Friday, April 20

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, April 20, 2012 10 comments
Every writer cobbles personal experiences with cultural influences and imagination. To write is to borrow. Today, as part of my National Poetry Month series, I'd like to look at a genre that unapologetically makes borrowing its raison d'ĂȘtre [reason for being, a very handy French phrase when you want to sound cosmopolitan :-)].

Found Poetry, as the Wikipedia article defines it, is "a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning. The resulting poem can be defined as either treated: changed in a profound and systematic manner; or untreated: virtually unchanged from the order, syntax and meaning of the original."

 Found poems, in other words, take other people's texts and jiggers them into poetry, either by simply altering the line breaks and such, or by mashing together snippets. Here is one of my favorites, by contemporary poet Annie Dillard, which uses snippets from Vincent Van Gogh's letters:

I Am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heartbroken
by Annie Dillard (1945 - )

 At the end of the road is a small cottage,
 And over it all the blue sky.
I am trying to get at something utterly heartbroken.

 The flying birds, the smoking chimneys,
 And that figure loitering below in the yard—
If we do not learn from this, then from what shall we learn?

 The miners go home in the white snow at twilight.
These people are quite black. Their houses are small. 
The time for making dark studies is short.

 A patch of brown heath through which a white
 Path leads, and sky just delicately tinged,
 Yet somewhat passionately brushed.
We who try our best to live, why do we not live more?

 The branches of poplars and willows rigid like wire.
It may be true that there is no God here, 
But there must be one not far off.

 A studio with a cradle, a baby’s high chair.
Those colors which have no name 
Are the real foundation of everything.

 What I want is more beautiful huts far away on the heath.
If we are tired, isn’t it then because 
We have already walked a long way?

 The cart with the white horse brings
 A wounded man home from the mines.
Bistre and bitumen, well applied, 
Make the colouring ripe and mellow and generous.

 A ploughed field with clods of violet earth;
 Over all a yellow sky with a yellow sun.
So there is every moment something that moves one intensely. 

A bluish-grey line of trees with a few roofs. I
 simply could not restrain myself or keep 
My hands off it or allow myself to rest.

 A mother with her child, in the shadow
 Of a large tree against the dune.
To say how many green-greys there are is impossible.

 I love so much, so very much, the effect
 Of yellow leaves against green trunks.
This is not a thing that I have sought, 
But it has come across my path and I have seized it.

 —Material from Vincent van Gogh’s letters, 1873-1890. (Mornings Like This, HarperPerennial, 1995) 

Found poetry is more about recognition of poetic qualities, and an eye and ear for framing prose into poetry.

Here's a piece from the online journal Verbatim (12 April 2012), based on a child's thank-you note, by British philosophy student Marika.

In the Air

I will not make you a slave, you
will live in my 200-story castle where unicorn
servants will feed
you doughnuts off their horns. I will
personally make you
a throne that is half platnum
and half solid gold and jewel encrested.

Thankyou again for teaching us
about meteroligy, you're
more awesome than a monkey
wearing a tuxedo
made out of bacon
riding a cyborg unicorn
with a lightsaber for the horn
on the tip of a space shuttle
closing in on Mars,
while ingulfed in flames.

Taken from a thank you note written by a nine-year-old, thanking a local TV weatherman for visiting his school in Austin, Texas, as reported in the Metro on 15 March, 2012. Submitted by Marika.

Notice that some of the charm of the piece comes from the spelling errors. You get a clear sense of voice here, an enthusiastic and imaginative child.

If a child's misspelled note can be fodder for publishable work, this is clearly one of the least intimidating types of poetry to try yourself. Gather and cobble, and voila, poetry.

Where might you find inspiring snippets? 

Image source: Color Overload.


  1. Wow, I've never heard of found poetry before. These are wonderful poems, and I noticed they have a lot of vivid imagery. I love how story-like the first one is. Perhaps bits and pieces of classic novels would do well as found poetry - and maybe works by Thoreau? He uses a beautiful writing style in his works that I think would work well in poetry.

    ~Wendy Lu

    The Red Angel Blog

    1. The Dillard collection has a bunch more samples. There is a version on google books you can peruse online, to see various ways of creating found poems.

      I love the idea of working with Thoreau's prose. Give it a whirl--could be fun.

  2. I'm like Red Angel, never heard of found poetry before. What treasures they are. They you for opening my eyes to a new world.

    1. You're welcome, Kittie. Glad to brighten your day with a new discovery.

  3. These are really beautiful. And I hadn't even heard of "found poetry" before. I learn all kinds of cool stuff when ever come over here. :)

    1. You should check out Dillard's _Mornings Like This_. It's a great collection.

      I am contemplating a series in which I cobble bits of my writing how-to library.

  4. I've always had mixed feelings about found poetry. I appreciate what the poem's author has found in the words of others. And often, it's so beautiful.

    But, it does make me a little uncomfortable that a poet would take someone else's words and alter them. Perhaps I'm too neurotic, but I wonder what the original author would think/feel about other people mix-matching their words.

    1. In the wider world of literary criticism, there has been a lot of work done lately on the whole idea of "originality" and whether there really is such a thing. We learn language in community, thus nothing we utter can be truly "original" in the way that one might say about a piece of abstract art. Our phrasings and sentence structures and story arcs follow rules in which there are as many samenesses as variations.

      All this to say, most poetry and prose partakes of a "found" process to some degree. Found poetry just comes at it in a far more intentional way, rather than having one's interactions with what one has read mishmashed with other things in experience and memory.

  5. That's really interesting--I hadn't heard of it!
    If you're interested, I tagged you on my blog for the Lucky Seven game--you don't have to play if you don't want to, but I just wanted to share your blog because I enjoy reading it so much!

    1. Thanks, Faith. I'll come check it out. I haven't been tagged for a meme in ages.