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” 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.
TO THOSE WHO WALK EASY ON 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.
who walk easy on the earth.
Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
I who don’t know the
the line. They
(Through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what’ I can’t find,
and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,
assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
most of all.
poem by Denise Leverton
image: Audrey Mabee
“Where’s the wisdom? We’ve lost the information.” t.s. eliot
THE NAMING OF CATS, BY T.S. ELIOT
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all,there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkstrap, Quazo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum—
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But the CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable, effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
T.S. Eliot was the inspiration and wrote the lyrics for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical CATS. It was based upon “OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS”. Old Possum was the name Eliot used for himself in playing with his godchildren.