning a cloak made out of patches. The cento differs from found poetry in that every line is taken from another poem, instead of just any borrowed material.

Virgilian centos were popular in the Middle Ages, when poets would use lines from Virgil to write about religious themes. You can follow this tradition, if you like, by limiting yourself to a single poet (e.g. a Shakespearean cento) or maybe some other group of poems--only Romantic poems, or only poems posted on this blog (and that's a lot!). Or just do any poem, which will of course give you more freedom.

In the modern age, there is a hearkening-back to this poetic form in the allusion-rich poetry of Eliot and Pound. The Waste Land is filled with lines of other poems, sometimes slightly changed and sometimes borrowed wholesale. I find it gives a serious, eternal tone to the poetry. That's what got me trying to write centos, with some success.

The rules are as follows:

1. Don't use chunks bigger than two lines long. This ought to be your own poem. The original rules for a Virgilian cento allowed for no more than one line at a time, so I'm being a little generous.

2. Regular meter is not necessary, and neither is rhyme, but you might try for these and see what happens. A rhyme now and then can be pretty neat, and if you borrow lines that are all iambic pentameter, for example, you'll automatically have meter.

3. You can change the tense of verbs, or the person of pronouns, but don't make any large changes to the lines of poetry you borrow.

4. It can be any length. Preferably not an epic, though--I do have to read all these!

Try not to be too intimidated by the new form, but let yourself play with it. Pick a subject, find lines of poetry that suggest that subject, and arrange them different ways until it sounds right. And don't be afraid to submit something that isn't perfect. No poem is, and it's better to put yourself out there and try.

I'll leave my own cento in the comment box, when I've polished it a little. Leave your own submissions there. You can also email them to enchiridion1 at yahoo dot com.


Anonymous said...

OK, I get it. That IS hard.

So just for fun, let's tri-olet this...

Meredith, with Byron met?

Because of you my eyes are always wet -
I cast thee on the water: go thy ways!
(I read you daily on the Internet;
Because of you my eyes are always wet,
I'll have to reinvent the alphabet!)
I can't help putting in my claim to praise--
Because of you my eyes are always wet -
I cast thee on the water: go thy ways!

--Dr. Thursday

Sheila said...

Oh, wow! The virtual ink is barely dry on a ballade before it becomes a cento-triolet! Are you trying to enter all my contests at once? ;)

All right, here is mine. A little long, I suppose.

The Dark Night

I was sleeping, but my heart kept vigil.
I have walked out in rain, and back in rain,
Because a fire was in my head.
In the streets I sought him whom my soul loveth.

I sought him, and found him not.
Neither breath of morn, nor walk by moon,
Nor glittering starlight without thee is sweet.
Twelve o'clock, along the reaches of the street.

You fled like the deer, having wounded me,
And straight was a path of gold for thee.
By the gate now, the moss has grown.
I will stand henceforward in thy shadow.

I wandered lonely as a cloud,
Might I but moor tonight in thee!
I am desolate and sick of an old passion
For dearest him that lives, alas! away.

Tell him that I faint for love.
All between us seems an aching space.
I will come out to meet you:
Draw me!--I will run after thee.

* * *

Just to save anyone a whole lot of Googling:


St. John of the Cross
Robert Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Ernest Dowson


About half of these poems were on this blog already. Hey, I guess you write what you know.

Meredith said...

The Return
(a Hopkins cento)

I will appear, looking such charity,
It will flame out like shining from shook foil.
Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where springs not fail.
Or ancient mounds that cover bones
Spring, that but now were shut
To the stars, lovely-asunder.

I did say yes
With the sea-romp over the wreck,
And find the uncreated light.
And I have asked to be
Lower than death and the dark,
An ark for the listener, for the lingerer,
For him who ever thought with love of me.

Sheila said...

Ooh... Hopkins condensed. I like this very much.

niggle said...

Nice contest. I like the entries so far. I gave it a shot. Uhm, how about some rather awkward and tortured narrative epic stuff - on death? I know these are supposed to be patchworks, but mine is just too patchy.

The Meeting

On either side the banks rose steeply, bleak and bare,
in the uncertain hour before the morning;
we slowly drove, he knew no haste.
I said: 'The wonder that I feel is easy;
-but who is that on the other side of you?'

He kindly stopped for me-
and shadowy shapes came striding on.

'Yes, there's something the dead are keeping back.
Their bale of battle borne so long,
a throng of sorrows.
With strenuous hands the sea-streets measured,
their gray steeds set to gallop amain,
after an open door to get out-doors.
Now are ye nigh the place of note, your quest is sped.'

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –

The day was breaking
and, e'en as God doth will, darkness must yield to light:
wonder on wonder, the Warden-of-Glory.
Beginnings to their end do all unlike appear-
the cold no longer clings, the clouds themselves uplift.
But at break of day my brand sore hurt,
that battle-hand bloody from baneful foe.

'My warriors wain; for Wyrd hath swept them.'

He left me, with a kind of valediction,
and faded on the blowing of the horn.


'Who waiteth in this place a tryst for me to hold?'

A voice spake from the bank, no high:

'Stay, and I swift will give that which I promised thee-'

And then, beneath a crag, forth from a cave he sprung,
with sounds like the dry rattling of a shutter.
Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.
Then he came at me with one hand outstretched.


Sir Gawain


Sir Gawain


Sir Gawain
Sir Gawain
Sir Gawain




Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain

dylan said...

The Penguin Book of the Sonnet

Our spirits grew as we went side by side
Listening to Schubert, grievous and sublime.
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
And signified the sureness of the soul.

I had forgot wide fields and clear brown streams;
Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill
To give us comfort through the lonely dark
Calm night, the everlasting and the same.

Fair as the moon and joyful as the light,
Your hands lay open in the long fresh grass.
I marked with flowers the minutes of my day:

One little noise of life remained -- I heard
The very shadow of an insect's wing
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine.

The authors:

George Meredith, John Berryman, Claude McKay, Robert Frost;

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Rupert Brooke,
Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson;

Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman;

Charles Tennyson Turner, Hartley Coleridge, John Keats.

Meredith said...

My Dylan Thomas cento is turning into a monster! It may get much too long. Here is the beginning:

Into the West

Especially when the October wind
Woke to my hearing from harbor and neighbor wood
And over the cloth of countries the far hills rode near
In the thistledown fall,
I lay watching yellow until the golden weather
For my voyage to begin to the end of my wound.

Does this look like something you'd like to read? Because there's a whole lot more of it! It covers the last few pages of LotR.

Enbrethiliel said...


I know I'm late. Is the contest still open? If so, I'd lke to submit the following. (I hope it's okay that the title is original and not from another poem?)


A child sits in a sunny place
Pure as white lilies in a watery space
Laughing everlastingly
The joy without a cause
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free
Between us and the sea

Though earth be filled with waters dark
Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes!
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
God made the sun to crown his head
The Christ-child stood at Mary's knee
Aflame with faith, and free

(All lines from poems by G.K. Chesterton)

Sheila said...

No, it's not too late. I'll be closing the contest in a week or so.

I very much like this. Using Chesterton results it such a crisp, vivid poem!

David S. said...

I'm a long-time lurker, finally coming out of hiding because I like this contest. :D

I'm pretty sure I've kept to the rules (it's a good thing I'm allowed two lines in a row, otherwise the transition from the third to the fourth wouldn't be permitted); if not, I'm sorry!!


Be adored among men,
O loving Pelican, O Jesus Lord!
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den;
Unclean I am, but cleanse me in Thy Blood!

But oh, I've a wish in my soul, dear love,
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
That I might wash free of my sins, dear love;
Father and fondler of heart, thou hast wrung.

By the pool that I see in my dreams, dear love,
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
(And the pool, it is silvery bright, dear love,
Of which a single drop, for sinners spilt,
Can purge the whole world from all its guilt)
There will I sing my sad, perpetual strain.

There will I sing my absent Lord and Love -
O wisest love! That flesh and blood! -
That sooner I may rise, and go above -
Numquam draco sit mihi dux
Crux semper sit mihi lux
O loving wisdom of our God!

Lines taken from:
The Wreck of the Deustchland by Hopkins
Adoro Te Devote by Aquinas
The Pool by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
The Dream of Gerontius by John Henry Newman
Benedictine Prayer by St. Benedict