Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Manchester Metropolitan University's online course, How To Make A Poem. Join the course to learn more.

Making a poem out of a poem

In this step, we will be using the resources we have been exploring to create a short poem or couplet. A couplet is two lines of poetry. A couplet can, but doesn’t have to rhyme. The type of poem we are going to make is called a cento. As you might be able to tell from the name, cento is from the Latin and it is an ancient form. A cento is normally longer than a couplet. For the sake of this exercise, a couplet is the shortest cento it is possible to make.

Here’s why: a cento is a poem that is made from lines of other poems. It is a poetic collage. A one-line cento doesn’t exist. It would just be a quotation from a poem. Let’s look at an example taking a poem from each of one of our own poets: Helen’s ‘Scale’[1] and Michael’s ‘Mapping the Genome’.[2] Both can be found on the Poetry Foundation website (below). Because we are quoting only one line at a time, we are not infringing copyright. The poems are very different from each other. Another reader would make something completely different. One image that stands out in Michael’s poem is that of ‘tidy faded rooms with TVs on’. This is so far just a line from a poem, until we take a line from Helen’s poem. A line like ‘enough feathers for sixty pillows’ might go well because the ‘pillows’ draw on the same homely set of words as ‘rooms’ and ‘TVs’. Together they look like this:

tidy faded rooms with TVs on
enough feathers for sixty pillows

This is a cento. It may not make sense! It may not even be a complete poem. Yet there is a clear joining up of images here. For more information on centos and some examples of famous centos see the links below.

Now it’s your turn. Choose two poems. Why not use the poems you already have? Your favourite poem and the new one from the previous exercises. Now, read them again and see if any line jumps out at you. Then read the next poem and see if you find a line that works together with the other. Put them together and you have your couplet!

Now copy the poem into the discussion. Please make sure you credit each line. Give the name of the poet, the poem and the source (i.e. copy and paste the weblink). It would also be great to hear the thinking behind your poem. Why did you choose these two lines? Was the exercise difficult? Do you think it was successful? What about everyone else’s?

Remember the cento doesn’t have to make sense. At least not in a logical way. It can be absurd, surreal, sad, bittersweet, meditative…the list is endless. Let yourself be surprised.


[1] Scale by Helen Mort [Internet]. Poetry Foundation. 2018 [cited 29 March 2018]. Available from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58576/scale-56d23d13c6214

[2] Mapping the Genome by Michael Symmons Roberts [Internet]. Poetry Foundation. 2018 [cited 29 March 2018]. Available from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/41869/mapping-the-genome

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

How To Make A Poem

Manchester Metropolitan University

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: