According to Wikipedia:
The Latin term cento derives from Greek κέντρων (gen. κέντρωνος), meaning “‘to plant slips’ (of trees)”. A later word in Greek, κέντρόνη, means “patchwork garment”. According to Hugh Gerard Evelyn-White, “A cento is therefore a poem composed of odd fragments”.
Cento is also a brand of canned tomatoes, allegedly Italian. I say allegedly because I read a book about olive oil, Extra Virginity, and in it, one thing the author, Tom Mueller, lays out in some detail is that most of the olive oil sold in supermarkets as Extra Virgin and Italian is in fact not Italian and not virgin.* Sometimes it’s not even olive oil, though, sometimes, it is bottled in Italy. I now suspect “Italian” tomatoes. Maybe they’re not Italian. Maybe they’re not even tomatoes. Are you confused yet?
I tried my hand at centos yesterday. I went to the bookcase where I keep all the poetry, and picked out Poems of Stephen Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works. Both Crane and Hopkins are poets who influenced me in my teens and twenties, and who I still read. I flipped to the Index of First Lines, first in the Crane, then in the Hopkins, inputting the lines, cutting and pasting. Piecing out the patchwork. All first lines, no words omitted therefrom. Assembling centos is more like collaging or quilting than writing a poem. Maybe they’re not even poems; certainly not the poetic equivalent of extra virgin, but I enjoyed doing it and like the results.
A Fine Song
A man went before a strange god,
A god in wrath, walking in the sky,
“Have you ever made a just man?”
Behold, from the land of the farther suns
The livid lightnings flashed in the clouds,
The trees in the garden rained flowers
Each small gleam was a voice
The wind that waves the blossoms sang.
Once, I saw the mountains angry,
Once, I knew a fine song.
Noises Too Old To End
Although she be more white,
A silver scarce-call-silver gloss
As void as clouds that house and harbor none:
Break the box and shed the nard.
Confirmed beauty will not bear a stress.
Earnest, earthless, equal, attunable
A noise of falls I am possessed by,
Elected silence, sing to me.
Glory is a flame off exploit, so we say–
Hence sensual gross desires
Flaunt forth, then chevy on the air
Myself unholy, from myself unholy
My prayers must meet a brazen heaven,
On ear and ear two noises too old to end.
*According to Mueller, the term Extra Virgin is a misnomer, about as meaningful as “Natural” or “Free Range” on the label of packaged chicken parts.