A new promotional film broadcast on 26 December 2012 and featured below, used a specially commissioned poem – a cento - to celebrate BBC Two. In this post, poet Alison Chisholm explains what a cento is and why it was used in the film.


The idea of creating a poem by using lines taken from the work of other writers is a form that has been around for almost two thousand years. It probably started with the ancient Greeks, but it was the Roman dramatist Hosidius Geta who's credited with kickstarting the trend. He used lines from Virgil's great works, moulding them into his tragic verse drama Medea. Over the years, like most forms of poetry, centos have evolved through different rules and patterns, but the principle of producing a new poem from lines of published poetry persists.

The name cento comes from the Latin word for patchwork. So the poem is a collage, or a hotchpotch of lines and phrases from other pieces. It's a glorious new invention celebrating the enduring beauty of language and power of poetry.

This made the form the perfect vehicle for a new promotional film which first broadcasts on Boxing Day on BBC Two, illustrating the amazing breadth of its output and showing it as a bold, exciting and creative destination. The BBC also wanted to show the spirit of BBC Two as a place where viewers can discover new things and expand their minds, with expert presenters and recognisable faces guiding them through their journey.

Each of the 'lifted' lines and phrases should, ideally, have a resonance that's a bit different from its original purpose. The lines also need to hang together as naturally as if they had been teased into that poem from the start; they should seem an organic part of the whole rather than something just grafted on.

Constructing a cento is anything but an easy option. It's a lot simpler to start with a fresh sheet of paper and organise your own words to fill it. To write in the form requires a good eye and ear for a convincing poem, an awareness of the literary tradition from which the wording is culled, and the confidence to examine and reinterpret language in order to discover something fresh and new from the tried and loved. It makes you look twice at every word you are planning to include, thinking about its shape and sound, its alternative definitions and nuances of meaning. It may surprise you; it may shock you.

The bonus for the writer - or compiler - is that you get to spend hour upon hour reading poetry, and know that you're actually working. The frustration when it won't come right is intense. The joy when it does is amazing.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen,
But still I long to learn tales, marvellous tales,
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
How others fought to forge my world.
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What wild ecstasy?
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Step forward,
To feel the blood run through the veins and tingle
Where busy thought and blind sensation mingle.
Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late,
For we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems;
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

The BBC Two cento is comprised of lines written by the following poets: John Keats, Arthur O’ Shaughnessy, James Elroy Flecker, Walter Savage Landor, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Alison Chisholm.

Alison Chisholm is an award-winning poet who has had over 600 poems published in magazines and anthologies, eight collections published and poems broadcast by BBC Radio Network Northwest and Channel 4.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Lawrence_O

    on 28 Dec 2012 22:12

    Who is the reader in this clip? And what is the background music they chose?

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Daryl Millar

    on 28 Dec 2012 16:53

    Such a shame that they cut the best line (and most fitting for BBC2 science shows): "How far the unknown transcends the what we know."

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