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Cento: the art and craft of quilting poems

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Roger William Gilman

It is Adam’s Curse that “a line may take us hours to quilt; and yet if it does not seem but a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstitching will have been for naught.” W.B. Yeats

The Raw and the Cooked: writing cento

Cento poems are like quilts. I quilt poems. “Cento,” you say. What’s that?”  Good question.  I hadn’t heard of cento myself until recently.  In answer to the question let me offer a metaphor and several examples to help refine a definition and build an explanation of why we all – poetry lover or not — should care about cento.  Then I’d like to draw out implications of this form of poetry — concerning the linguistics, psychology, politics, and ethics of reading and writing cento.

Cento poems are quilts made of salvaged scraps of cloth — words, phrases, lines — from other sources of writing, most of which are other poems.  Cento, however, refers more to the process of construction than to the source of building materials.  Think for example of the collating note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as a way of building a text

A cento poem, whether lyric or epic, is constructed of fragments of other poems. The Greek word ‘cento’ (when taken over into Latin) literally means “patch work,” as in a coat of many colors. Roman soldiers made them out of leather patches to serve as body armor.  In tribute centonari stitched together lines culled from a single poet’s works. The Greeks paid homage to Homer this way; the Romans honored Virgil.  The materials of such poems may be extracted from pre-printed bolts of cloth or from old shirts and dresses.  In another vein, we might regard a fresh design combining a selection of pre-existing ingredients with new seasonings — along with a little cooking — as fresh raw food for the soul.  Cooking with leftovers is like quilting with patches of well-worn cloth.  It’s a way of starting over.

Whole languages and entire histories of literature are fair game for sourcing the patches that get pieced together in these patchwork quilts and coats.  The art of cento resides in putting an authentic self-authored voice, a coherent point, and point of view, a recognized speech act, and well-crafted stitching into the new poem. The high art of cento patch-writing is to make the patches disappear into the pattern – to make the seams invisible.   Extracting, hoarding, retrieving, arranging, stitching, pressing; this is the process of quilting poems. I learned this from my mother.

Cento has exemplars spanning time from Dio Chrysotomus’s Oratio (82 CE) which quotes Homer against himself to Hosidius Geta’s Medea (180 CE) composed of lines from Virgil.  Ausonius, author of the cento Cento Nuptialis, seems to be the first to use the term cento and lay down its earliest rules (in 380 CE) in his Opera Omnia. Eudocia’s poetic life of Christ is built of lines from Homer (450 CE) while Faltonia Betitia Proba wrote cento on the same topic from lines of Virgil. Trygaeus’s cento accomplishes literary criticism in the Frogs. In 494 CE Pope Gelasius denounced cento as sacrilegious sarcasm, and cento went underground (anonymous or unacknowledged). 

The Politics of Justus Lipsius, Politicorum Libri Sex of 1589 is comes entirely of centos.  Etienne de Pleure composed a life of Jesus, Sacra Aeneis, in 1618 from lines of Virgil. Alexander Ross did the same in his Virgilii Evangelisantis Christiados (1634) which is his most celebrated work of poetry.

Andrew Marvel’s (1637) “Ad Regem Carolum Parodia” is a “counter-song” copy of the second stanza of Horace’s “Ode #2,” with a couple of simple word substitutions. Modern exemplars of cento range from Blaise Cendar’s “Mee Too Boogie” (1914) or his Kodak (1924) a poem of lines chopped from the novel Le mysteriuex Docteur Cornelius by Gustave Lerouge to Hugh MacDiarmid’s Cornish Heroic Songs for Valda Trevlyn (1937) to Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1915 – 1962) to William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1946 – 1958) to Stefan Themerson’s  Bayamus and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry (1949) to Charles Olsen’s Maximus Poems (1960) to John Ashbery’s “To a Waterfowl” (in Locus Solus, 1961) and his “Europe” (1962) or “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” (1998) to Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1927 – 1978) to Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (1963) to David Antin’s “Code of Flag Behavior” (1968), to Ted Berrignan’s poem “Cento: a note on philosophy” (1967) to Harry Mathew’s Selected Declarations of  Dependence (1977) which is full of decomposed and remarried proverbs, to the Brazilian modernist Manuel Bandeira’s “Antologia” (1968) that quotes the whole career of his own poems, to Jose Emilio Pacheco’s “approximations” that include fragments of other texts in his poems. Cento includes Charles Bernstein’s (1976) “short clips” of the ends of one sentence and the beginning of the next sentence as “Parsings” of Irving Goffman’s (1974) Asylums (which he acknowledged without prompting five years later in an entirely different work); see also Clark Coolidge’s Smithsonian Depositions (1980) and David Shapiro’s “Those Who Must Stay Indoors” (1983) and John Cage’s mesostich texts (from 1970 to 1989); and everything in the first issue of The Formalist (1990) is centoesque. Peter Gizzi’s poem “Ode: Salute to the New York School” (2012), Kenneth Goldsmith’s (2013) Seven American Deaths and Disasters copies and relocates different types discourse, real-time on-air reporting, about disasters (like the airliner attack on the Twin Towers of New York (September 11, 2001), and the centos in Maureen McLane’s My Poets (2013). 

Cento is a global form that appropriates from any culture, early or late . . .  from any author or text — high or low, exotic or pedestrian. Cento can accommodate almost any other fixed form, attitude, or subject matter; it is a flexible form with tensile strength.

Take for a first instance John Cage’s “writing-through” texts, usually lineated, composed entirely of un-cited quotations of texts ranging from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to the notebooks of Jasper Johns. Here, for example, is a passage from “Writing for the first time through Howl” (1986):



                             In thE mind









                        endless rIde






                                    liGht of zoo.

Marjorie Perloff points out that “the source of these minimalist stanzas is the following set of strophes, whose erasure, based on what Cage called the “50% mesostich” rule, uncovers the thirteen letters ALLENGINSBERG required for the vertical mesostic string.”  [A mesocrostic is like an acrostic, except it runs down the middle of the page.]  I have highlighted Cage’s chosen words from Howl, here beginning with the “B” for “BERG” that prefaces the name ‘Allen Ginsberg’.

Incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, such and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,

Who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on Benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo.

Perloff explains Cage’s “elliptical lyric functions as both homage and critique, subtly interjecting his own values into the exuberant, hyperbolic Howl.  As hushed and muted as Ginsberg’s baroque ‘ashcan rantings’ are wild and expansive, Cage’s poem is a rhyming nightsong, whose referents are elusive, with only the movement toward the ‘BroNx’ transforming the ‘linking’ of the ‘blinking / light’ to one that is ‘wRacked’ with ‘light of Zoo’.  Without deploying a single word of his own, Cage subtly turns the language of Howl against itself so as to make a plea for restraint and quietude as alternatives to the violence at the heart of Ginsberg’s poem.”  She continues, “. . . there is further dialogue between the two poems.  For Ginsberg, sound and visual configuration support the poet’s exclamatory particulars, the urgent things he wishes to say, whereas for Cage poetry is, by definition, first and foremost a visual and sound structure.  Poetry is not poetry, as he put it, ‘by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time and sound) to be introduced into the world of words’.”

*   *   *

Consider other centonari: Emerson, Moore, Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Ashbery, and Tomlinson; they are all prominent practitioners of this type of borrowing.  I first became aware of cento when I had finished reading a collection of Jules La Forge and subsequently picked up Eliot’s Prufrock to devour next; and there I spied a line I’d just read in La Forge staring me straight in the face: “the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.”  In fact, the end of Eliot’s long poem is a barrage of “quoted” fragments.  I prefer cento that neither satirizes (Eliot) nor tries to make the past present (Pound) but rather cento that acknowledges by simple labeling, rather than by footnoting, that the poem at hand is the off-spring of conversation.  Cento craft is like the conversation involved in editing anthologies; it is an art of assembly.  It is conversation inside a community of interest . . . a conversation about worlds — inside and outside worlds.  It is a conversation among poets, among critics.

David Lehman’s “Oxford Cento” is composed of lines stolen from poems he anthologized in The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006). It is a contemporary cento in that it uses diverse sources, not just a single author.  It shows how cento writing can be an extension of the act of reading. [The poem plays out in the left column; Lehman has sourced each line in the column on the right.  Read the whole left-hand column — the poem by itself — your first time through, before considering the sources.]

The Oxford Cento

If the sun shines but approximately                           Laura Riding, “The World and I”

Only where love and need are one.                             Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?                Edward Taylor, “God’s Determinations”

Of whom shall we speak? For every day they die      WH Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”

Younger than their kids – jeans, ski-pants, sneakers. James Merrill “Self-Portrait in Windbreaker”

And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes        Edger Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee”

Waking far apart on the bed, the two of them             John Ashbery, “Decoy”

And so it was I entered the broken world.                   Hart Crane, “The Broken Tower”

Good morning, Daddy!                                                 Langston Hughes, “Good Morning”

Every woman adores a Fascist,                                     Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”

Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart.               Robert Frost,“ ‘Out, Out . . .’ ”

When I am slitting a fish’s head,                                   Elinor Wylie, “The Puritan’s Ballad”

Would he like it if I told him?                                       Gertrude Stein, “If I Told Him”

Odd that a thing is most itself when likened,                Richard Wilbur, “Lying”

Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’             Elisabeth Bishop “Over 2000 Illustrations”

There are no flowers in Hell.                                         H. Phelps Putnam, “Bill Gets Burned”

Give all to love,                                                              Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Give All to Love”

A burnt match skating in a urinal                                   Hart Crane, “The Tunnel”

That never lost a vote (O Adlai mine).                           John Berryman, “Dream Song No. 23”

What you get married for if you don’t want children?   T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

And because it is my heart,                                             Stephen Crane, “In the Desert”

Above, below, around, and in my heart,                         Conrad Aiken, “Preludes”

Blessed be God! For he created Death!                           Longfellow, “Jewish Cemetery Newport”

And rock-grained, rack-ruined battlements.                    Jean Garrigue, “Song in Sligo”

One’s sex asserts itself. Desire                                        Herman Melville, “After Pleasure Party”

And that White Sustenance —                                          E. Dickenson, “I Cannot Live With You” 

Despair – in a Sahara of snow,                                         Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead”

As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort                           Anthony Hecht, “The Dover Bitch”

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,                   Jean Toomer, “Georgia Dusk”

Weep for what little things could make them glad.          Robert Frost, “Directive”

We hurt each other as bride and bridegroom do.              Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”     

And I wish I did not feel like your mother.                       Edna St Vincent Millay, “Rendezvous”

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,                   A. Bradstreet “The Author to Her Book”

There is nothing lowly in the universe.                              A. R. Ammons, “Still”

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,                Theodore Roethke, “Dolor”

The sea in a chasm, struggling to be                                   Marianne Moore, “What Are Years?”

Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,                      Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

On this green bank, by this soft stream,                              Emerson, “Concord Hymn”

Where strangers would have shut the many doors             Edwin A. Robinson, “Mr Floods’ Party”

Except the one she sang and, singing made.                       W Stevens, “Idea of Order at KeyWest”

Heard on the street, seen in a dream, heard in the park,     Kenneth Fearing, “Green Light”

        seen by the light of day,         

What is yours is mine my father.                                        Whitman, “I Ebb With Ocean of Life”

What more is there to do except stay?                                 J.  Ashbery, “The Instruction Manual”

        And that we cannot do.

And this is not as good a poem as The Circus                     Kenneth Koch, “The Circus (1975)”

Especially the lines that are spoken in the voice                  Billy Collins, “Workshop”

        of the mouse.

He opened the car door and looked back                              Galway Kinnell, “Hitchhiker”

And clapped his hands and shouted to the birds.                  Robert Pinsky, “Childhood of Jesus”

And that was the whole show.                                              Charles Simic, “Country Fair”

*   *   *

In cento, ready-made ingredients are composed according to fresh recipes into interesting food for thought and feeling: a new cuisine.  The written ingredients – pieces of writing – are derived from works meant originally to be shared, not merely consumed, in the first place. We cook for each other, not ourselves alone.  Cooking implies gathering, sorting, chopping, and mixing things.  Serving and eating and talking.  Any kind of speech-act may be accomplished by editing (into some new dish) chunks of language made available to us by others.  A cultural commons is the source of our art whether we think about it or not – whether we acknowledge it or not.  Our cultural archive is the source of all art.

Cento is an art of commenting by re-mix and re-frame; it is translation.  It is a recycling, a fresh re-using of de-composed ingredients of language.  Actually, all art moves forward by reflection and borrowing from the compost pit.  Purists who deny appropriation are either liars about themselves or murderers of other cultures.  Not all appropriation is violation; some is admiration.  Everything is derivative; nothing is new under the sun.  It’s not pretended originality that we seek; but authenticity.

Increasingly the true voice of feeling, the beautiful voice of thought, is one that honestly reflects the voices that have moved and threaded one’s own voice.  A self-authored voice woven from recycled voices is appropriate to our age: we cannot afford to forever extract; we must renew and reuse.  To scavenge is a political act.  To give up the pretense of sui genius authorship is definitely a political act.

Sampling, a technique of dubbing a slice of pre-recorded sound or image and using it as an ingredient of a fresh art work (“make it new”), tests our ability to appreciate the difference between something original and something authentic.  A mash-up composed of found objects – a grand collage – does its work by changing neighbors and neighborhoods; and by this changing of connotation without changing denotation, consciousness (if not also conscience) is re-made.  “Good poets borrow; great ones steal” claims T. S. Eliot.  Is this art? Is this virtue?  You tell me!

Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius picks through a pile of elegies by Propertius, translates them, cuts them up, and reassembles them into new poems. He also “edits” Eliot; so who owns these poems?  The Oulipo poets (l’Ouvoir de literature potenielle), following Raymond Queneau, work in this direction too: they use the freedom of random, self-chosen rules (constraints like the principles of cento), for instance, replacing every word in a poem with its dictionary definition.  Dictionary definitions do not belong to you any more than do the letters of the alphabet. They are the work of others.  Restraints like these – acknowledging other voices inside one’s own — impede the longing for genius . . . the illusion of genius. 

Cento has relatives living as French bouts-rimes (which are poems made by one poet in response to a list of rhyming works supplied by another poet; which is a form of poesie d’emprunt: expropriated poetry), and living as Arabic iqtibas (which “lights one flame from another,” an unacknowledged borrowing scriptural fragments of the Koran into fresh poems), and as Spanish glose (which open with a quotation from other poet and is subsequently repeated as a refrain), and as English para poems (which steal the form and diction of a poet for another poet’s voice).  An eclogue is a collection of extracts from longer works; it is the selection and arrangement not the thematic content that defines an eclogue. A palinode is a poem of retraction of a view or style from a previous poem (or collection) of one’s own.  An ensalada is a poem that combines lines from different poems in different languages.

Cento, a form of fabrication, happens in other media, in other art-forms.  The consciousness behind cento is a current deep and wide, a veritable Mississippi River, in our age; around the world.  In Thelonius Monk Plays Duke Ellington for instance, Monk takes great liberties riffing Ellington’s song book.  Roy Lichtenstein appropriates pages of comic books in his large scale abstract pop paintings.  Pablo Picasso, who said “art is theft,” used newsprint, among other ready-made ingredients in Composition with Fruit, Guitar, and Glass. John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” is written for 12 radios and 2 performers who steal sounds made by others from the airwaves — by turning channels, controlling volume and modulating timbre quality.  Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” uses other people’s recordings of train sounds and recorded interviews about train travel by Holocaust survivors to make fresh claims.  Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertium” mutates themes from Bach’s “Musical Offering” until they move beyond recognition.  In “Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel” composed by Brian Eno, Pachelbel’s Canon gets bent and twisted out of shape.  Charles Ives and Antonin Drovak take ready-made folk songs and famously cut them into their symphonies.  And who could forget the one who mastered salvage work in the modern era, Marcel du Champ, with his re-contextualized, re-institutionalized, hardware store urinal as a gallery sculpture notoriously entitled “Fountain” (signed “R. Mutt”) or his “Brides Stripped Bare by her Bachelors” full of ready-made bicycle wheels.  And don’t forget Bob Dylan songs with Woody Guthrie lines, or Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Or how about Oyvid Fahlstrom’s radio collage “Birds in Sweden” (1962) which mixes recorded bird calls, invented language, and recycled samplings of recorded readings of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” as orchestrated sounds visually displayed in a series of numerically organized charts.

All these artists hoist a beer with James Joyce who boasted that “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.”  The truth is, every book is a scrap book, every text a madeleine.  We live in an era of the montage, collage, and mosaic; the parody and pastiche . . . we live in an age of cento, a time when the already-cooked may be used as raw ingredients for fresh cooking . . . a time when the “original” is re-made with fresh authenticity.  A truly democratic culture is an open-source culture – a socialized-culture.  What matters about all this is whether the cento under consideration is relevant to its place and time – to the spirit of an age and some bio-region of the planet. What matter is that the re-purposing of elements from the archives produces in a reader fresh relationships to its forms and contents and styles.

The art of cento lies in surgically choosing what to borrow and how to reframe and stich it up with other remnants. The differences, not similarities, created by reframing language are what matters to cento; the new frame, not that which is borrowed (but perhaps the borrowing itself) matters.  New poetic frames draw attention to the differences and contradictions inside our heads.  And so, cento is expressive writing even if it is unoriginal; cento is much more than recycling.  Cento is creative and imaginative, but not original.  Nothing comes of nothing. When we lack confidence in the authenticity of our voice we are tempted to be original.  Vapidly we “make it new.” But art makers are not gods creating worlds out of nothing.  Art is not magic.  Artists are hunters and gatherers like the rest of us.  We may be imagistic and musical animals. But we are not magicians. We are something less grand, less pretentious than gods or geniuses.  Honest poets are humble; they dwell on earth.  On all fours.  We have hands and knees.

The responsibilities of cento writing derive not from our personal uniqueness (our generic non-genericness).  Rather, our deep value, our dignity, lies in how creative we are – how imaginative and willful we may be – not whether we are original.  An “original” thought and feeling when transfigured in us makes poetry: understanding one thing as if it were another is the ground of all poetry . . . the ground of both meaning and value.  A derivative can be a good thing if it is, among other things, transformed by its new use; placed not merely in a new context (landscape) but in a new dynamic network (ecosystem).  Pragmatics (usage) changes semantics (meaning).  The way we use words changes them.  A fresh composition can legitimize a borrowing.  There is no absolute frame of reference anyway . . . for anything . . . as Einstein pointed out; no frame that fixes the meaning of a phrase once and for all, for all space and time, for every moment in history.  This is especially evident when the same phrase is observed heading out in two different directions.

Really; what can we honestly do?  As soon as we’re born, we’re driving “under the influence.”   The world immediately begins its wily work, infecting our attempts to make artworks of our lives; and this continues until we check out.  How can you credit the infinite blur of authors inside your head, the language and literature inside your poem?  “Raise the art of quoting without quotation marks,” advised Walter Benjamin, “to whatever is its highest level” in order to be real.   “Who dares say ‘I am an original’?” asks Schopenhauer. “What can you honestly call your own except energy, strength, and will.”   We must investigate whether salvaged materials can be re-purposed in authentic ways.  And what do we expect to find? The most powerful artworks come together out of other ones, just barely – dangerously: And we stitch and share such fragments as shoring against our ruin by some pretension that we are absolutely pure, non-influenced, original geniuses. The fortunate truth is: We are designers, not authorities.

On further thought, why would anyone want to think of themselves as having only one set of eyes, anyway? Or want a one-dimensional voice lacking any overtones?  How boring. But take counsel: frack the earth and move the juice of others into your contemplation and make a fresh design; compose a more complex, encompassing whole.  Make it fresh not new (and you’ll be a rebel by today’s standards) because, as we’ll see in a minute, the merely new is not only dead, but is deadly.  What we need now is to make a subtle but radical shift in our thinking about poetry, about poets, and poems; about human nature and our condition.  We need to embrace integrated, multi-voiced authors, texts, and readers.  “A revolution!”  you say?  “But who will control such danger?” you worry.  “Will anarchy be let loose upon our precious land of literature?  Oh no!”

Incarnation and Resurrection: reading cento

Thus far we’ve explored the nature of cento from the writer’s point of view. Now let’s look at the reader’s experience. 

We’ve noted that a centonari is one who prepares centos and that centoning is an art of stitching — of quilting and weaving. The Greek rhapsodes were poets who “stitched together strands of heroic set material into epic oral poems; a rhapsody is a “stich song”. The needle work of the centonari is similar: its creativity is formal; creative tailoring shows up in the organization of the work, not in the material pieces of which it is made.  The pieces of cloth — of different shapes and sizes, of different colors and textures, of different origins in plants or animals – have, in past poetic practice, been lines borrowed from a single author (Homer, David, Solomon, Euripides, Vergil, Ovid, Isaiah, Jesus, Cicero, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Goethe, Rilke, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, and Dickenson, to name a few of these ancient and modern veins of ore; and yes, I know: these authors’ “original” work is already cento).  But I caution the apprentice: borrow from one author and they’ll say “there goes a wana-be”; but borrow from hundreds and they’ll claim you’re “a genius, a real original” (even though there is no such thing).  Personally I prefer this aspect of the Eliot and Pound style cento – the one that borrows from many authors for new composition rather than from a single author.  And I favor a style that works with smaller pieces rather than with whole lines – phrases (molecules) instead of sentences or stanzas (organisms), but nothing so small as individual words (cells). Though I admit, for others, a book of quotations is just as rich an ore as is any dictionary or thesaurus. 

The challenge of cento is to produce a new poem from old parts – to blend new wine from several varieties of grapes.  Grapes are “original” music, painting, dancing or drama that can be combined into something imaginative.  The centonic process depends on the luck of temperature, wisdom in selecting grapes, cleverness in managing the fermentation process.  In the end, the taste of the wine depends on an authentic voice; not on an original one.  It is great wine, not invention of the grape that matters.

Composing cento can proceed by themes or by speech-acts; it isn’t simply stringing beads on a wire.  Cento explores relations between two (or more) texts or voices, between various patches of material, and between the writer and the reader (both of whom must be listeners first before they are writers and critics).  Stitching techniques, although various, have in common the task of accommodating patches to each other.  The tailor and seamstress must find ways to modify the language of each patch in order to adapt materials to each other and create an artistic experience in the reader. 

There are two basic types of stitching: grammatically and semantically.  The grammatical form is the more common: changing the number, case or gender of nouns and pronouns, changing the person, tense and mood of verbs, substituting logical particles appropriate to the new context.  Semantic stitching, on the other hand, consists of choosing lexical variants: substituting one noun, verb, or adjective, for another, or supplying variations in conjunctions and particles (or particle chains).  Grammatical accommodations are less radical than semantic ones.  The point of the grammatical stitching is to create logical coherence.  Semantic stitching creates new themes and speech acts, sometimes by contradicting or modulating the source, sometimes by heading off in a whole new direction.  Either type of stitching stretches the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences.  The stitching also binds lines together, not just phrases.  Connecting end-stopped or run-over lines can be accomplished in various ways – addition, subordination, tautology, violence, and stopping.  Personally, I like keyword repetition and free association for connecting things.  But whatever type of stitch is used, the effect is some degree of transmuted-experience that determines the new literary textile.

Cento patching should be close to invisible, so finely cut and stitched that a reader is just barely conscious of sources and of movement from one source to another.   Cento should be crafted so that readers primarily feel the forward leaning movement – as turning and leaping, not a frozen pose.  An appreciative reader should register only a hovering presence of foremothers and forefathers — or perhaps suspect an even earlier species of parent — without awareness of particular poets and their poems among the phrases stitched so uniquely and seamlessly together.  Cento posing as erudition — footnoted cento — is not true to the facts of human nature and the human condition.  We are not (contrary to John Locke) pure private property to ourselves; and neither are our impressions or expressions completely private things. Ideas and their medium of expression are not private property.  We are shared and sharable selves, with voices.  Endnotes privatize the source.  Real cento acknowledges borrowing without privileging the erudition of the centonari or by over-privatizing the source.  Sourcing should be nearly invisible.  If centonari feel they are submerging sources too much, they throw-in an obvious passage to remind the reader of the capture — of the enterprise, the intended experience.  In the following example, John Asbury often mixes different levels of visibility of his sources in a single line. [Watch for such favorites as “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,” or “never until the mankind making,” and “this is no country for old men,” or “Fra Pandolf’s hand.”]

To a Waterfowl

Where, like a pillow on a bed

I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude

Where through the Golden Coast, and groves of orange and citron

And one clear call for me

My genial spirits fail

The desire of the moth for the star

When first the College Rolls receive his name.

Too happy, happy tree

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.

Forget this rotten world, and unto thee

Go, for they call you, Shepherd, from the hill

And the eye travels down to Oxford’s towers.

Calm was the day, and through the trembling air

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair

And she also to use newfangleness…

Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?

Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,

Unaffected by “the march of events,”

Never until the mankind making

From harmony, from heavenly harmony

O death, O cover you over with roses and early lilies!

With loaded arms I come, pouring for you

Sunset and evening star

Where roses and white lilies grow.

Go, lovely rose,

This is no country for old men.  The young

Midwinter spring is its own season

And a few lilies blow. They that have power to hurt, and will do none.

Looking as if she were alive, I call.

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground.

Obscurest night involved the sky

When Loie Fuller, with her Chinese veils

And many a nymph who wreaths her brow with sedge…

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

In drear-nighted December

Ripe apples drop about my head

Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone

To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!

O well for the fisherman’s boy!

Fra Pandolf’s hand

Steady thy laden head across a brook…

With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun

Fills the shadows and windy places

Here in the long unlovely street.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns

The freezing stream below.

To know the change and feel it…

At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere

Pressed her cold finger closer to her lips

Where the dead feet walked in.

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die,

Or the car rattling o’er the stony street.

[Find the sources for this Ashbery cento at http://groundwater-zanne.blogspot.com/2008/11/john-ashbery-to-waterfowl-cento-sources.html

We’ll see in a moment why it would be a mistake for a sophisticated reader to actually source this material (at least at first).  The goal of a first reading of cento is to take in the words and lines and stanzas as if it were a poem made of “original” phrases — even though the reader will already know that it’s not original.  The honest poet labels the poem “cento.”  ‘Cento’ is a unique brand of signal. The savvy reader knows that because it is labeled ‘cento’ the poem aspires to be creative and authentic rather than original. A deliberately derivative art can be highly inventive, even if not original. Be satisfied with the label of “cento”; do not flinch.  Don’t crave footnotes.

Whether writer or reader, do not swerve into footnotes (ironically, you’d need to steal a citation form from traditions of scholarship to do this).  Keep your nerve. Trust your own capacity to read. Rest in your general awareness of the poem as sourced, given that it is labeled ‘cento’.  Reading any kind of experimental poetry requires this kind of self-control.   A good cento should be meaningful and moving to a reader without awareness of the specific source of the sourced material.  Yes; when a specific reference is recognized, it may raise the possibility of further, more complex meaning and emotion; some sort of comment on, or relation to, the texts of the “originating” authors does become possible. But to attempt this discovery at first reading – or at all — is to jam a dirty dope needle in your arm.

The poetics of cento is inter-textual, an art full of anxiety and ecstasy of influence.  It is a form that arrives after the maturing of a language and its literature, a culture and civilization; it captures the spirit of an age and region—a style of human life on earth.  It is full of anxiety for the reader as well as the writer. 

Centonari connect the past to the future (not the future to the past); but cento is not avant garde art for art’s sake.  Cento is not conceptual art or language art.  It is rhetorical speech; it is not just the best words put in best order.  Those who listen to these singers must join them in bringing past conversations into the present purposes of the proffered poem.  The rhetorical form and purpose of centonic reading can take many forms, from comic to tragic, from playful to serious: excusing, honoring, explaining, entertaining, flirting, and so on.  It can match or channel or negate the energy of the source-text that inspired the one you’re reading.  A reading can be orthograde or contragrade.  Just as writing can be imitative, competitive, or collaborative . . . can mimic or mock, scramble or counter-balance the tone of the source . . . so too a reading of a centonic poem. 

*   *   *

The phenomenology of reading, of receiving, cento has three moments. The first moment is the smooth intake of words and phrases as a whole poem, and our following of this flowing-guide to meaning-making supplied by the poet. The second moment is the stuttering half-recognition of phrases and sources that creates nuggeted sub-texts out of the whole.  The whole gets chopped into parts.  Cut at the phrasal knuckles. And then, during the third moment of reading cento we deliberately ignore those cuts and parts, and surrender back again to the flow; we begin to experience the redemption, the wholeness, the healing; the integration: a reconstitution after dissection.

The paradox of cento – a manufacture of new art out of old – the recycling of plastic bottles into picnic tables – is an art of defamiliarization.  But it does not exist to be jigsaw-puzzle entertainment or clever parlor game. The crucial second moment in the experience of cento is not some clever identifying of specific authors and texts as sources. Cento is not a Trivial Pursuit game.  Rather, at this moment, the experience is more “Oh, I’ve heard that before, somewhere, from someone; but it sounded rather different then and probably meant something entirely different there (I suppose),” whatever may be the sources. You may not hear outloud the rhyme of tradition in the talent; but you will become its music while the music lasts.  Cento is vague about sources but ambiguous about voice (whose voice you hear in the poem).  And both features are solid virtues.

Cento uses context-free phrase-structure compositional grammar as does the rest of nature:  copying is everywhere in nature.  Replication of memes is the origin of the organism (not only the orgasm); mutation in the process of copying is one source of survival and flourishing: evolution.  The DNA of memes is “transcribed” into messenger RNA to be “read”.  Cento cuts phrases out of sentences and stanzas of poems and splices them in new speech acts for our reading pleasure. Like fresh cut flowers arranged in a vase, cento takes these snippets and re-arranges them.  Then it displays them in arrangements that delight and enlight us all.  It is challenging work to catch the differences created by a new arrangement of allusions and echoes of cultural tradition: knowledge of tradition (of the horizon), careful reading, and openness to surprise are necessary qualities of any sophisticated reception of cento.  Our ability to appreciate these fresh arrangements depends on the company we’ve been keeping – who we’ve been hanging out with: what we’ve experienced and learned from the conversations we’ve had with books and their authors and critics . . . their modes of design, not only their materials. 

The meanings of centexts are determined by allusive phrasing and inter-textual play.  But it would be a mistake to listen to cento and hear only allusions and commentary instead of the voice and message of the centoist. What’s really happening is that centonari take advantage of a certain arbitrariness of natural language that makes the production and reception of any chunk of language context-independent (moveable) and context-dependent (meaningful) at the same time.  Any cento poem is, among other things, a comment on the communicative function of language: reframing operates with differential effect (as Ferdinand de Saussure explained one of the dimensions of the way words gain meaning).  And so, a quilted, tailored poem and its remnants are as speech is to language. I love speech.

It would be a mistake to see only language and not hear the speech in a cento poem. Cento is a confrontation with phrases from the great archive that triggers engagement with, and re-construction of, one’s experience.  It is not sterile words on a page. The inter-textuality of producing meaning and experience, and the questioning of originality in the face of undeniable creativity, make cento profoundly philosophical not only pleasurably poetic.  It reveals our humanity as interdependent and layered rather than isolate and one-dimensional.  All living is interactive, conversational – no matter its species.  The risks involved in living off parts salvaged from others reveal our vulnerability; it shows art to be acrobatic, not pedestrian.  I have learned by bitter experience that writing and reading cento is transfiguring (disfiguring before it is refiguring); it involves constantly risking absurdity and injury. It’s damn hard to write this form — harder than writing the “regular” way (where one pretends to be the first and only “cause” of one’s ideas and their expression).  The deliberate use of others’ voices in one’s own is not due to some lack of ability to speak with one’s “own” voice, nor due to some lack of ability to design a fine poem out of one’s own guts.  It’s an admission that such a trick is impossible.  There is no alternative to cento.  Accommodating, collaborating, negotiating is the real work of art. And it can be mesmerizing work; it is as satisfying as it is frustrating.  And I wish to God I had never started wrestling this angel; personally I can’t let go; and it won’t loose me from its grip either. It’s become addictive as salted peanuts and sex.

  *   *   *

Cento is not outsider art or folk art. The fine art and craft of cento, for readers, is revealed in a poem’s compelling insight into experience expressed in an authentic voice.  The “originality” of cento is in its form (if it is anywhere); it is in its speech-act and message. But paradoxically cento is not original in its material.  Form, content, and material must be carefully distinguished in order to appropriately appreciate a cento poem.  Plural consciousness is necessary to a cento reader’s (and writer’s) ability to savor the interplay of meanings — the old vague shadowed ones, the new vivid sun-lit ones.

In the third moment of reading, the resurrection of phrasal patches in a reconstituted quilt is a healing experience if the poem has a coherent point and compelling voice.  Cento is disjunction before it is conjunction, a mutilation before wholeness, export before import, and decoupage before collage.  The dialectic of cento may be, in its second moment, a vigorous mechanism of displacement, even stronger than surgery.  But then – in its third moment – comes the stitching, the binding of wounds, the healing, rehabilitation, and well-being.  We are whole again; and peaceful.  Given this third integrating moment of experience, the dialectic of cento is ultimately a positive one, not a negative one: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It is Marx and Hegel at the same time – materialism (patches) and idealism (design) dynamically engaging each other (pragmatism), each driving the other forward — neither more fundamental than the other. This creative tension is the real human shoreline: a territory and its map.  This is where we live.

Successful reading of cento is as much a political act as is the writing of cento because what we are is ultimately the company we keep: either destroyers or builders we will be.  In the crucial second moment of reception the reader mutilates the cento just as much as does the writer who initially tears apart the source poems for patches.  As readers we extract phrases planted for us in the lines and stanzas by centonari.  We begin reading and then interrupt the author — the sentence — with a possible recognition of a phrase; we hesitate, and so we must begin again; we re-read the sub-text, the phrase; maybe we re-read the whole sentence . . . even the whole poem . . . from the beginning all over again before arriving at another ending, a new integration of the whole.  Memory as well as imagination is necessary to breathing cento; it takes the capacity for retrieval and analogy – inhalation and respiration – to breathe; to re-circulate the air.

The phrase re-read becomes a sampling isolated from the rest of the poem: it converts itself – this fragment – into a text of its own, no longer fully part of the larger, longer text. This violence against the cento “author” by the reader, and the reader’s wild leap of faith-in-shared-voices, are political acts. But this cento project of conspiracy has much more warrant than does our pretense to uncontaminated individual expression, understanding, valuing, or acting. 

It is not just the writer who dismantles and rearranges things.  The cento reader is as violent or healing as any cento writer.  Literary critics are no more pure than are the writers upon which they comment. We are, all of us, implicated by the true nature of art. Yes, we must live to make our lives into artworks, and compose poems to accomplish this; and we must appropriate language and literature in order to make the poems, and this involves violence.  But we do have the choice of whether to stop short of rebuilding what we’ve torn apart. We can leave dismembered poems in piles of pieces, or we can stich things back together.  We can decide to name our borrowing and re-arranging as “cento” (or we can try to kite a check).  To fail our responsibilities here is unoriginal sin.

The Lyrical Self: centeredness

The idea that literature is impersonal – rather, more precisely, is multi-authored – is argued by Borges in his essay “The Flowers of Coleridge” – a point previously espoused by Shelley, Emerson, and Valery; and more recently put forth by Roland Barthes who famously defined “the text” as “a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original.”  This leads poets to anxiety about their words and phrases being used for other purposes, as Francis Ponge reminds us in “The Aegean Stables.”  Liberty, Freedom, Fraternity, for instance; what claims will centonari make with my words on their behalf?  Given the possibilities in re-purposing, we begin to wonder what authors may have weaseled their way inside our heads (and hearts), and what it means to have a voice of one’s own. Cento makes us wonder who we really are.

Cento suggests that we must transcend and survive our disillusionment with the supreme fiction that authors and readers are psychologically complete and distinct selves, unstained and uninfected by others.  The truth is, we are not pure beings. We are embedded, nested within each other.  We’re always touching each other, even when we’re alone. We are complex and composed, entangled and encumbered beings. There are no unitary selves; only more or less integrated or chaotic ones.  There are no self-sufficient selves; only more or less absorbent or repellant ones. We are molecular and ecologically built creatures that dwell in tide pool and salt marsh; we live with the engagement and ambiguity of the human shore.  We live in an ecotone near the intercourse of river currents and ocean tides.  The place of highest diversity and lowest density.

We are not only layered, partially bounded, porous and evolving selves.  Our selves are built-up of already composed selves that we’ve decomposed and integrated to some degree or other.  We are orchestrated centers of activity.  We are symphonic selves, dissonant or harmonious.  Our voice and vision is a blend. We are, each of us, the full voice of an orchestra even when we think we solo.  We are assembled.  We are conducted. We are relationships more than individuals. Our performance of a score is a response to a whole history of music, to the other players in our lives, to the instrument makers and recording engineers, to teachers and audiences. It takes an orchestra to raise a poem. We borrow someone else’s alphabet, someone’s dictionary of words and idiomatic expressions, someone’s grammar, forms of trope, genres of speech-acts . . . we borrow our elements of style; we borrow thoughts and feelings and attitudes.   We borrow the whole etymological history of every word.  All creations, large and small . . . even you and me, are designs of materials salvaged and rearranged by nature.  We borrow life, we do not invent it. Not only to we live on borrowed time and space; everything we metabolize is stolen.  We must eat to live.  And we cannot eat without borrowing life (we won’t speak of the killing).

And so, in all honesty, we must reject the pretension that we are pure beings, complete and sufficient unto ourselves.  Innocent.  We must identify in experience with our metaphoric nature, with our voice as an arrangement of other voices.  We must embrace a voice full of echo and shadow.  We must feel, not only conceive our assembled selves.  And one way to do this is to acknowledge that our reading and writing are generically centonic (which is an acknowledgement, by the way, very different than providing footnotes).

As the self is constructed, so too the poem.  Just as the self emerges from molecular simplicities into complex organism, so does the poem.  The incarnation, the so-called “alchemy” of cento, where one thing becomes another, marshals a chorus disguised as soloist: many voices speaking as one, the blended articulate voice of an ecologically-built self.  An authentic, unoriginal, fresh voice can emerge from the many voices of which it is composed — ones that grow inside yours. Lift all your voices in your singing. And don’t worry, as reader, about the uncertainty of whose words you’re singing; this uncertainty is not a flaw but a virtue of cento.  We will begin to flourish when we learn to live in the borderlands with fuzzy edges, learn to live in ambiguity . . . learn to live as ambiguities to each other.  This is the human condition.  Why pretend otherwise. The unity and coherence of experience — the new thinking and feeling — embodied in fresh cento are imperative, not optional, qualities of patchwork poems.  Of the authentic voice of cento. 

  *   *   *

We must take responsibility for the plurality of our voice because responsive-relatedness is a reality we create.  Fundamentally we are responses to other people – to each other — relationships that demand response; we are not isolated, self-sufficient entities living without a world. Nothing living lacks a social world out of which it is built and upon which it depends. The specific relationships we maintain can be helpful or harmful ones to ourselves and others.  We are responsible both for our responses to others and for the relationships created by those responses.

Our internalized relationships to the sources of our voices are logically (if not historically) prior to the “separate” sources themselves.  Think of it this way: A pipe, open at each end, might be regarded as a tube connecting two openings (two separate individuals).  And the tube, from this perspective, would define a relationship of openings. On the other hand, a centonist might point out that the pipe does not really “connect” two separate openings.  A pipe without openings is not a tube at all; it is a rod.  Conversely, a set of openings that are not connected by a tube is not a pipe; it is a set of rings.  A pipe is constituted by its openings as much as it is by its tube.  Tube and rings are inseparable in a pipe.  The whole thing – the pipe – is a relation of parts.  The parts do not “have” relationships; they constitute a whole.  We do not “have” relationships; we “are” relationships with readers and writers.  Neither individuals nor relationships are more fundamental than the other. However, the virtue of regarding ourselves as relationships more than entities is that this perspective corrects a historically distorted self-regard that pretends to be a pure stand-alone subject in the world, bearing relationships as mere secondary baggage.

An author is actually a set of relationships among internalized voices. So is a reader. Voices are not external constructions; the voices of others are internal and constitutive of our identity and personality.  We are at the same time parasites and hosts of each other.  The logic of centonic relations is a strong one.  It’s not that we are similes for each other (X is like Y); we are identities of each other (X is Y).  The logic of our existence is not merely ‘X resembles Y’, but rather ‘X and Y dwell inside each other’.  The logic of our experience is not one of friends, but of lovers.

Your whole self is already reflected in its parts; the reconstituted voice is latent in its sources.  Each component voice contributes to the style and character of your voice. Your voice embodies the possibility of being part of some other voice – a voice more centered than bounded. 

The self, sponsored by a neurological network, is a web of relational processes that reproduces, maintains, defends and heals itself by becoming reflectively centered rather than by being thickly bounded.  It’s not our wrap of skin that makes us a self. It is our magnetic core. The self may be the primary beneficiary of its functional organization and activity, but it is not the only one.  Selves require other selves to survive and flourish; to reproduce. Selves require other selves as metabolic fuel for, and constraints on, their activities, much as planets require their sun. 

At this point in human history we have so overly bounded and privatized ourselves that we threaten our own survival.  What we need now – urgently — is a more permeable sense of our selves.  The legally and psychologically armored self is too defensive, too violent and self-destructive.   We need to embrace our co-evolved selves, our reciprocal selves: cento can help us do this.  We are only modestly self-ruled, just enough to have obligations toward ourselves and others.  We are thinly bounded, strongly centered organizations of activity that have the capacity to help or harm vulnerable things of value around us.  You yourself are one of these: you are vulnerable and valuable. And you can be hurt. [On the other hand, of course, highlighting our permeable membrane should not be a denial that our sense of self could become so diaphanous it fails to facilitate our long term flourishing.]

We may need a voice that is separate enough from other voices that it can intervene in dysfunctional relationships for the sake of justice or well-being. But we do not want voices so separated from each other that we have no relationships at all (or at least no relationships worthy of an intervention).  We are densely centered networks of relationships and only thinly skinned.  Our membranes full of pores pass signals and fuel in degrees sufficient enough (but only barely enough) to mediate an inside and an outside of the self.  We are centered enough to be modest (not absolute) agents of our fates.  We are centered-enough creatures that we can organize the work of re-arranging things in the world (including ourselves).

The mechanism by which we model the current conditions and future possibilities for the self (alternative ways of being a person in the world) is metaphoric thinking and feeling: the possibility of seeing one thing as another.  This kind of meaning-making requires a lyrical self.  Is the cento self a lyrical self?

The thin-skin, thick core self — this post post-modern Buddha self — is an ecological self. Ecological relations are internal to habitats; they are competitive and collaborative at the same time.  The relation of habitats, like that between a meadow and a wood is fuzzy; there is a ragged edge between them. In these ecotones they overlap, interpenetrate and interact.  Relations are implicit in the things that are related.  Relations constitute the things they relate.  We are individuals and relations at the same time – but relations first of all.  Relations are not imposed on individuals; individuals are not imposed upon relations.  Each of us is always “individually” a system of others.  We are modest individuals and bold relations.  As an author ecologically conceived is defined by his or her relations to the other authors that gave birth to his or her voice, so too is the reader.

Why does cento — re-used language and bundled voices — speak to us today? The environmental age demands the relational, ecological self – one that recycles and reuses material in order to preserve, conserve, and restore the relationships and processes that compose its self as an “individual.” Adopting this more humbled stance . . . more modest author-ity for an individual . . . yields a softer self, a quieter voice than the one we currently claim.  We can show this in the respect we give those from whom we borrow fuel for our lives.  We can acknowledge that they must be borrowers for themselves, not merely means to our borrowing.

What is “personal” authority anyway?  It is the integrity of an attempt to integrate the identities and styles, the thoughts and feelings, ideals and values of the others inside us in an authentic (not in an original) way.  Honest and humble authoring rejects the pretension of originality.  Author-ity does not reside in a “pretension of originality” or “genius” contrary to Schiller’s insistence.  [There are so many geniuses these days!] Claiming originality is an assertion of authority; and this claim is a dangerous fiction where life and art are in fact emergent-from-others designs.  A voice is a sponsored thing, like everything else. Every life is a re-composition of genes and memes – one thing translating another.  One thing sponsoring another.  Nothing is sui genius. How can something come from nothing!  How could one possibly be a genius?  An original!

Acknowledging the voices of others inside our own “self-authoring” (sic) and producing a quilted, tailored poem causes healing, creates new life: living as centonari allows us an incarnation and resurrection that is a shoring against snake-oil claims of “magic” by so-called “geniuses”.  This goes for readers too; there are no genius commentators.  [It is not fallibility or finitude we here criticize; it is magic.] Art, including cento (is there anything else), is not about genius and masterpiece, but about the beautiful and the interesting, the imaginative and the authentic.  It is not about originality.  Neither writer nor critic of cento is a genius. Neither reading nor writing occur without overtones. The best thing we can do – the only thing we can do — is to blend many sounds into one rich song.  Lift every voice in chorus; and sing!

We incarnate and resurrect each other as possibilities for our compositions of our humanity.  Recognition and cultivation of the re-constituted voice is a developmental possibility in cultural evolution of homo sapiens in this present age.  It is a possibility that not only entangles, but embeds, one’s interests and desires, one’s identity and personality, in those of others. It is the possibility that we might thrive as centered but un-bounded creatures with ambiguities that leave us nothing too definitive to defend, nothing to be so defensive about — nothing whose demise we might fear so much we become violent in protection of that “sacred property” . . . that pretended self-made and self-sufficient person.  John Locke was wrong to say we are pure and private property to ourselves. When a self is composed of other selves, its self-interest is not in mortal conflict with others’ interests.  When we are composed of each other, violence against an “individual” Other is violence against one’s “own” Self.  And so we are always on all sides of any war.  Every side loses a war.  If we recognize that we live inside each other we will see that we cannot afford to war against each other.  When the economic, political, and cultural interests of nations are in bed with each other, legs intensely intertwined, they cannot afford to fight.

This evolutionary possibility is a historical necessity.  If we do not re-conceive our “selves” we will join dinosaurs in the dustbin of history.

  *   *   *   

What are the implications of “a strongly centered and lightly bounded self” for the lyrical impulse, the lyrical voice of poetry?  If we are composed of each other, what does individuality mean?  What does privacy mean?  If we are centers of activity but lack hard shells or thick bark – if we are attractor-centers of vortexes in the stream of things, rather than hard shelled turtles crawling out of the ocean and up the beach – what does having a “voice of one’s own” mean?   How should the reader regard the self-reference (the ‘I’) of centonari?   As non-expressive?   As confessional?   Or what?

Well. The lyric ‘I’ continues (even under centonic constraints) to express the possibilities of perception, thought, and feeling.  It retains the emotional texture, musicality, metaphoric density, and linguistic sheering that it has always exhibited.  But the question is: what is the true nature of that lyric self.  And what is the function of the ‘I’ in the poem?   Here lies the anxiety of our age. What is the meaning and value of a centered thing that lacks thick skin? Are we worried about individuality? About privacy? About authority?  About responsibility?  Is the lyrical self a private or a public thing?  Is it a thing at all?  Is the lyric ‘I’ confessional or testimonial?  Such questions are chunky food for thought.

In a lyric setting the pronoun ‘I’ is an abstract variable (as in algebra) presented by the writer to a reader as invitation to instantiate the variable with a constant. Specifically, it is an invitation to the reader to substitute a constant (his or her self) into the formula in place of the abstract variable ‘I’ (which is you the poet). It is an invitation to see our selves as if we were someone else.  This primal metaphorical substitution is a deep source of meaning and value; and the beginning of responsibility.  In possibilities of metaphor (analogical perception and reasoning) begin responsibility.  Without this capacity we would not be moral creatures.  We would not be human.

The reason we as readers might take such a poetic invitation seriously is the hope that by engaging our imaginations in this way we will benefit ourselves and anything that is like us (yet different).  Education in empathy and cultivation of compassion come from seeing myself as if I were you (not me).  The poet invites me to practice this art by identifying with him or her for a moment, through the music and imagery of the proffered poem. Reading a lyric poem is a practice of seeing possibilities embodied in another.  And this requires us to suspend our usual assumptions in order to appreciate the poet’s gift of a prompt that will allow us to “overhear” his or her conversation of self with its soul . . . a contemplation that suggests to us exercises in altered ways of being in the world, ones we may not yet thought of or considered in serious detail before.

Of course, my willingness to make this substitution that erases myself momentarily and elevates you as my consciousness (my thinking and feeling) and my conscience (my meaning-making and my valuing) will depend on my respect for and trust in you as my poet.  There is no poetics without an ethics.  And so my view of you as medium or facilitator – your character and identity, your personality, your voice that calls to me — matters greatly to my risk-taking.

I must consider, based on what I’m reading in the poem, whether to trust you the poet and your suggestions.  A “medium” of my possibilities must in some sense be a representative human being rather than an exclusively unique individual.  The true poet offers us such an invitation (as testimony of personal experience) to consider our shared humanity (regarded at the same time under our differences).  Lyric cento is testimony, not self-exposure.

If the poet is offering readers an opportunity to consider suggestions rather than running naked through literary streets, then the poet is not selfishly forcing us to watch some display — some self-humiliation or self-aggrandizement. And if this is the case then the centonist is not assuming a posture of authority – asserting or imposing some universal truths on us — but rather is risking his or her own authenticity and dignity for our sake.  When in the context of a poem I assert that “truth is beauty; beauty is truth (and that is all you’ll need to know)” I am not literally asserting something.  I am metaphorically suggesting something for you to consider, not so much for its truth value as for its potential to edify.  It is an offer to respond. The possibility of seeing yourself anew by seeing yourself as if you were someone else (with different identity, character, and personality) is the greatest gift we can ever receive. Tell me what could be better?  For survival.  For beauty.  For goodness. Nothing could be more nourishing. Of course, the possibility of seeing ourselves as someone else creates a responsibility to recognize their selves as equally valuable . . . as having intrinsic value to themselves s (as ends for themselves, possessing more than instrumental value to anyone else).

So the “I do this / I do that” sort of content in a lyric poem is an open field in which a reader may introject new meaning and value, may transfigure him or her self.  All because my kitchen is your kitchen.  My quilts, are your quilts.  And so the patient, careful reader extends the process of transfiguration, “ringing the changes” on human personhood, by responding to the lyric invitation to change genders and races and economic circumstances, or change religions and political ideologies, or sexual orientations and physical abilities, or change appearances and nationalities . . . any of the locations of the ‘I’. On and on, the variations on identity and character are rung.  How many times, in how many ways, can I re-read your poem to my benefit?  The possible metaphoric transformations of selves are endless.  But they must start somewhere; they must be prompted.  Hence the poem.

The poet who approaches us with a living poem is saying: “I will share my experience with you in a voice I’ve composed out of those of others — ones that sound similar and different than yours.  And I will at the same time risk my credibility in this self-expression, risk that you might misunderstand my invitation as self-exposure – rather than an invitation to see yourself otherwise than as who you are — with the hope that this exercise leads to attribution of new value and meaning to others and yourself . . . that it will lead you to a new intimacy and distance within yourself that facilitates your understanding and empathy, and caring for others  . . . that will lead you to graciousness — recognition and mercy.”  To offer this gift with natural eloquence and grace – with true humility — is art.

And so the personal voice of the lyric cento poem is a public one, as much as it is a private one; it is a political voice as much as it is domestic.  Because the personal is political.  In any case, we know the lyrical self is certainly not a solipsist or an exhibitionist.

The lyric poet offers a service to others – offers us possibilities, the foundation of our freedom, and the dignity that derives from that freedom.  The poet is not an expert healer or fixer; the reader is not treated as weak or broken.  Poetry is a work of imagination, not direct therapy.  As tailor or seamstress the poet is a humble worker with a trade — and is proud of his or her art and craft.  Service is a work among equals. It has an ethic of hospitality.  The reward for the poet is gratitude not satisfaction.  Gratitude for having been listened to and having the chance to listen in return . . . gratitude for real connection, and recognition of the care and insight brought to the craft and art of poetry . . . for the patient cutting and fine stitching . . . the fitting and re-fitting.

For the reader (or the writer) to refuse the invitation to consider alternative ways of being in the world is to mistreat others by care less ness.  It is a sin of omission; it can harm others.  Because we are part of each other, not merely connected, we must be responsive to each other; we are responsible to and for each other. Poetry cultivates our humanity.  The problem of modern poetry is not the self, but our conception of the self.  A new consciousness of our composite and shared nature — our borrowed nature — may permit us to break ties with short-sighted ideologies that drive us to diminish and destroy each other.  A poetry of a well-centered but barely-bounded, a bundled and centered, self is the best chance we have for extending and expanding our humanity.

It is not authority of the self but its authenticity that is at stake today.  Authenticity requires acknowledging our interdependent and interpenetrated nature.  Our porous skin. We are not guaranteed a coherent integrated and consistent self.  Authenticity is an achievement, not an inevitability.  Acknowledging that the “stand-alone self” is an illusion should change our strategies for overcoming frustration and fear.  By denying the illusion we will avoid being outsiders to each other.  We can not be immune to the influences that will contaminate us.  We are internal to the integrity of each other.   We are conversations.  My dismissal of you as part of myself would diminish me, as it diminishes you.  I may pretend to be original; but I will, thereby, fail to be authentic. And I will fall out of fellowship with you.  If I hate you as a part of me, I hate myself.  But when I practice cento I am more likely to heal “my” self than to attack the self that “belongs” to you.  The quilted voice is a more gentle and peace-loving voice in the long-run.  The voice of quilted patches implies that injustice to any voice is injustice for all voices.  Solidarity with your voice is solidarity with mine; or it is no solidarity at all.  And vice versa.  Pray that the arc of human culture bends steadily toward recognition of multivocality and practice of social justice.

So much for the active reader and the symphonic self.  Next we will see that some hyper-sensitive aesthetes are wrong to avoid thinking about cento because they (mistakenly) think it merely concerns style, and engages nothing of real substance.   And we will descry those who, without thinking carefully about cento, dismiss it as plagiarism rather than embrace it as a form of collaboration.  But in order to address these concerns we will need to move beyond the psychology and politics of writing and reading into the realm of ethics and the philosophical questions of our day.

Oneself as Another: recognition

Some forms of individualism – forms of the lyrical eye — destroy the conditions of authenticity; they destroy the horizon of significance against which judgments of shareable-value can be made.  A background social ecology of already-shared value-concerns and meaning-strategies is necessary to a functional foreground of “individual” design work.  This background is not some metaphysically fixed horizon of significance but is a historically built watershed in which we find resource, and a foil for designing our lives as beautiful or interesting works of art.

Our design-choices have meaning and value within a habitat of meaning and value; designs make sense by reducing randomness.  A voice must be constituted, developed and maintained within the constraints of our shared task of designing humanness out of meat and bones.  Of actualizing potentialities of our species-being.  And so our judgments must occur within a context of large concerns and questions of the day.  Attempts at self-development are self-defeating without such a habitat and dwelling place.

The key moral concept behind the practice of cento, is therefore, ‘recognition’.  If you attempt to design yourself as an artwork as if others weren’t engaged in a similar project making use of shared resources (each other), how can you be confident without some confirmation by others who are similar to (as well as different from) you that your work is meaningful?  That your voice is worthy? What kind of value can you claim for yourself? You cannot by yourself validate your various values beyond some shadow of a doubt (other than asserting the basic value of having the right to be an end for oneself).  Even our privacy and introspection have meaning and value only in a rich and engaging public setting.

Private claims about the value of things (other than the self-assertion of intrinsic value) fail when not negotiated with others – with our history and with nature.   No one flourishes apart from the excitements and demands of solidarity.  Most private claims to oneself about oneself are shaky.

Super-individualistic versions of the self (like John Locke’s) spawn ideas of authenticity that are corrupted (like Heidegger’s) where interpersonal associations and communities become merely instrumental to personal expressions and their significance.  This makes for very thin ties among individuals and very weak political and economic commitments (to others).  Relationships become secondary to personal self-realization.  The super-individualistic project is not only not sustainable and not universalizable; it is a non-starter.  Self-authorship would require impossible conjuring — making something out of nothing. But we are already composed.  We are already relationships.  We must not deceive ourselves.  Nothing grand or humble, nothing mature or adolescent, nothing beautiful or ugly can be developed on self-deception. We are made of each other.  Given the reality of our construction, our relationships have as much intrinsic value as does our individuality. Relationships exist to reproduce better relationships (not to produce entities sheared of relationships and their attendant responsibilities).

Sufficient-autonomy and responsible-authenticity require us only to be majority shareholders, not exclusive owners, of ourselves.  We have a stake in access to the resources out of which we unavoidably must composed ourselves.  We are moral resources to each other.  From a moral point of view we are equal resources to each other.  But do we acknowledge this?  Could we possibly have some right to exclude others from influence on our lives? Or a right to deny this claim on our lives?  No; because something impossible cannot morally be required of us.  There are no stand-alone persons in the world. We cannot birth ourselves, nor care for ourselves in ways that support our development.  We cannot work or play or love alone. When we work with pre-existing art-forms we are not asexually birthing the design of our poems any more than we are their material or style.  We always borrow the material and negotiate the form and style of our artworks.  We are mutually, reciprocally made.

Minimally, borrowing from someone is justified if it does not supplant or destroy, diminish, or demean that person and his or her interests; borrowing from someone must leave them whole and must preserve their sufficiently-separate existence, health, and integrity and leave them as modest agents of their fate.  The morality of borrowing, of course, goes further; it goes all the way over to our duties of respecting those sources of our selves as if they are ends-for-themselves while at the same time being grateful they are in fact also means to our own ends (since we have no choice but to use each other).  After a life of borrowing, may we one day be honored by the borrowing of others.  Life is a potlatch.  Praise be the gift.  Rejoice the presence of the giver in your life. And be a grateful receiver of gifts.

*   *   *

Metaphor (analogical reasoning) is the mechanism of borrowing these possibilities from each other.  As metaphors, we borrow each other. The tenor and vehicle of metaphors work to borrow features of one thing to explain and value another.  “Juliet is the sun : the sun is Juliet.”  [In what ways?] We are metaphors of each other not so much when we trade external places but when we switch internal identities.  We borrow from an Other the ingredients (not just the circumstances) of our Selves. 

We borrow each other; we have no choice.  In order to treat another as you would have yourself be treated, you must first be able to imagine yourself as the other (because you’ll need to know how they would want to be treated — as a check against how you might already think they should be treated).  And since they are metaphors in exactly the same way you are, and for the same reasons, you have a moral right to expect them to try and imagine you as yourself instead of as themselves.  Because we are metaphorical beings we are moral beings.  Because we are capable of seeing (at the same time) similarities and differences in our nature and condition, we are responsible for treating each other equally (though not uniformly).  And finally, we each are responsible not only for deciding how to regard others in relationship to ourselves, but also how we should regard our own selves. We must decide what metaphors to live by; what company we will keep. We must decide who we will be.  What kind of relationships to establish, or recognize, or maintain.

So, ‘doing no harm’ and ‘reciprocating fairness and kindness’ are not the only concepts involved in the morality of borrowing each other.  We must also acknowledge, at least in a generic way, that we borrow our life from others — our voices and our poems.  We must offer recognition. We must admit that we are cento.  Our shared “ownership” of voices casts a different light on our poems.  How can you steal something that you jointly own with others?  What does “own” mean when everyone is made of everyone else? There can be no absolute right to private property if there cannot possibly be absolutely-private property in the first place.

*   *   *

As we will see, making a point out the separation of originality and authenticity (as the basis of “personal” author-ity) is morally necessary in order to avoid the hubris of pretending to be a thickly-bounded, self-sufficient, completely self-defining person that is a pure private property to itself.  [And a genius to boot!] We are morally responsible through our relational-self to and for the relations we’re involved in. This is an ecological responsibility: Don’t treat other shareholders to yourself in ways you wouldn’t want them to treat you (as if they had no stake in your existence and identity, your voice and character).  We must not only avoid harming the sources of our selves; we must initiate helping them — acknowledging their stake in our life and work.  Withholding recognition, withholding validation, of the role and value of others in our lives can inflict damage on them for life. We are lovable creatures vulnerable to negligence and rejection.  Our low self-esteem triggered by others’ hubris or fear would diminish our lives.  We must actively support the self-esteem of those of whom we are composed. We are responsible not only to and for ourselves; we are also responsible to and for others.  Acknowledging that my voice of concern is made out of yours becomes a fundamental requirement of moral recognition.

And so, cultivating our humanity lies in our regarding Our self as an Other’s self.  Such gardening can happen only as a seriously playful, metaphorical engagement with our shared nature and culture. Seeing oneself as another.  Trading places. The moral authority of the authorial self does not consist in giving advice or setting an example, since the lyric poem is an invitation not a pronouncement (even when it makes statements).  Lyric poetry is an invitation to trade places with another, to live a moment in another’s life in order to see one’s own life that much better.  The lyric poem, whether cento or not, does not offer examples.  The lyric poem is constitutive, not illustrative.  It is an invitation to see your Self otherwise.  The offer to trade places does not presume the author’s voice is authoritative or superior; it is simply different, and in that it provides a test of reader’s own self.  Resistance to an invitation to trade places in imagination is a rejection of informed responsibility for others’ lives; it is willfully to make oneself ignorant of one’s relationship to the need and pain of others.  To not buy-up a proffered invitation to know more about one’s own view of the world, one’s relationships with the world, is to willfully be irresponsible.  Entering a poem by temporarily suspending one’s self and hypothetically adopting the self of an Other is to risk that one might be re-constituted,  fundamentally, as a consequence (for the better).

*   *   *

There is a cluster of practices that characterize our current age and its culture — ingredients that are not well defined or differentiated.  And this vagueness confuses us; it tempts us to focus on one ingredient at the expense of others — so much so that we become extremists and lose our balance, stumble, and fall (although, because of our blinders we won’t realize we are falling).   We get so obsessed with the worth of individuals, for instance, that we lose sight of the value of relationships.  Or we start to conflate creativity with originality, instead of connecting it to authenticity.  Or we resist and waste the power of our own imagination.

We end up living in a pretend world, a non-functional world, made of only individual difference – identity and personality – as if differences could be unsponsored by our shared humanity.  This is not only dysfunctional, it is a dishonest understanding of our selves.  For our pursuits of happiness, meaningfulness, and actualization are not really private projects (no matter what we wish).  They are social work.

With the pretension of self-sufficiency (“the self-made person”) we end up in a fantasy world that is not functional, because it is populated with non-existent “original” “geniuses,” magically inventive, making all things new . . . trying to make artworks of lives as if out of nothing . . . as if nothing can give rise to anything.  This is not only crazy, it is dishonest; and it is dangerous.  No one invents themselves out of thin air.  [Perhaps we design ourselves out of ingredients at hand.  But that’s a different story.]

We lose the horizon of value which our social habitat can provide us when we deceive ourselves into believing we are self-generating, self-validating, self-sufficient when in fact we borrow the ingredients of our humanity and simply re-configure them.  Which is not to say that we shouldn’t also consider reorganizing the horizon of the arrangements we inherit. But we are agents of design, not of invention.  We are not originators. We cannot privately invent our selves any more than we can privately invent a voice.  We are negotiated beings; we negotiate our poems into voice.  We are centoists whether we like it or not. We do not magically invent language, ideas, feelings — poems out of nothing — simply by snapping our fingers.  [What would be the “origin” of that finger snapping?] 

Generically each of us has the possibility and right to become partly non-generic. To have style.  To be a personality. We have the right to appropriate and reconfigure ingredients available in our culture in pursuit of a distinctive (if not unique) way of cultivating our shared humanity.  If we were exclusively and completely identical there would be nothing to motivate our metaphorical nature . . . our moral being . . . nothing significantly similar and sufficiently different. We deceive ourselves if we think we invent ourselves out of whole cloth, and invent the cloth to boot.  We can and should develop our capacities for humanness, including our generic capacity to become (partly) non-generic.  But this task is not a strictly private one; it is not a project of absolute self-invention and brash self-validation.  Self-authorship is not univocal; and cento acknowledges this.

If you were in fact to become a genuine origin of something, you would need to make something out of nothing-but-yourself.  This is impossible.  No one makes themself by fiat – whether biologically or culturally — out of nothing.  So you, me (any of us) are not strictly speaking Origins.  To call our actions and self-development “original” or call our art work “original” is a lie.  And as a label for our ignorance, the term “original” (meaning “I really have no idea how this came to be”) is not capable of acting as a regulative ideal for our aspirations.  So, we must define “originality” and “authenticity” in reference to individuals in their relations.  We cannot really avoid asking: What is an authentic relationship?  And: How does it express itself? Cento is one way of accomplishing authentic relationships.

As an alternative to calling ourselves “geniuses” we can admit to striving to become “authentic.”  This is a real possibility to which humans can aspire (although a genuinely authentic person would hesitate to claim the accomplished virtue).  And here it is important to note; authenticity is a moral ideal — not merely an aesthetic one — for a poet or poem.  An authentic person is “true to his or her self” (whatever “true” means here; and whatever “self” might mean: is it the “borrowed and bundled” or the “self-sufficient and unitary” self?)

The form of individualism that believes personal liberty and private property are the only values worth acquiring and protecting ignores the reality and value of social relations and the sharing of resources.  The form of individualism common in the present age is a distorted mess; it is one that regards the self as thick skinned and its resources as strictly private.  There are no real friendships or shareholding involved in such selves and lives.  There is little sense of community or shared fate.  The pleasures of caring about/for/with others are dim.  It is out of fear that we put all our eggs in one basket (and opt for a form of liberty and property that excludes equality and solidarity). 

If we are authentic — “true to our selves” – we must not only be consistent with our principles and values and goals; we must also be accountable for the ingredients we’ve chosen to work with in the first place . . .  and for the process of selecting and re-configuring and for stitching things back together with style.  There are ethical constraints on our aesthetic activity.  We are responsible for our designing voice, not for inventing our materials.  We are responsible for the ends (the values) for which we compose.  We are responsible for the means (the process of negotiating) by which we borrow from each other and present ourselves.  But we are not magical metaphysicians who can make something out of nothing.  We cannot be responsible for something that is impossible.  We cannot invent the ingredients of our lives; we can only re-cycle and re-configure them.  There are no alchemists.  We are all chemists.

In short, we have not only a Kantian duty of accountability for oneself to others and to our self (respect); we also have a Levinasian duty for ensuring the quality of each others’ lives, our care-giving for each other.  What does it mean for a shared self to take responsibility not only for its shared self but also for the shared-selves of others? This is a radical ethical and aesthetic responsibility (constraint).  We are shareholders holding ourselves accountable to and responsible for each other.  We are chorus members being accountable to and responsible for the whole choir.  Responsible for the music.  We are quilters gathered around a single loom.

A poet’s voice is a shared voice (whether we like it or not).  In labeling a work as cento, the poet becomes accountable to and responsible for the community of poets, their readers and critics.  This acknowledging is the behavior and intention of an authentically individuated poet; it is not the orientation of one who pretends to be an original stand-alone self and aspires to be a genius (whatever that could mean).

  *   *   *

So.  How did we get to where we are today?  How did we arrive at an overly bounded, overly differentiated form of individualism, devoted to magical originality instead of moral authenticity?

Augustine recognized that the individual could have an interior voice that spoke to the self from the soul (Confessions)

Descartes claimed that the individual mind could think by itself about the self’s reflections in a skeptical way (Meditations)

Locke asserted that the individual could be a political actor by itself with natural rights because the Self is a form of private property (Second Treatise on Government)

Kant saw that the individual has a duty to think for itself even if that required great courage (On Enlightenment)

Rousseau recognized that the individual could have its integrity distorted by being fearfully dependent upon those with more power (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality)

Marx discovered that economic dependence underlies an individual’s political dependence (Manifesto)

Herder recognized that individuals generically need to develop a non-generic identity and personality in order to combat dependency on others (Critical Forests)

Hegel saw that differences in style of being a person were just as morally significant as the shared humanity that Kant had recognized (Phenomenology of Spirit)

Freud discovered that the individual has a self that constructs a sub-consciousness shaped by the discontent of its inherited civilization (Civilization and Its Discontents)

Mill recognized that individuals have a moral right (and therefore should have a civil right) to recognition of their unique identities (On Liberty)

Nietzsche claimed that the one thing needful is that each individual find his or her own way to give expressive style their character and thereby overcome ordinariness; everyone should aspire to be an avant garde poet; the interesting should replace the beautiful as an ideal of style (The Gay Science)

Schiller claimed that proof of one’s individuality is originality – the Self inventing itself  by itself (Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man)

Heidegger said that the only adequate relation to freedom in an individual human being is the self-freeing of its freedom (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics)

Shelley claimed that proof of self origination is the production of an original artwork     (A Defense of Poetry)

And thus we entered the present age confused – self-deceived and dysfunctional.  Individualism became magical originality.  While authenticity faded into a thick fog.

Cento is one way to address the confusion, dishonesty, and dysfunction of our time.  We need to speak with one another through each other.  And listen with each other’s ears. We must voice our self as another’s.  There is no deeper metaphor.  Or truth.

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