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Making Retrieval English-y: Retrieval and the Poetic Cento

We often think very carefully about what material we want students to retrieve, but of equal importance is how they retrieve it. As with much of teaching, this ‘how’ is probably best filtered through the lens of subject specificity, triangulated of course with the underpinning science of how we learn. Yet, the mechanism by which we ask students to retrieve something is very likely to be different in, say, Chemistry than it is in English.

If we take the example of gap fill exercises or quizzes (what’s the missing word from this quotation), there can be a lot of value in these. But, this is only one variety of retrieval and probably, for English at least, not always the most useful. Why? The kind of retrieval we want to place a high premium is not just factual recall of specific lines of poetry or novels, but also the patterns and connections that exist between them as well as the rehearsal of lines of argument and analysis.

I’ve written before about what such modes of retrieval might look like in the classroom such as framing Do Now as puzzles or asking students their favourite word.

This post, though, outlines another kind of English-y retrieval, not only in the way it encourages students to think about and retrieve previously studied material, but also in its poetic origins.

Before we look at how this strategy works though we need to think about the poetic form, the cento.

The Cento

From the Latin for ‘patchwork’ the cento is a kind of collage poem comprised entirely of lines of poetry from other poets. As a form, it has a long history including, for instance, Classical archetypes such as Homer and Virgil. However, perhaps the most famous modern examples would be John Ashbery’s ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’, which takes its name from Edward Lear’s poem of the same name.

Ashbery’s poem is comprised of 39 lines, all of which are taken from various poems and poets. This includes figures such as Byron, Hopkins, Eliot, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Arnold, Marlowe, nursery rhymes, Sitwell, Swift, folk songs, and various others. The lines are carefully chosen and sequenced to construct out of this poetic quarry a new verse sculpture.

I encountered this poem via Marianne Moore, who is perhaps one of the great collage poets whilst looking at modernist collage practices. But, it got me thinking about repurposing the basic premise of a cento into a kind of retrieval.

The Cento as Retrieval

There are a few ways we might use this idea of the cento as a kind of retrieval. Here are just a few.

Idea No. 1: Rearrange Lines

Begin with a selection of images from across different poems you have studied. This might just be a table format in a PPT or maybe mini-index cards arranged under a visualiser.

You ask students to rearrange these varied lines into some kind of cohesive sequence, just like a cento. However, the key idea, here, is that there has to be a rationale to how they are arranged. It’s can’t just be random. So, perhaps the student rearranges them according to some kind of thematic patterning or maybe according to the imagery being used.

Having had time to think about and rearrange the lines into a new text, governed by some kind of principle, you could then ask students to share their version along with the decisions they made to put them in that specific order. Given all students are using the same images, this could generate some really rich exploration of the kind of ideas that were supplanted on top of the lines and how this differed from student to student.

What is being retrieved and rehearsed here is not recall of the lines themselves (which are of course supplied) but rather ways of thinking about these images and the kinds of connections that might exist across a given anthology or volume.

Idea No. 2: A New Poem

This idea is similar to the above, but a little trickier as this time we don’t supply the lines. The basic principle is the same though: students create out of studied poems a new poem governed by some kind of schematic. Whilst we don’t disclose the images themselves, we can scaffold and prompt the schematic.

We might for example specify what the governing principle is, perhaps images related to positive parental relationships or images that evoke transience of time. Or, we could specify the poems from which we wants lines taken: Walking Away followed by Before You Were Mine followed by Mother, Any Distance, etc. This helps students because they can then focus on trying to retrieve the most appropriate line or image rather than also deciding which poems or ideas to use.

In this manner, then, this exercise is the complementary version of (1): whereas (1) requires retrieval of lines of argument but not the images themselves, this one requires retrieval of specific images but not how they might be connected. That said, students still have to decide which specific lines to use and the angle they wish to pursue.

In many ways, this allows us to be a little more granular. If, for example, we have just studied Mother Any Distance, Walking Away and Winter Swans we could specify our cento should be explore troubled relationships and images have to be taken from only these three. This allows students to revisit key images from these texts as well as rehearse connections between them.

As always, it’s great to share a couple of these new poems with the wider class and to probe the specific choices students made and why.

Idea No. 3: The True Cento Experience

Of course, depending on the class and how well they know the texts you could just set them the task of curating a new poem out of the studied ones without any further guidance. A true cento. They then decide the specific lines to use, their sequence, and the governing pattern that dictates the sequence. This could be done without access to the anthology/volume (and so purely based on what students can recall) or with anthologies (placing full emphasis on thinking generatively about how different poems connect together).

Again, this is a great way to encourage students to revisit previously studied poems in new ways, excavating out of these poems lines and images that resonated as well as the thematic patterns that seem to cut across them. However, I wouldn’t use this version with classes until I was confident they knew the poems really well. It perhaps works best as an end of course revision task to pull together various strands and poems.

Idea No. 4: A Readymade Cento

This one presents students with an already made cento excavated out of whichever studied anthology/volume you are looking at. You could even repurpose some of the ones created from past students (with their permission).

There are a couple of ways to use this. First, it could come after you’ve already studied the anthology or a specific sequence of poems. You might then ask them to identify the poems/writers from which each line is taken. Or, the context of the line: what is happening at that point in the poem? You might also ask them to comment on these lines analytically. However, you could also take a macro view and ask them why they think the lines have been placed in this sequence or what patterns they notice based on what they already know about these texts. This is a great way to help students begin to grapple with overarching thematic concerns within a given anthology and which lines seem to fit together.

However, another way to use this same idea is to frontload an encounter with a new text. You might, for instance, show them this readymade cento before studying any poems in the anthology. You would explain this poem is comprised of potentially important lines from some of the poems we are about to study. From this, students could be asked to comment on and think about what they notice. What kind of ideas do they expect they will encounter in this anthology, based on this cento? What attitudes or tones or kinds of speakers do they notice? This can be a really interesting way to set out the thematic and imagistic landscape of the whole anthology as well as highlighting, from the start, the importance of thinking about how these poems connect together.


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