Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 28, 2014

Found Poems

collage-popart1When the well of ideas dries up, I sometimes turn to “found poetry” to kick-start my creativity. A found poem, like its name suggests, is a poem “discovered” in other texts – lines re-fashioned, re-ordered, and re-imagined in a whole new package. The poets.org website compares them to the collage form in visual art, a “pastiche” that can use everything from graffiti to medical reports to recipes.

I like to have my students play with found poetry for two reasons. First, it’s easier and less intimidating than starting from a blank slate, though the final product still requires some skill. Second, if we’ve finished reading a text, I can check to see that students have a grasp on a key themes by having them assemble key lines from the text that relate to that theme.

Found poetry reviewThe Found Poetry Review – whose very existence indicates that this is a legitimate art form – notes on its website that there are 4 basic types of found poems: free-form, cento, erasure, and cut-up. Only the first one incorporates lines and phrases from a multiplicity of sources; the remaining 3 each use 1 text or 1 author only.

Free-form found poetry, which uses excerpting and mixing from a variety of sources, is the most fun, I think, and most collage-like. Your options are limitless. One poem I wrote recently was assembled after I went through the 15 books on a shelf in my dining room, opening each one at random and copying down whatever sentence my eyes fell upon.  Serendipitously, several of them seemed to suggest references to the class system, identity, and memory. One statement even mentioned “forgiving the police for their mistake.” Talk about timely!

???????????????????????????????The internet has given found poetry infinite possibilities. Writer Annie Dillard has said that “happy poets” who use this form “go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps.” Poet Nina Katchadourian, featured in this month’s Poets & Writers magazine, uses book titles to create short, haiku-like poems, laying the books spines-front in a stack. (See my attempt at right.) She created 26 of these pieces recently from books left by the estate of author William S. Burroughs.

Virgil bookThe 3 other types of found poetry are a bit more limited in scope, using either one source or one author. The cento dates back as far as the 3rd century in Greece, where poets used lines from Virgil to create new versions of his prose texts. A cento can use lines taken from several poems in a book, or starting lines of chapters, or from a collection of poems by the same author.

erasure poemThe final two types of found poetry, erasure and cut-ups, involve taking one text or even one page from a text, and either omitting all words but a few, or cherry-picking key words or phrases. A few years ago, my seniors had finished reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five when my boss decided that some of the school’s copies were in such bad shape that they needed to be tossed. I took a few of them and let the students tear out a page in order to create an erasure poem. We used markers to blot out all but a few words and phrases on each page, creating poems. They seemed to enjoy it.

cut up poemThe cut-up format, if created literally, would resemble the old ransom notes in 50s detective shows. This format was used in the “magnetic poetry” series that Barnes and Noble used to sell, where you’d get a little box full of individual words on magnets to stick on your refrigerator and assemble into poems.

andy-warhol-with-soup-can-paintingFound poetry may seem like plagiarism, but unless long lines of text are used in context, the found poet is creating something entirely new and is therefore not plagiarizing. No citing of sources is needed if the poet only takes a line or two from any one source.

Just as the Dadaists and Andy Warhol argued that anything can be art, found poets are illustrating that any words can be poems. Even the estimable Howard Nemerov once created a poem from a newspaper article, which he called “Found Poem.” (You can easily find it online.) Two other well-known found poets working today are David Antin and Charles Reznikoff.

(Erasure poem above by Mike Smith; Cut-up poem by Gypsealegs)


Responses

  1. […] Found Poetry: This is a method of writing poetry where you begin with a text that’s already written, like a page out of a book (photocopied in most cases). By cutting words from that text or marking out everything but a few words, students can uncover some pretty fantastic poetry. Here’s an example from the blog of poet Kate Hutchinson. […]

  2. I appreciate the ping, Jennifer Gonzalez! Your website is a wonderful resource for teachers, and I’m happy you found my post helpful.


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