Tuesday Tryouts: The Cento

10 May

9:07 a.m.–Atlanta

Hello everyone. I sense a ballad battlefield strewn with wounded, moaning poets. And those of you who don’t write, but follow me to read my posts [bless you], are thinking: Wow! Glad I didn’t have to try that. But, maybe a small percentage of you tried? I hope so. It’s worth it to add ballads to your arsenal.

Let me, for a moment, before I talk about this week’s exercise, tell you why form is so important to a writer. I wrote free verse for years before tackling forms, because the structure of most forms seems daunting. But, once I conquered my fears, I found that forms not only freed me, but give me great pleasure. To have to work within constraints to craft a poem makes me stretch my writing muscles.

I also became aware that to write good free verse, I needed to learn about structure. Free verse is not writing anything down without a form. Free verse has structure, uses poetic devices, requires pacing. The freedom comes in the structure not being a set structure but one a writer devises. In many ways, writing good free verse is more difficult than following a set of rules.

That’s my 101 for today. Now to the exercise. I will give you a break from form and give you one of my favourite things to play with in creating poetry: the cento. Those of you who follow We Write Poems know that they set that as their prompt this week [totally independently–I do love serendipity], as well. I will tell you what you need to do and tomorrow you will have an extra post from me with two examples, as I will be posting responses to We Write Poems.

Choose a poet you enjoy and find an online resource that carries several of his/her poems [I Googled: Robert Frost’s poems]. Go through and copy one or two lines you like from at least five poems. You probably want to aim for having fifteen to twenty lines. You can keep an undefined theme running through your choices, or go nuts and pick lines without worrying whether they will be easy to make work. Be sure and note for each line you copy, the name of the poem.

To make my life easier, I write the lines so I can cut them into strips and sit at a table, or on the floor, to shift the order of the lines around until they make sense. In a proper cento, nothing should be changed except the punctuation. I had to, with my choices, shift the point of view, so the speaker was all first person, or third person.

But, I also enjoy tweaking the cento and incorporating lines. You may remember a poem I posted a few weeks ago using first lines from e. e. cummings. Much of the poem had my words as well. You might try a pure cento first and then if you have one you are itching to tweak, go ahead. After the poem is done, remember to write the author and titles of the poems from which you took the lines.

Don’t forget that I enjoy seeing the fruits of your labours and do post your efforts in my comments, or link to your own blog. You can always remove the poem later.

If you know anyone who would enjoy this, click on the buttons below. And, I shall see you Thursday for seven random facts about me, plus some of the blogs I will nominate for the Versatile Blogger award. Friday will be the week’s roundup of prompts and next Tuesday we will look at cascade poems. Don’t they sound lovely? Happy writing.


Posted by on 10/05/2011 in exercises, poetry, writing


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 responses to “Tuesday Tryouts: The Cento

  1. Donna Vorreyer

    10/05/2011 at 11:52 am

    I LOVE centos! I will be trying one this week – thanks for reminding me.

  2. margo roby

    10/05/2011 at 12:04 pm

    If I remember right you’re like me, Donna: you like to play with your centos. I look forward to seeing yours.

    • Donna Vorreyer

      10/05/2011 at 10:11 pm

      I am working on a cento with one line from each poem of the first two parts of Millay’s book The Harp Weaver. It is in need of some tweaking – I will let you know when it’s posted.

      • margo roby

        11/05/2011 at 8:41 am

        I love Millay and thought of using her but used Frost instead. Which reminds me: I need to go post it.

  3. pamelasayers

    10/05/2011 at 1:37 pm

    Margo, I really did try the ballad. The problem was when I went to put the words to paper. Well, I just didn’t like the results. The rhythm seemed all wrong, etc … form does scare me a bit, but I know it is a good exercise for me.
    As for the cento, I wrote one during napo, that I never posted. I used a collection of Bukowski poems. Serendipity, indeed 🙂


  4. margo roby

    10/05/2011 at 1:41 pm

    Oh, Pamela! I confess I thought of you when I mentioned the wounded poets moaning on the field of battle. I knew you would try it. You may find next week’s form a little easier, although it will still stretch your muscles. I think ballads are not easy except for musical people. And we all have forms that conquer us. I made myself write a sonnet, but my sonnets are not good. Thank goodness it begins with S. We won’t get there for a while.

  5. 1sojournal

    10/05/2011 at 5:10 pm

    Margo, I have already done my cento poem and will post it tomorrow. I tweaked and played with it a bit, and got that really good feeling when it was finished. That satisfied feeling that creeps through your being when you know it is right. And was surprised to find your post today. I do love synchronicity. Thanks for visiting the collab.


  6. margo roby

    10/05/2011 at 5:20 pm

    I do too, Elizabeth [love synchronicity]. I have just finished typing my cento up and did give into the need to tweak, for the lines to work. It’s almost there and I am trying to figure out if I have the energy to go back to the poems for a couple of lines. Surprising how much work these can take.

  7. Annette

    11/05/2011 at 12:11 am

    Here’s my shot at the cento:

    It was an interesting exercise. I didn’t start out with a theme in mind … it just emerged.

  8. Donna Vorreyer

    11/05/2011 at 9:40 pm

    Here is mine from Millay:

    • margo roby

      11/05/2011 at 9:50 pm

      How funny, Donna. I just got back from your blog where I left a note, to find your comment. I am going back and looking at Millay again. You might look at cummings, as well. His lines are fun to play with.

  9. Christopher James Heyworth (Christo)

    14/05/2011 at 4:28 am

    Not come accross this before Margo, but will try it as it sounds great fun, as does this site.

    • margo roby

      14/05/2011 at 8:46 am

      Welcome to my blog, Christopher. Glad to have you come wander through anytime. Tuesdays are usually exercises; Thursdays deal with writing and things to do with writing; and Fridays I round up the best prompts I have come across during the week.


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