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Writing

Understanding the Craft of Cento Poetry: How to Write Patchwork Poems

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

The term cento refers to a unique form of creative writing that has been around since around the third or fourth century, which is when a poet crafts a new poem based on the borrowed words of others. A properly cited cento can be a fun exercise or a way to showcase many of the works of notable published poets.

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What Is a Cento Poem?

A cento poem is a work of poetry that is composed of various lines taken from different poems. The word “cento” is derived from a Latin word meaning “patchwork garment”—and a cento poem is just that—patchwork poetry (also known as a ‘collage poem’). With cento poems, a writer can pay homage to another poet, or use lines from another work for satire purposes.

How to Write a Cento Poem

When you write a cento poem, you repurpose lines from published poems to create a new poetic form—found poetry. Lines can be taken from a single poet, or several. If you’re looking to give the cento a try, the following steps can get you started:

  1. Read a lot of poetry. The more poetry you have in mind to source lines from, the better. Reading up on plenty of authors gives you a bigger pool of content to choose from when writing and structuring your cento.
  2. Balance the borrowed text. Choose one to two lines of poetry per selected poem (but not usually more than two lines from each). You can do this by choosing text at random, or drawing your favorites from classic texts. Restructure, reconfigure, and remix the order of your chosen lines—you can rhyme if you would like, but it is not required.
  3. Match tenses and POV. Borrowing lines isn’t a free-for-all. If you choose a first-person perspective, keep all the lines in the first person. The same rule applies to tenses. If your cento begins in the past tense, keep it in the past tense. Learn more about point of view in our complete guide here.
  4. Cite your sources. When you write a cento, it is important to note whose poetry you have taken to include in your own. A cento does not mean you are passing published work off as your own original creation. A works cited section lets the reader know you are crediting the authors, as well as which other poems they can read should they be interested in investigating the source further.
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5 Examples of Cento Poetry to Read for Inspiration

Modern centos use contrasting ideas to create new imagery from diverse sources.

  1. “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” is a contemporary cento by John Ashbery that gathers lines from famous poems, including those of Lord Byron and T.S. Eliot. “To a Waterfowl” is another, using lines from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson,
  2. “Wolf Centos” is a poem by American poet Simone Muench that sources from 187 different authors, collecting no more than a couplet per borrowed text.
  3. “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot is a famous example of a cento, spanning over 400 lines and sourcing text from poets like Homer, Virgil, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker.
  4. “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You’” composed by Nicole Sealey uses lines from a variety of poets such as, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Path, and Pablo Neruda.
  5. “Oxford Cento” was created by David Lehman, taking lines from The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006). In it he cites poets like Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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Want to Learn More About Poetry?

Whether you’re just starting to put pen to paper or dream of being published, writing poetry demands time, effort, and meticulous attention to detail. No one knows this better than former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. In Billy Collins’s MasterClass on the art of poetry writing, the beloved contemporary poet shares his approach to exploring different subjects, incorporating humor, and finding a voice.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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