Next Line, Please

Let’s Assemble a Cento

By David Lehman | April 7, 2015


Starting this week, let’s assemble a cento. What’s that, you ask? It was “Wordsmith’s” word of the day on March 14, and you can read their write up here, replete with links to a cento John Ashbery wrote, as well as one that I put together for The New York Times Book Review upon completing The Oxford Book of American Poetry.

In the Times article, I do my best to present a succinct history of the cento, a poem consisting of lines culled from other poems—usually, but not invariably, poems from poets of earlier generations. Historically, the intent was often homage, but it could and can be lampoon. The modern cento has an altogether different rationale and flavor. It is based on the idea that in some sense all poems are collages made up of other people’s words; that the collage is a valid method of composition, and even an eloquent one, as T. S. Eliot shows in “The Waste Land.” Remember Eliot’s motto: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

This is what I propose we do over the next four to six weeks.

For week one, let’s come up with the first four lines of our cento. How? My recommendation is that you assemble on your desk four poetry books—or possibly one anthology—that you like. The poems can differ widely. Step two: choose one line from each of the four poems. You can do this arbitrarily (picking a line at random from page 25 of each volume, for example) or deliberately (recalling a favorite passage—perhaps one you underlined or otherwise noted). Step three: after writing down the lines, play with their order. Run them backward. Maybe line two would work better as line three. Don’t worry overmuch about making sense. Sometimes, as Alice learns in Wonderland, if you take care of the sounds, the sense will take care of itself.

Rhyme can work—as in “Cento: The True Romantics,” a sonnet lifted from Romantic poets, which appeared in The New Yorker. But it is far from essential.

The winning entry will be our first four-line stanza. We can follow with two more such stanzas plus a closing couplet, or with three more aiming at a fearlessly symmetrical 16-line poem.

Unlike the sestina, which looks so forbiddingly difficult and turns out to be so liberating, the cento looks easy but may prove more challenging than expected. Some practitioners feel free to tamper a little with the stolen line; some think that is cheating. It’s up to you. It would be helpful if you named your sources.

Naturally, I hope you will find this an inspiring prompt.

Deadline: midnight, Saturday, April 11.

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