Category Archives: Constraints

More on the Cento – and a new example

Wikipedia’s entry on the Cento has some more information:

The rules for the Cento were written down by a Roman poet named Decimus Magnus Ausonius (circa 310-395).

The poem may be derived from work by the same poet, or from several. It appears one popular challenge was to rewrite Bible verses (Old and New Testament) using Virgil’s Aeneid. Verses (lines of poetry) may be used either in their entirety, or divided in two; one half to be connected with another half from elsewhere. Two consecutive verses should never be used, nor should less than half a verse.

Cento also works with prose. The recent controversy with the Havard student’s book comes to mind, but whether her actions were intentional or not, they differed from a cento in three major ways. 1) She made changes to the words. The changes weren’t significant enough to counteract plagiarism charges, but they were still changes. 2) She added original material between the sections of copied material. At least, I assume she did. Cento uses only the words from the original sources. You can not add your own. 3) She didn’t credit the sources. That’s what makes cento and found poetry legitimate — the author admits to what they are doing, and gives credit where credit is due. The Fair Use provision of the US Copyright Law (and likely similar provisions in International Copyright Law) allows for usage of copyrighted material within some guidelines. But you can still end up in court arguing with an author over whether you crossed the fair use boundaries, so it’s safer to use public domain sources.

Interpreting Ausonius’s rules for prose, it seems to me appropriate to replace a verse with a sentence. In instances where a full sentence isn’t used, it seems appropriate to insist upon a full clause, whether it be dependent or independent. But this is my interpretation.

Here’s a brief section of dialogue I stitched together over the past hour (it uses material that is definitely still under copyright, and if JKR or any of her publishers ask me to remove this from my website, I will do so, but I do feel it falls within fair usage.)

“Now! (SS p. 9)” Ron’s flask exploded. (HBP p. 515) Harry gave a hollow laugh. (PoA p. 78) “Excellent!” (GoF p. 270)

The clanging doorbell rang again. (OoP p. 106) Harry stared at it. (HBP p. 339)

The office door opened. (CoS P. 207) It was Quirrell. (SS p. 288)

Harry’s mind had gone blank with shock. (PoA p. 332) He strode across the room towards the stairs; he half expected Ron to stop him, he would even have liked Ron to throw a punch at him, but Ron just stood there in his too-small pajamas. (GoF p. 336)

I don’t claim the above is perfect.  I spent an hour on it, and it’s not an easy task. This illustrates how beneficial it might be with prose to relax one of the rules of Cento and allow for changing names. While I feel the progression of the sentences above work, they could be slightly confusing if you are familiar with the characters from the original.

SS = Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
CoS = HP and the Chamber of Secrets
PoA = HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban
GoF = HP and the Goblet of Fire
OoP = HP and the Order of the Phoenix
HBP = HP and the Half Blood Prince

Cry Havoc

The Piano Teacher and the Mad Photographer joined me this evening in Forest Park to watch Julius Caesar. Others were expected to show, but last minute items must have pulled them away. Between the three of us, we split 2 bottles of port. (Same port as that which I brought to Hermann. It was from Inheritance Valley.)

Sitting behind us was a group containing someone who recognized me from the Hartford Coffee Company open mic. He said he had played guitar a few times, but I admitted I didn’t recognize him. I’ll recognize him next time. He and his companions were kind enough to move some of their baskets and food items to make more room for us.

Coincidentally the play reminded me of some research I had been doing over the past few days on poetic forms. I’ve been looking into the legalities behind ‘found poetry’ which takes words from one source, and without adding, subtracting, or changing the order of the words, reformats the words onto the page as a poem. Basically, the legalities are highly questionable, unless one gets permission from the source.

However, I discovered a similar form which I have written in the past without realizing it. That is, I came up with the form on my own without realizing it was already an established form. I thought it would be neat if I took a whole bunch of lines from different Shakespearean plays and combine them together into a poem. The method I used, if I remember correctly, was to open a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and jot down every quote from Shakespeare that looked useful. And then I looked at my choices and started mixing and matching.

This is a cento.

A “cento” is a Roman poetic form meaning “stitched together”: each line of the poem is drawn from a different source.

Usually the different sources are different authors, and my example (shown below) doesn’t always change sources with the line breaks. I also slightly modified the text in a couple places. But I wasn’t tryiing to write a cento. I didn’t know what a cento was at the time. I was just experimenting. What I did comes close enough though. I wrote it in 1995.

Shakespeare Said it, Not Me!

1. She is beautiful, and therefore to be woo’d
2. That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,
3. If with his tongue he cannot win a woman
4. Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear

5. See! How she leans her cheek upon her hand
6. O! That I were a glove upon that hand,
7. That I might touch that cheek. The very pink of courtesy.
8. Bless thee, Bottom! Bless Thee!
9. You are sir Orifice
10. And when you Ope your lips let no dog bark
11. Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour
12. I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder

13. O Tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!
14. Your words are razors to my wounded heart
15. My ventures are not in one bottom trusted!
16. Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!

Postscript to my critics:
17. Was ever woman in this humor woo’d?
18. Tis not my speeches that you do mislike
19. But tis my presence that doth trouble ye.

Line 1: Henry VI, Part 1, Act V, sc. V.
Line 2-3: The Two Gentlemen of Verona Act III Sc I
Line 4: Venus and Adonis. Line 145
Line 5-7: Romeo and Juliet. Act II Sc II
Line 7: Romeo and Juliet. Act II Sc IV
Line 8: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act III Sc I.
Line 9-10: A Merchant of Venice. Act I Sc I. (Slight alteration of text. ‘I’ to ‘you’ and ‘oracle’ to ‘orifice’.)
Line 11: Richard II. Act I Sc III.
Line 12: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act IV Sc I.
Line 13: Henry VI, Part 3, Act I, sc. IV
Line 14: Titus Andronicus. Act I Sc. I (‘these words’ changed to ‘your words’)
Line 15. Merchant of Venice. Act I Sc. I.
Line 16: King Richard III. Act V. Sc. III.
Line 17: King Richard III. Act I. Sc II.
Line 18-19: Henry VI Part II. Act 1 Sc. I.

Some centos play off the Latin word for 100 as well, and are 100 lines. It gives me a challenge for a new poem.

How Now Chef Cow

Let it be recorded in the annals of literary history. On March 16th, 2006 CE, the very first Jenny was published outside of my blog.

The New Verse News, who accepted Honoring Dick Cheney Tanka last month, accepted How Now Chef Cow.

I guess it is theoretically possible somebody somewhere could have written a poem in this syllabic pattern previously, either intentionally or unintentionally.  If intentionally, I am not the creator of the form.  But we shall assume our culpability until we see proof otherwise.

A new form of poetry

I’ve created a new form of poetry.

I like playing with forms of poetry. Here are a whole bunch.

This table was created by William Gillespie, who was the founder of Newspoetry. It’s his fault, for example, that I even know what a homoliteral or an univocalic poem is, and my first attempts were published on Newspoetry. (follow the links.)

But before I discovered Newspoetry, Gillespie, and those forms, I enjoyed the Japanese haiku and tanka. This is because, for a long time, I’ve known how to count syllables. Rhyming and meter without getting singsongy is difficult. Counting syllables is easy.

But I was thinkng recently…why limit myself to 5-7-5 or even 5-7-5-7-7.

So I came up with a new structure. A total of 38 syllables, broken into 7 lines of prescribed length. You’re not allowed to change the number.

Here’s my first one (the line numbers aren’t necessary, but are there for scholastic purposes):

Title: A true story

1. I was under too much pressure; (8 syllables)
2. my nose began to bleed. (6 syllables)
3. My smart alecky boss asked (7 syllables)
4. if i needed a (5 syllables)
5. transfusion. (3 syllables)
6. (0 syllables)
7. I thanked him for his show of concern. (9 syllables)

A secondary requirement is the author of the poem must have a “good time” writing it.
I call the form, “Jenny.”
The plural form is also “Jenny.”

Art is nothing without form

Art is nothing without Form ñ Flaubert

I enjoy playing with words in the same way a cat enjoys playing with a ball of twine.

One game I enjoy playing is writing a poem, but limiting the words I am allowed to use. There are a lot of different restrictions I can impose on this creativity. Liponyms are popular among a certain crowd. A liponym is where one intentionally omits all words containing a particular letter, or letters. (For example, omitting the letter ëeí can be difficult). If you eliminate all vowels except for one, this subset is called a Univocalic. (One-Vowel)

When a wax statue of Arafat appeared in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in New York City, a group of individuals demanded that it be removed. I wrote the following poem, trying to convey the humor of the situation:


Arafat Bad. Wax Bad.
Bad Bad Bad!
Ban Wax Arafats!
Ban All Arabs!
Ban Ban Ban!

Another restriction I enjoy is the Homoliteral ñ where every word shares at least one letter in common with the word prior and following. No word is completely forbidden in this form, as long as one can, as in a chess game, plan ahead.

Back in June 2001 I read a weird news story, and wrote the following homoliteral

United States

Some North Dakotans
think the “north”
sounds too cold
and want to alter their name
becoming ‘Dakota.”

However, when their neighbor
decides ‘South’ sounds too hot
then we’ll have
Dakota and Dakota.

Kids asked the capitol
won’t know which was meant.
Not necessarily bad, but still
somewhat confusing.

When North Carolina
And neighboring South
Join in and are
then soon followed
with Virgina’s western sister
we’ll have mass confusion.

Once again,
not necessarily bad,
and perhaps the ultimate end result —
fifty states all bearing the same name —
might help unite us