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The Cento

street wall collage – Photo:PxHere

The cento is a poetry form that I used with students but that I haven’t used myself or used as a prompt on Poets Online. “Cento” comes from the Latin word for “patchwork.” Centos are sometimes called collage poems because they are made up of lines from poems by other poets. 

Poets often borrow lines from other writers. It might be an epigraph or the lines might be mixed with their own writing. It sounds like plagiarism and that was part of my point in using it with students. How can you take from other writers legitimately? In prose, we have citations and works cited, but in poetry, other than the epigraph, we don’t always cite the source.
If I was to use “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all” in my poem I might put it in quotes or italics, but I probably wouldn’t drop in John Keats’ name. But a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources. 
Early examples can be found in the work of Homer and Virgil. The cento evidently originated in ancient Greece. There are examples in Aristophanes’s plays where lines have been taken from Aeschylus and Homer.  Roman poets, as early as the late second century, lifted lines from Virgil. It seems to me to be a bit of thievery.  

But borrowing can be a creative process. Even copyright law allows for reuse when the new use is “transformative.”

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