Found poems

For some time now I’ve been fascinated with found poems. Found poems? What are they?

I don’t mean poems found while leafing through books or journals. I don’t mean reacquainting oneself with poems learned or loved in school.

I mean finding preexisting language that, despite its unpromising context and sometimes strictly practical uses, suggests and can readily be adapted into poetry.

I mean verbal artifacts found in books, magazines, journals, wine labels and reviews, advertisements, technical descriptions, correspondence (letters, emails, text messages), and throwaway lines from conversations.

Collage by my friend, the graphic artist Dan Thornhill, Little Rock, Arkansas.

As critics have pointed out, found poems are kinds of collages, bits and pieces of verbal debris, could be, plucked out of various contexts and put together by he/she who has eyes to see and can supply the mucilage of alert observation and interest.

Can’t remember when I first began writing found poems, maybe 20 years ago or more, but lately my attention has been fixed on these patches of language. Things I read in the newspaper, like readers’ comments, become all too easily a poem. Often I make such a pastiche out of one source, but it can come from several in the typical way that a graphic collage comes together.

Here’s one I just plucked the other day, for example, from the Washington Post, not an article but comments on the article supplied by readers.  The comments are so quick, keen, fresh, demotic, however educated many of these readers seem to be, that they practically compile themselves. All the observer has to do is a little choosing and editing.

Supreme Court Rejects Trump’s Bid to Shield Tax Returns
Reader comments, Washington Post article of 2/22/21

Yes, the Witch Hunters are closing in.
The Orange Blob’s lifelong crime show
comes to an end. Get your popcorn ready.
He would not last a week on Riker’s Island.
What will Spanky McBonespurs’ defense be now?
For a good laugh, tune into Carlson or Hannity
tonight. Bad day for Former Guy. Bet he wishes
he’d chosen Manaford and Stone for the court.
Lock him up and throw away the key. A good last
30 days: Biden president, Limbaugh dead, and
Vance is closing in on Trump’s tax records.

So what such a composition lacks in clarity or consecutiveness pales in comparison to the vigor and humor of the language. Here is where the people, the verbal people, exact and enact their revenge against the president’s dull-witted idiocy. 

Clarity and consecutiveness, at any rate, may be more the stuff of prose, especially expository prose, than poetry. The poet yearns for freshness and surprise — and keeping his eyes and ears open finds it everywhere.

Unity, however, is a more elusive quality that the found poem poet must look for. All the stuff in the poem must belong together, in one way or another, however surprising and apparently out of context it might at first appear to be. The poet uses what Hart Crane (1899–1932) might have called “the logic of metaphor.” It’s another, a different logic than the rational and organizational world insists on. An older, more archaic logic of emotional and visceral connection.

So I leave you with another found poem I found, or put together, just the other day, after being bombarded for a week or two with a newly found poem just about every day. I wondered how you could instruct, or encourage, other poets to try their hand at found poems. Or at least to explain how the game works and what it’s worth. Here goes:

How to Write a Found Poem

It’s like collage, those in the know
say, from French colle paste, glue
(<Greek kólla) + –age, as in mucilage,
I’d add, Middle English muscilage
<Middle French musillage <Late
Latin mūcilāgō a musty juice, akin
to mūcēre to be musty. See mucor 
if you must. But hold on, what’s 
the point here? Oh, yes, collage and 
mucilage! So what you need to do,
ephebe, to write a found poem is to
find it in the stuff of every day, 
the natural or not, who cares, speech 
of men and women as they work 
and play and carry on, for example, 
newspaper comments, want ads 
(personal or not), oral interviews, 
old letters, the blab of the pave 
perhaps, a story heard or overheard, 
and then fix your attention like good 
strong glue on the essence, the fresh 
phrase, you can throw out all the chaff,
you jackdaw, you chuff, just seize
the good stuff in your beak, don’t
hold back like that, what are you
thinking? there’s so much of it,
dear people, and all so good!

You might have caught some of the sources here, more varied than in the first poem above: the dictionary obviously and then the poets Wordworth (“the natural speech of men”), Whitman (“blab of the pave”), Wallace Stevens (“ephebe”), and W. C. Williams (“what are you thinking,” from “Tract”). Wherever and whatever your sources, pluck them boldly and let them shine in the new context you both perceive and create.

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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