Cento (Lat. “patchwork”). A verse composition made up of lines selected from the work or works of some great poet(s) of the past.
—The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics
Like most poets, I have a notebook. Mine is a chunky tablet, 5×7 inches, with a large spiral binding and two thick boards that serve as covers. As these dimensions would imply, my little notebook is squat and fat. I think of it as my familiar—my Sancho Panza that keeps Whirling, Windmill-Tilting Me grounded. My mind is undisciplined, constantly moving, restlessly entertaining ideas, busily processing perceptions, executing scores of decisions every second, many of them keeping me alive. (Eat your lunch! Pay the mortgage! Don’t crash into that tree!)
By contrast, I think of my notebook as serene and calm. It is my mind as I might wish it to be. For in its pages I have inscribed thousands of lines of poetry. Many of them are my own, but many are culled from the work of other writers, artists, and thinkers. Whenever I hear or read a line I want to remember—but I know my A.D.D. brain won’t retain—I reach for my notebook and write it down. It is a hopeful gesture, an effort to take possession of the wisdom or the music I have overheard, to make it stand still, to put it away in a safe place where I might enjoy it again on some future day.
This urge happens to me with some frequency. The result is a notebook that is stuffed full. When the notebook was new, I took pains to write neatly, to skip lines between these bon mots, to carefully attribute them and note the sources. However, as the notebook and I spent more time together (she is never not by my side), we grew to be friends—and as I ran out of space, I set such courtesy aside. Now there are notes crowding the margins, racing like wildfire up and down the edges of the pages, rudely interrupting earlier (neater) inscriptions—quotations jammed up against quotations—each page a patchwork of brilliant swatches of wit cut from their original cloth, thrown and sewn together here in my little word hoard.
As I crack open the notebook, I find Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost, Ogden Nash, Les Murray, Frank Sinatra, and several lines from that Catholic hymnal favorite “Come, Holy Ghost” all vying for space on the inside cover. Across the way, William Blake presses hotly against St. Catherine of Siena (both obsessed with love), Edith Piaf serenades Thomas Merton (Franc and Francophile thrown together), and Adrienne Rich offers advice to Marie Ponsot (who has her own ideas about poetry, thank you). Turn the page and the room gets wilder—Sister Wendy, Jacques Maritain, W.H. Auden, Denise Levertov, John Ruskin, Thomas Lynch. St. Teresa of Avila, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pope John Paul II, and Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid clamor for attention—all at their brilliant best—each one telling me the words I need most to hear.
Opening my notebook is like opening the door on a cocktail party in heaven, a gathering of greatness I myself have assembled and then accidentally wandered into. (Blessedly, I am invisible to the other guests—for I have nothing to say!) Far from being peaceful and serene, my notebook is rife with life, its enormous energy generated in the spaces between the conversations, all raging between minds that never met in person but, magically, meet here on my page. Like the Wicked Witch of the West when she tries to remove the red shoes from the feet of Dorothy, their proper owner, I’m shocked and singed by the electric sparks that fly off these lines, reminding me that they were never mine at all, no matter how diligently I tried to trap them, tame them, and keep them safe.
What I’ve discovered, Dear Reader, is that my notebook is a Cento—and so is yours. Or, perhaps, more properly, it is a Cento made up of centos—a rag-tag bunch of borrowings that, when assembled and reassembled, might constitute a hundred potential centos—and so my (supposedly) steady Sancho Panza has suddenly become a bedlam of invention, as wild and whirling as my whorling mind. It is, in fact, the objective correlative of my mind—albeit slowed down, simplified, and visible in plain black & white (red & blue, too, truth be told).
Surely I am not alone in this—and so, it seems to me that the Cento, a form that has fallen out of literary fashion, may in fact be the poetic form most suited to our restless era. Surely T.S. Eliot knew this in 1922—for what is The Wasteland but a big, fat, magnificent Cento? The fragmentation he lamented (and celebrated) we have learned to embrace as the condition of our being, the price of being human in the modern, frenetic, technology-driven world. Our lives are, in fact, a Cento of centos, if we would—if we could—pause, listen, and take the time to write them down.
In closing—and in evidence—I offer the following brief cento, One of the Many possible poems culled from my fat tablet, this (un)common communion of The Word, a crumb from the feast presided and provided by Wistan Hugh, John Paul, Edith, Robert Lee, Rainer Maria, Ignaz Franz, St. Kate, and Bill Blake. (Thank you, all!)
O, wear your tribulation like a rose!
Beauty is the visible form of Good.
We are put on earth for a little space,
you should set the world on fire.
Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on thee—
Holy God, we praise thy name—
and I’ll forgive thy great big one on me—
everlasting is thy reign.
The best is yet to come.
Je ne regrette rien.
In the prison of his days
What does a poet do? I praise.
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