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Cento Poetry for Poetry Thieves!

Why "Stealing" Poetry May Be Just Your Thing

So plaigarism is bad. It's very bad. We all know that.

But creativity is almost always sparked by some unrelated inspiration, and often that inspiration comes from another person. A cento, or "patchwork," poem is a poetic form that authorizes the borrowing of others' ideas and amalgamates them into a unique creation. The cento is created by lifting multiple single lines of poetry from a variety of other poetry sources and weaving these lines together into an "original" poem. The earliest known form of the cento was written circa 1600, and the ancient Greeks and Romans often used the form to honor Homer and Virgil with 100 lines of "borrowed" text. Today, "found poetry" forms, such as centos and blackout poetry, often ease the otherwise reluctant poet (student) into successful poetry experiences by filling the usually blank slate of expectation with letters, words, and phrases he or she can select from as paint from a palette.

Finally, this assignment necessitates some form of citation of sources and is an excellent way to introduce or practice citation. Students can list poets and poem titles according to a preferred style (M.L.A., A.P.A., etc.) in a Works Cited or Bibliography page. If students already have exposure to citation, the variety of print (and electronic) sources also offers practice opportunity with multiple citation types in a full-scale Works Cited page. And, though few professional cento models are available, this is an opportunity for the teacher to create and share his or her own model cento, along with Works Cited expectations, as a best practice (see link).

“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 his 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.” T. S. Eliot


Celebrate student achievement! Publish, publish, publish!

"Publishing" can take many forms. Often, students can publish for real audiences, imbuing work with relevance, application, and authenticity. Consider creating class poetry books, whether bound and fancy or photocopied and stapled. Want to take it a step further? Sell the books to raise money for a charity organization (ex: students sold coloring books to raise money for 2004 tsunami victims and held a Trash Art Museum to raise money for a student memorial tree). If you're having trouble getting students to work during class, an authentic audience may be just the missing element. If your group is tech-savvy, why not create a classroom Blog or a class fundraiser site?

But not to worry. If your days are too full of planning, teaching, grading, data-ing (yes, I made it up), conferencing, RTI-ing (yep-again), etc., and your nights are too full of much of the same, simply having students read their poems aloud and post them in the hallway is a simple and effective way to provide an authentic publishing opportunity (Just be sure students know who the audience is when the poetry is assigned).

Marsha de la O reads Wanda Coleman's poem, ruth weiss cento
Steal Like An Artist: Austin Kleon at TEDxKC

Holly Salas

Instructional Specialist

Academic Services

Education Service Center Region 13