Unshackling the unconscious: reflection on writing a cento and the I Ching.

In my creative writing class we recently did an exercise writing a cento. This is a poem made up from lines taken from other poets existing work, each line is taken from a different poet and the final product should make sense. Cento is Latin for patchwork and centos are sometimes called collage poems. Early examples were written by Homer and Virgil.

We used anthologies in the exercise. We were asked to choose our first line carefully as it will constrain your subsequent lines as you look for a topic or theme to emerge. The first line will have some appeal, perhaps resonates with a mood or a specific theme. Subsequent choices will be complementary in some way and the meaning of the poem, the objective, will crystallise. The lines are written down and re-ordered. Some minor modifications can be made, only a few words, to bring the tense into line or the gender of a protagonist.

The meaning has developed by the author/compiler and is given its full form in the reordering. Like in all poetry, readers will sense and fill in gaps with speculation and interpretation. The meaning of the poem will be constructed, forged or to some extent disinterred by the reader. It is what it comes to mean to him or her. Theirs may or may not be congruent with the meaning for the poet. It will depend on the mood, temperament, knowledge and experience of the reader. The poem will evoke images and feelings, immediate images and meanings but also others that are provoked to emerge from deeper levels of the unconscious mind and memory.

This process reminded me of the way the I Ching oracle works. It dated back at least two and a half millennia and uses a manuscript called The Book of Changes and a series of commentaries called the Ten Wings written and compiled by Chinese Confucian savants and philosophers. Traditionally yarrow sticks are thrown in the air and the resulting pattern is unpicked and interpreted. In modern times three coins are thrown multiple times to achieve the same end, to construct a series of six lines that form a hexagram which, on consultation in the book, will give you the answer to the question you were asking of the oracle and kept in mind while going through the process of constructing the hexagram.

Generally you do not use the oracle to ask yes/no questions. The interpretation and commentaries on the hexagrams are very abstract and do not offer you any truths. What seems to happen is that in the exercise of trying to apply the statement to your question you start to unpick the possible answers against a clearer idea of what the uncertainties and other factors are. It is your own knowledge, emotions and experience you are drawing on. You construct your own understanding and narrative account of the question, the meaning of the question, the factors and uncertainties that surround it and evaluation of various alternative approaches.

It occurs to me that something like this can be used to think about questions and make decisions regarding any situation where you are trying to construct a plausible and coherent narrative. The questions pose to the oracle could be about imaginary characters you are inventing for a story line, or situations you wish to develop and possibly resolve in the story. The I Ching could be used as a story generator or at least something to have a conversation with (although in practice the conversation is with yourself) about aspects of your writing.

This is the poem I produced in class. We were given about 20 minutes to complete the exercise.

I’m drawn to these places; already feel I belong,
It goes so deep, the anger and unspoken stories.

Through the night when we had nearly let go
We created a desert and called it peace.

When women howled in the street, men ran from their doors,
Brown, nude and stumbling, in the heat of death.

Malene Englelund. The Terns
David Harsent. Fire: End Scenes And Outtakes
Kirsten Irving. No Fish Are We Now
Sam Willetts. Caravagio

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