And use them to illustrate a few of the poetic qualities I’d like to suggest in these poems.
Here’s the very first poem in the book, “Frame,” in the first section (“Words, Words, Words”) of eight sections that the book comprises.
Frame By way of epigraph
I put a frame around it
so I can say I found it,
so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.
By itself this poem may not look like much; but as an introduction to the book, it announces a couple of important themes and sets the tone for the whole.
It’s brief, obviously. So, as far as selection goes, there’s not too much I’ve put in the poem … or risked overloading it with. But the briefness, or tautness, I think, suggests more than initially meets the eye.
The quatrain announces that I’m framing the whole book, or approach to the book, in terms of the themes of art and mortality. Here is a group of found poems (77 in all) that well might have been lost to time and attention had they not been assembled and packaged here. Bits of language, I mean, that I’ve gathered up and put inside the frame of a book. Yes, they existed outside the book — in other books, articles, newspapers, fragments of speech that once hung in the air — but are here gathered up and framed, and so presented as a whole, for the first, and only, time.
And why do such a thing? Why beg, borrow, steal bits and pieces of discourse from such varied sources?
… so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.
The collection is not others’ now, not the original authors’, editors’, speakers’. Nor is it mine, the poet’s, exclusively. It belongs to you as well as me. It’s shared discourse or communication we’ve arranged between us through our efforts of writing and reading.
And what good does this exercise do us?
You may have to read more of the book to know. Or to tell me what you think of our mutual efforts. For my part, I think the communication even here, in this one stanza, is a communion too, something that unites us, for a moment, in “this brief space of time,” not necessarily anything sacred or transcendent but the time we spend reading and writing, the time of our lives, which is not simply the empirical continuum, the line that ends in death for us all, of course, the flat line of our end, but is the time-space continuum in which our lives begin, endure, encompass so much, and end.
You think I’m stretching it here — the thin red line of this simple-looking quatrain? Maybe so, but I was trained in reading and writing literature and literary criticism. There’s a lot that can be seen in a short poem like this if the words chosen are well chosen and somehow point to common human ends and enterprises.
I’ve been asked by a business friend on the East Coast to host a one-hour Zoom session later this month on the craft of poetry — this in the wake of publishing, just this week, my second book of poetry, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around.
The title of the collection might seem to suggest there’s not much craft involved in writing poetry, or found poetry, anyway, which is what I’m doing here. But that suggestion is misleading.
In fact, finding poetry all around is very much a crafty case of keeping the senses alert and attuned to the possibilities of poetry. And then knowing what to do with these possibilities. If you aren’t alert to language, how can you be a poet? Language is your medium, the air you breathe, the soup in which you swim.
Your poetic senses or sense of poetry depends on language.
Here are some likely sources for poetry, especially found poetry:
An odd remark by a friend or a passer-by
A line or two in a newspaper article
A passage in a book
A dictionary entry
Yes, it’s the job of the poet to be attentive, or attuned, to the music in the air. Not just melody but rhythm, stress, dissonance, oddity.
In the foreword to Lost & Found, I cite “selection and syntax” as principal tools a poet uses in turning everyday sources into poetry. He or she must know what is linguistically impressive, or odd, or resonant. Then has to know how to turn such oddities, whether long or short, into lines of verse. (Verse means, at its root, a turning: the poet plows ground to the end of the line, then turns around and plows one more furrow, whether he’s writing iambic pentameter or free verse.)
But let me give a few real-world examples from the book:
“Poem in Form of To-do List”
“Frame” is the first poem in the book and a suitable gateway to the book as a whole. This short quatrain, founded on slant and repeated rhyme, might have taken root simply in the idea of losing and finding, as the title of the book proclaims. That and the notion of the frame, which I’ve meditated from time to time, because like many of you I’m interested in painting and decor, I mean hanging stuff on our walls that brightens or tones our day, gazing at it, admiring it, inviting friends to gaze and admire.
Frame By way of epigraph
I put a frame around it
so I can say I found it,
so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.
Wouldn’t it be supercool, I mean, if poets and writers, like painters, could hang their stuff on the wall and so impress or stop in their tracks the passerby or guest? I’m jealous of these confounded exhibitionists! Why can’t I do what they do with my craft?
“Frame” acts as an epigraph, or epigram, to all the poems of the book. I’m saying here that the material I’ve found, or cribbed, is art or poetry simply because I place it in the context of art, in this case, the framework or casework of a book. I separate a stray remark from the ephemeral world in which it is uttered and lost — you know, the kind of odd or funny remark we might laugh at one moment and forget the next. The poet wants to find the remark unforgettable, so arranges to put it in a frame where it won’t be forgotten. This kind of capture, like photography, freezes a moment and makes it available to the future.
But finding and freezing a remark is just half the battle: the poet also has to share what she’s captured with the world: “so I can say it’s yours and mine.” An authorial gesture becomes a communion, something she has in common with the audience she finds in writing the poems.
And, of course, that sharing, like all forms of human sharing, exists only “for this brief space of time.” You may consider this space to be the space of the poem, or the volume of poems, or the space of our lives. Life is indeed short, and if art is long it may not be forever but let’s enjoy it while we can. Indeed, it’s this poignant tension between the moment and the timeless that turns us to art as both producers and consumers.
The second poem I’ll cite here is another kind of animal. It doesn’t rely on rhyme, or even reason, to make its point, though the point may be much the same as that of “Frame.”
Poem in Form of To-do List
Finish Claudia’s website
Wash summer clothes
Practice Gregg shorthand
Organize your lives on hard drives
Buy 6-volt lantern for camping and tornadoes
Tell Jen you love her
Drive Mom to salon (if Mom were only here)
Snap pix of armadillos DOR (you’re not in Minnesota anymore)
Tell Diana how much you care
Study Djokovic’s lethal backhand
Tell Tom he’s a no good dirty bastard
Plan family reunion
Ask Jen what she meant by the child that died
Help in kitchen (only if she asks)
Meditate on where you’ve been and where the hell you’re going
This list poem may look like an everyday to-do list in some respects. In fact, I might have recorded some of these items in a practical, or transactional, list I was keeping a few summers back:
Claudia is a Mexican painter friend, whose website I created and kept for a number of years.
When summer approaches, you’d better get the summer clothes out of the attic and freshen them up, no?
Summer is the season of camping, and you don’t want to do all of it in the dark, do you? Get a light. And keep it in the closet, too, in the spring season of tornadoes. (My wife went through a tornado when she was a girl, or should I say a tornado went through her or her house, and she always keeps survivalist gear, including lights, in the closet.)
But a list of literal things to do tends to suggest things that are not literal, not practical or transactional — the things having to do with the brevity of light, life, leisure, summer:
Organize your lives, your various lives (as poet, spouse, parent, friend), on hard and durable drives, whether on your computer, or in the form of publications, or as impressions of the drive or life force you leave behind with friends and family.
Think of your dead mother and her faded beauty, her faded life.
The child that died? Maybe my wife, Jen, said something literal about a child that died. Maybe I was thinking of the times she had a miscarriage and abortion.
A list or catalog poem is not difficult, but depends as you see here on both the literal and the figurative. It’s an exercise in association. One thing, on the surface, suggests another, which may be lurking just below the surface or in chthonic depths.
Again, as with the “Frame” poem, this to-do poem dredges up stuff that ordinarily would be kept in mind briefly, then forgotten. Poetry, like other arts, seems to have as motive power the idea of saving, shaping, and preserving. The distraction and detritus of our mental life are transformed into something more durable, more formally impressive, more suggestive, more sharable.
Finally, in this blog, let me offer one of my dictionary poems for your consideration.
Myopia: Word of the Day For Jen again
You say you can’t see anything beyond
the tip of your nose, my love, yet if this is myopia it may owe, after all, to the Greek myōpía, “nearsightedness,” i.e. (id est),
to use a Latinism, something contagious
and coming down to you, honestly enough,
through the obscure centuries, deriving
from mýein “to close the eyes or mouth”
(close kin to the Latin mūtus “inarticulate,
dumb, silent” or, as we’d say in English,
“mute,” which, true enough, sweetheart,
you have seldom been). Consider too mystikós,
“connected with the mysteries,” or “mystic,”
an enchanted Greek isle perhaps? Let’s not
forget also -ōpía, a combining form of ṓps
(stem ōp-), meaning “eye, face, countenance,”
and the gods know yours are beautiful: opa!
Yet what doth it profit a man, or woman,
to gain the entire world if he/she closes
the eyes, or mouth, and trips over the obvious,
a metaphorical sense, “inability or unwillingness
to act prudently,” developed in English only
at the hyperopic end of the 19th century.
So look, look, look, my true love, and see.
Here we are then, you and me, together
this blazing instant. Let that be a lesson.
Background here: my wife had cataract surgery recently, which didn’t go too well. Her vision seemed impaired, not improved, for some time after the operation.
But dictionary poems? How ghastly! you might think. Who wants to rummage in a dictionary to write a poem or read it? Sorry, friends. I was an academic for maybe 15 years, teaching college English (writing and literature). I was in academe, that is, though never truly, fully of it. (But that’s another story, suggested in my first volume, Transitions.)
The dictionary, as I say somewhere in the endnotes to Lost & Found, can be considered “the history of our travels as a human race, our longings, mergings, conquests, accommodations to other tribes and peoples.” Take just about any word in the dictionary, read its definition, consult the etymology: where it came from, how it’s used now, where it might be going. Isn’t this about the most thrilling and “diverse” journey you can imagine? Every time we use an English word, we invoke our nameless, faceless ancestors, from whatever tribe, and the tribes they fought and fucked. We catch ourselves up in the history of the races, our races, however obscure, and our race to catch up, using such words, with the modern worlds of both commerce and art.
Well, this consideration may or may not be helpful to you if you’re a poet. It’s not a how-to guide, for sure. Not 10 Easy Steps to Transform Vague Emotions into Finished Poetry. No, it’s a few suggestions, that’s all, about some of the resources we might use to transform raw materials. Or to understand how poets work with these materials.
Sound association (rhyme, off rhyme, repetition)
Transactive discourses (lists, thank you and welcome notes)
That’s all I know, for now anyway. Any questions or suggestions? I’d be delighted to take them up and consider them in these pages.
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.
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.