A Cento

A cento is a form of writing that is created from the works of other writers. It can be a poem, series of statements, an interview and, in principle, a book-length volume. The word cento is based on the Latin word for patches, as in a patchwork quilt or collage.

In its purest form it consists entirely of lines from other works of literature. I first encountered the term in doing research on commonplace books that are also a remix of quotations from other books, periodicals, poems, speeches, etc. It is said that early examples of centos can be found in the works of Homer and Virgil and other writings from antiquity.

The staff of the American Academy of American Poets has composed the following cento composed of lines written by Charles Wright, Marie Ponsot, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett:

"In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man is King
Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree
Day after day, I become of less use to myself,
The hours after you are gone are so leaden."

Does that make any sense? I suppose about as much as many contemporary works of poetry. Patrick Kurp once wrote a cento on his blog Anecdotal Evidence, “A Noble Part of the Joy of Life,” in the form of a Q and A about the relationship between life and literature. I found it quite amusing.

In its less pure forms the cento has recently become an extremely controversial subject. The issue concerns the extent to which it is legitimate for a writer to use the work of other writers in their own work. It ranges on the one hand from outright plagiarism, to occasional appropriation from other sources, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, to a subtle blending of quotations into a larger body of writing.

Consider the following examples: David Shields has written a novel, Reality Hunger, that presents a collage of ideas and quotations deliberately drawn from other writers that according to one reviewer “casts new light on ideas of ownership, appropriation, and reality.”

Helene Hegermann, a teenage German novelist, is embroiled in a controversy over her novel about the Berlin club scene that she admits incorporates a fair amount of writing from another novelist’s work. She says it was her plan all along to incorporate passages from other books in her own work. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” she said.

Andre Aciman acknowledges he has done a little bit of remixing in his recent novel, Eight White Nights. In a letter responding to a brief review in The New Yorker, Aciman admits that, “…quotations frequently crop up in my novel whenever the narrator tries to grasp what is happening to him. Because this is more or less standard procedure in my novel, I wouldn’t want knowledgeable readers of your magazine to be under any misguided impressions about my work when they pick up snatches s from William Wordsworth, Paul Verlaine, Matthew Arnold, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, or Stevie Smith.”

However, it is unclear from Aciman’s letter if these passages are acknowledged or not, whereas in Shield’s novel, the quotations from other works are apparently cited in a detailed Appendix.

Isn’t this remixing much like the commonplace books of antiquity where individuals collected the notable writings of others into a manuscript that they could use in their own speeches, writings, and instruction? Indeed, isn’t this collage-like practice also necessary for investigators in any discipline that builds upon the work of previous writers and researchers and draws upon it in guiding their own inquires, as well as supporting its findings? Quoting Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Try writing a cento sometime. It is a bit like playing Scrabble, only instead of letters, a sentence or series of short passages from other authors are combined to create a poem or paragraph(s) of your own. It isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do and I am confident it isn’t going to replace Scrabble as the board game of choice for the linguistically nimble.