Poetic forms: Cento

National Poetry Month Display @ Forest Hills

National Poetry Month Display @ Forest Hills (Photo credit: mySAPL)

Poetic forms: the cento

A cento is like a rag rug, it’s composed of bits and pieces from other things. In the case of the rug, it’s pieces of old fabric. For the cento, it’s made of verses or passages from other poems, songs, articles, stories, or whatever by other authors.

The first cento I ever wrote was a haiku sequence, and perhaps because I’m a musician, I composed it using verses from old songs: Clementine, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, The Twelve Days of Christmas, Jingle Bells, Good King Wencheslas, and the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons,” which is one of my favorites. The haiku sequence was the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count of the Japanese haiku, rather than the freer form (seventeen syllables or less) used in so many modern American haiku. Choosing the 5-7-5 syllable count made it easy to select the songs.

Go tell Aunt Rhody, A Haiku Sequence

Twelve drummers drumming
When the snow was round about
Now the ground is white

Nine ladies dancing
Excavating for a mine
Dashing through the snow

Ten lords a leaping
When the snow lay round about
making spirits bright

Dashing through the snow
A partridge in a pear tree
Make the Yule-tide gay

If the Fates allow
When a poor man came in sight
Let your heart be light

And the store boss said
When a poor man came in sight
jingle all the way!

Here’s one I wrote  using lines from songs about the sea.

Sailor’s Song

A hundred years ago, three thousand miles away
A Yankee ship came down the river
With the tinkers and tailors and soldiers and all

Bound to the westward where the stormy winds blow
When this bold pirate
Fought them up and down

Fire in the cabin, fire in the hold
For to fight the foreign foe
Captain Hull broke his heart and died

He fought like a hero till he died
And fifty-five more lay bleeding in gore
Then the signal was sent for the grand ship to anchor.

They dug his grave with a silver spade

Here’s where they came from:
lines from songs on website
http://www.contemplator.com/sea/index.html

A Hundred Years Ago, “A Hundred years ago”
Three Thousand Miles, “Three Thousand Miles Away”
Blow, Boys, Blow, “A Yankee Ship Came Down the River”
Blow the Man Down, “With the tinkers and tailors and soldiers and all”

The Dreadnought, “..bound to the westward where the stormy winds blow”
The Bold Princess Royal, ” .. when this bold pirate”
Admiral Benbow, ” ..fought them up and down”

Fire Down Below, ” Fire in the cabin, fire in the hold,”
Johnny Todd, “For to fight the foreign foe”
Captain Hull, “Captain Hull”
Boney Was A Warrior “broke his heart and died”

Bold Nelson’s Praise, “He fought like a hero till he died”
John Paul Jones, “and fifty-five more lay bleeding in gore”
Spanish Ladies, “Then the signal was sent for the grand ship to anchor”

Storm Along, “They Dug His Grave with a silver spade”

And how, you might ask, did I pick these lines?

After I decided I wanted to write a cento using lines from songs about the sea, I searched for a website, and found the one above. I started down the list of songs, picking lines that looked like they might fit. Then I rearranged them. Then I rearranged them again. Then I passed the result past my poetry critique group, removed two lines that didn’t fit, and rearranged the poem into three line stanzas instead of quatrains. And there it was.

Here’s a link to a cento by poet John Asbury:

http://dougkirshen.com/dong/

Try it — it’s loads of fun.

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