Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Cento

I only recently became aware of the poetic form known as the cento. It's pronounced "sento", and not, as I had originally thought, "chento".  It also has nothing to do with 100; apparently the name is derived from a Greek work for a patchwork. Thus, if you like to get really pedantic, some people claim its plural is "centones".* Blimey! The cento is hardly one of the mainstream poetic forms, though, and gets taken out of the versifier's wardrobe even less frequently than a virtuoso straitjacket like the villanelle. Even so, it's curious how you can study and enjoy an art-form for decades and never come across something like this.

So what is it? Basically, it's a poem made up entirely of quoted lines from other poets. I like this idea. There's a good one in Stephen Knight's recent volume The Prince of Wails:
The last poem, called “99 Poems”, is astonishingly rich and intriguing: just the title makes this small book feel massive! Why 99? It is an elegy, so perhaps Knight’s father died at age 99, almost as long-lived as the centenarians we just met in “On Turning Fifty” and worthy of commemoration, worth staying up late for! In any case, the poem is a collection of 99 lines borrowed with great affection from elegies and epitaphs and maybe other sources too, perhaps film, across the centuries, and arranged by first letter from A to Y, starting with the beautiful line (possibly Thomas Hardy?) – A face that, though in shadow, still appears – and ending with the simple physicality of Your hands. Both images – the dead who re-appear and the father’s hand which holds his child’s – recur throughout the book, gaining power along the way. And it can be no accident that this last poem ends on the letter Y, not Z: there is no final letter in the alphabet of this wonderfully haunting collection.’
Chris Beckett, (full review
In fact, I really like this idea; it's postmodernism avant la lettre (considerably so: the earliest examples date from the 3rd or 4th centuries CE, and generally involve cutting and pasting lines from Virgil or Homer). It seem William Burroughs was not quite the innovator he thought, though the cento is not really the same as the "found" poem, and very little chance is involved in the cento proper. Quite the opposite: a cento has to be carefully mined and constructed from existing poetry.

In a way, you might see a photographic sequence as, in essence, a sort of cento. Your body of work is a series of "quotations" from the world around you, and to make a sequence you have to select and re-order out-takes from this larger body to create a new work. Or maybe not; a true photographic cento would involve, ah, appropriating photos from others' books, and creating something strikingly new from them. But, put that way, it doesn't sound quite so interesting, does it? That would be what we call an anthology...

* There's a nice little joke about such pedantry in a recent Wondermark, in which one character uses the plural "utopiaux" for "utopias". The  cartoon's mouseover caption reads, "No, of course utopiaux is not actually a word. The correct plural form is utopipodes".

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]


Zouk Delors said...


Modelled, of course, on the (Greek, and ?formerly? English) plural of octopus ("eight-legged"): octopodes; so it's surprising you recently suggested (would-be) pedants insist on "octopi" -- or were you just trying to flush out the real pedants?

Zouk Delors said...

I wandered lonely as a cloud
Like fleece, as white as snow --
Unlike the raven on the jamb
Of Edgar Allan Poe