Sunday, October 9, 2011

Epistolary Review: The Cento, A Collection of Collage Poems (Red Hen Press 2011)

Dear R.,


Look, our first anthology review!  Somehow, it seems appropriate that The Cento, A Collection of Collage Poems, edited by Theresa Malphrus Welford, should find its way to us. I mean that our current cultural moment seems to me incredibly ripe for a survey of the poetic form called the cento, which (to use the loosest definition possible) is essentially a poem composed out of found text--whether advertisements or bits of other poems or whatever else strikes your fancy. (Pound's Cantos might be retroactively classified under this rubric.) In an age of sampling, remixes, & Flarf, the renaissance of the cento, a form that dates, one way or another, at least to ancient Greece, is oddly apt. The possibilities of this kind of poetic collage are dizzying, which I mean partly as a compliment & partly an expression of misgiving. On one hand, collage poems have the potential to recontextualize the familiar in startling & productive ways (a poet friend of mine considers cento the only responsible way to write political poetry); on the other, they can often come off as a kind of clumsy, involuted pastiche. There are poems of both kinds in The Cento. 


The experience of reading the anthology is rather like listening to the entire canon of Girl Talk albums in succession--you're consistently pleased & astonished by the range of quotations & the kinds of uses to which they're put. & yet, to read the entire thing at once is to experience, by the end, a kind of deadening, a resistance to cleverly repurposed language that each successive poem has to work harder to overcome. (To be fair, any anthology based around a single formal strategy would probably suffer from this problem.) A casual reader--one dipping into the anthology at random rather than reading the whole thing in a sitting--might have the right idea about how to approach this book--as a sampler of the sampled. I rather like the idea that an anthology of centos would require a reading practice that recapitulates, in some way, the process of composition. 


Although the cento is nominally a singular form, what's apparent here is that, within the parameters of "collage," a multitude of variations are possible. Poems like L.N. Allen's "Robot Woman" sample from newspaper advertisements & other perennials from the world of mass print culture: "It cleans. It softens. What's not to love?" (31). Meanwhile, poems like R.S. Gwynn's "Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry" draw from the work of canonical literary figures: 


Downward to darkness on extended wings,
Break, break, break, on thy cold gray stones, O sea,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings. 
I do not think that they will sing to me. (116)


This anthology gives the impression, too, that the cento is a form surprisingly open to mixture with other more rigid forms like villanelles, sestinas, sonnets, & pantoums, all of which make appearances here. Catherine Chandler-Oliveira's "The Bard," for example, is a sestina entirely composed of lines from Shakespeare ending in "away," "right," "to," "day," "night," & "true." One of the most straightforward remixes in the collection, this poem uses the relative consistency of Shakespeare's meter to advantage. Other poems in the collection also employ conspicuously metered lines--not at all fashionable these days--to give the impression of unity where there is, in fact, multiplicity. There are several poems based on the work of Emily Dickinson--Mary Moore's "Emily, Walking," to name one--that rely on her insistent ballad meters for their effects: 


This Me- that walks and works--must die,
The great exchange of clime--
A darting fear--a pomp--a tear--
And the Surrender--Mine-- (171)


On the whole, The Cento is an excellent place to begin exploring the landscape of collage poetry. However, for all the collection's attempts at inclusion, it is only a beginning--selective & not comprehensive. That is, it cannot be comprehensive. In a climate in which centos of one variety or another seem to be proliferating with unimaginable speed, this anthology cannot (& does not) claim to represent every species & subspecies. It does, however, mark for us a trend; it tells us a little (as any good anthology does) about the kind of poetry we are attracted to just now, about the kind of poetry we think we need. For example, some person or another might find useful the sentiments expressed in Philip Dacey's "Patchwork Sonnet of Friends' Complimentary Closes" (74), which I quote here in its entirety: 



Riches, poverty, solitude, friendship.
Gold and potatoes. Visitations. Wings.
Peace, power, love, luck, cheers, and a safe trip.
May a thousand flowers bloom! All good things.
Salubrious catastrophes. Clarity.
Luego. Zdravo. Sayonara. Shalom.
Health, rage, and macadamia nuts. Let it be.
Yours till Reaganomics works. Hurry home.
Cherish folly. Seize that carp. Unscrew
the inscrutable. Hugs and slugs. Keep on. Adieu.
Hoka hey. Tra la. Adios. Hidee ho.
Mutter spiffy. Write. Tell me what you know.
Salt in your blood and wine in your glass. Ciao.
Take it easy but take it. Bye for now [,]


(r)

***

Dear (r),

Your virtual letter has languished on my proverbial shelf for weeks!  You see, although I quite admire this anthology--its timeliness, its commitment to light verse, its dual senses of purpose and play--I've always found myself a bit uncomfortable around the cento, rather like a cat person who pats the mastiff's head too gingerly, or a labrador aficionado who, in good humor, shakes the cat.


Recently, one of my students gave a presentation about the cento.  Having received permission to cite the ensuing discussion here, I listened in as my students characterized the form, on the one hand, as "lazy," and, on the other, as holding "huge potential for meaning," kind of like a poetic Swiss Army Knife folding the possibilities of twenty poems into one.  Like you, dear (r), my students referenced mashup music even as they discussed the form's ancient origins, wondering aloud whether it wouldn't be more fun to write a poem "not from concentrate."


There are forms, dear (r), of comfort and discomfort.  The cento is a form of comfort, the lifted text like a borrowed scarf.  Perhaps in this way it both is and is not about the fun of invention.  


Yours having faced my fear of the cento, and yours in less triumphant moments also,
R