Is a writer guilty of writing a patchwork (cento) of other authors works or opinions? Probably. The very act of communication introduces us to ideas not of our own making which we develop and embellish until even the original purveyor has trouble recognizing or claiming as his own.

Nobel-prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot’s observation is relevant to centos:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds is theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”

Two examples of centos; The Oxford Cento by David Lehman and The Dong With the Luminous Nose by John Ashbery

Those of us who read or watch a lot of movies see centos in everything. Haven’t you thought to yourself “Oh, I read that in F. Scott Fitzgerald,” or actually knew the next line of dialogue in a movie? They say there is nothing new under the sun, and only so many stories to be told. Just tweak them a little and you may have a best seller. Just be sure to do a good job of your pilfering.

Touch the Earth
“Touch The Earth” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

In rummaging through the books of poetry in my library looking for a particular one, I came upon a book of James Kavanaugh with an inscription from my daughter in 1979. I had forgotten it and I’m happy to have discovered it again.

The following poem is NOT a Cento, but it does have a relation to those who touch the earth.

by James Kavanaugh

To those who know:
that the desert flowers will bloom
when the oil rigs are silent;

that trees will again stand tall
over the ashes of forgotten wars;

that no one can take away the sunrise
or the smells of spring.

To those:
who walk easy on the earth.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

13 thoughts on “CENTO”

  1. I really, really hate to go all snarky with Eliot, but in this case I’m tempted. The thought of stealing from another writer just makes me quiver. Of course our art is shaped by experience, including the production of other artists, but there’s a huge difference between having curiosity piqued or our view of things influenced, and flat thievery.

    Of course, I’ve had my own work stolen often enough that I’m really touchy about the whole subject, There’s nothing quite like finding one of my stories on someone else’s blog without one word of attribution. There’s a widespread and quite false understanding that, if it’s on the web, it’s free for the taking. Practically speaking, I suppose that’s so. Still, I’ve got the DMCA takedown notice thing down to a fine art, and I’ll do it whenever I find someone has lifted my stuff. I know photographers who ceased blogging because they got tired of seeing their photos everywhere from Pinterest to Lulu.

    I suppose the difference is incorporation. If someone copies, reposts, plagiarizes or cobbles together something from another source or sources, that’s one thing. But if I take something — an experience, a painting, a phrase, or a storyline — into consciousness, think about it, ponder it, find what’s relevant to me and then try to express it in my own way: well, that’s something else.

    My favorite image for the creative process is the kaleidoscope. All of us collect little bits of life from here and there, and then give them a twist to create a new pattern. Now that I think about it, that’s probably what Eliot means, but there are plenty of people who think passing off the bits as their own is perfectly fine. Sigh.

    Never mind my rantings. The poem and the painting are quite wonderful. I believe I’ll ponder them for a while.


    1. I think Eliot was just playing with us, don’t you? But I could not agree more with you about people stealing our stuff. It happens with finite art as well. I’ve had pieces stolen from 2 galleries. Not by customers, but by proprietors who neglected to give me my money. I guess it’s all part of the creative world.

      I’m glad you liked the little poem. I had been looking for days for one book and found this one. Lots of nice ones.


  2. You are a wonderful artist Kayti. This was a thought provoking post. I think we all get ideas from everything we come across in life and try to add those bits that we like into our own work and discard from our own work bits we see in others as not being good. Outright copying and passing it off as your own is a definite No No. However, I think there are few people who have a truly new thought. Most have already been written about however we can put our own voice to them.


  3. Thanks Irene. As writers we collect “reminders”, small scraps of paper or pictures meant to trigger sluggish imaginations. I think sometimes people don’t really know how to learn. To think the subject through and get to the meat of it.


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