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How to write a cento poem: Patchwork poetry for teens

by | Jun 19, 2008 | Poetry

Teach children how to write a cento poem (also called "patchwork poetry" because it's pieced together from lines of other poems).

Cen·to: an original poem made using lines from the works of various poets.

In recent posts I’ve shared ideas on teaching children to write cinquain poems and poems of comparison. Today, let your middle and high school kids have fun with cento poetry!

Cento, sometimes called “patchwork poetry,” is well named because of the way the poem is assembled. (The term cento actually comes from the Latin word for patchwork.) As a quilt is pieced together from assorted patches of fabric, the cento poem is put together with lines from other sources.

To make a patchwork poem, each line must be taken from a different poem. When the lines are put together, they must make sense. The poem doesn’t have to rhyme, but rhyming adds a nice touch.

An Example of Cento Poetry

Here’s a rhyming cento by one of my former students, Rachel:

Round paradise is such a wall, (Monro)

And, hearing fairy voices call, (Webb)

And the streams run golden, (Lee)

Where there is no grass at all. (Stephens)

Sources

Harold Monro, “Real Property
Mary Webb, “Green Rain
Laurie Lee, “Day of These Days
James Stephens, “White Fields

How to Write a Cento

  1. Read some poems. Take time to look through a few poetry books or explore some poetry online. Enjoy the poems. Anthologies, which contain many poems, make the search easier.
  2. Get started. Find a line you especially like, and make that the first line of your patchwork poem. Write the poet’s last name in parentheses at the end of the line, as in Rachel’s example above.
  3. Add more lines. Select lines 2, 3, and 4 in the same way. Choose your lines carefully—your poem must make sense.
  4. Take the challenge!
    • Can you make your poem rhyme? It’s not necessary, but it can be a fun challenge.
    • Try to make the beats sound right.
    • Tenses should agree.
    • Person should agree. In other words, pick lines that have been written either all in first person or all in third person.
  5. Give credit. At the end, list each poet’s full name. Include the name of the poem in quotes.

One More Example

Here’s a cento about spring. This poem doesn’t rhyme.

Speak gently, Spring, and make no sudden sound, (Lew Sarett)

I’d much rather sit there in the sun. (Krauss)

The golden crocus reaches up, (Crane)

And everywhere the great green smell, (Worth)

A coat of clover cloaks the hills. (Prelutsky)

The wind is passing through, (Rossetti)

Stirs the dancing daffodil  (Coleridge)

Deep in their long-stemmed world. (Brown)

Sources

Lew Sarett, “Four Little Foxes
Ruth Krauss, “Song”
Walter Crane, “The Crocus
Kathryn Worth, “Smells
Jack Prelutsky, “The Four Seasons
Christina Rossetti, “Who Has Seen the Wind?”
Sara Coleridge, “The Months
Margaret Wise Brown, “Green Stems”

Cento poems can be a little challenging for younger kids, but your upper-elementary students might enjoy giving it a try too.

Photo: Cindy Funk, courtesy of Creative Commons