Is poetry an invention or a discovery? Forms are certainly inventions – the lesser-spotted sonnet doesn't exist in nature – but poetry is natural. It is directly connected to nature, with or without a capital N. Now although it's true that I construct a poem, I do so out of pre-existing things and ideas. I rarely make up new words (although certainly some poets do and there's nothing wrong with that) and so I'm using concepts and definitions that we are all familiar with, not simply to say what's already been said. but to probe a little further into those all too familiar words to see what else might be there. I rarely set out with a map, although sometimes I do have some inkling where a new thought might lie; usually I just trip over them in the dark.
Poetry can be found in the strangest of places. Most poets are content to pick at the flotsam and jetsam that float past us; others get out their poetry-detectors and take a more proactive approach.
Found. What does it mean? I know you know what it means, it's another one of those words we use all the time without thinking about it. We find pennies on the street, we find our glasses by the sink where we took them off, we find true love down the back of the couch. Something what's found usually has been lost but not always: in the first instance someone else lost the coins, in the second it was us that misplaced our glasses and in the third example, well, no one lost true love and yet it can still be found.
Some, of course, believe that the poetry finds us but I don't buy that. I don't believe in muses as conscious entities.
So what's a 'found poem' when it's at home? Really it's none of the above. The words have not been lost, they have been deliberately laid out by their original author and specific meaning ascribed to them. Then what happens is a poet comes along, misappropriates the words and forces new meaning into them. The word Wikipedia uses is reframes and that makes sense to me. I can cut a photo of some actress out of a magazine and stick it in a frame but is that art? If I drew a moustache and a wee goatee on her could I then say that it's art? That's exactly what Marcel Duchamp did with L.H.O.O.Q. – he found – now whether that is active finding or passive finding I don't know – a cheap postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa, drew a moustache and beard in pencil and appended the title.
Now, love it or loathe it, no one can say that L.H.O.O.Q. doesn't make you think and many have. It's one of a host of readymades that he presented to the world as art from 1915 on. The concept behind them is simple enough. Duchamp says that anything can be turned into art simply by an artist interacting with it which is why Tracey Emin's My Bed is art because she says it is. The debate rages on there too.
I'm just not sure about found poetry which is the poetic equivalent of the readymade. Would this be a found poem?
Neither Red nor White
a blue wheel
glazed with rain
beside the brown
I've done exactly what Duchamp did, taken a familiar piece, fiddled with it, given it a cryptic title and there you have it. I mean, anyone could be a great poet doing this.
Wikipedia gives as good a definition of 'found poetry' as any I've read before:
Found poetry 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/or lines (and consequently meaning), or by altering the text by additions and/or deletions. 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.
So how about?
A good example of found poetry taken a bit more seriously can be found at Slate. In this article they've taken things that Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has said and presented them as poetry, for example:
Once in a while,
I'm standing here, doing something.
And I think,
"What in the world am I doing here?"
It's a big surprise.
—May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times
The transcript of the interview is here but to save you having to dig through it here's the Q & A it was taken from:
Q: How big is your place?
Rumsfeld: A donkey named Bo and a mule named (inaudible). My wife had just bought some horses. We had some quarter horses, but she bought some Missouri fox trotters which have a smoother gait and she had just said to me that this was going to be our rural period. (Laughter) All of a sudden, here we are. It's amazing.
Once in awhile I'm standing here doing something and I think what in the world am I doing here? It's a big surprise.
Now, it's helpful to have the reference for the sake of this article but where would the world stand if that poem had appeared on its own without any reference to where it originated? When I put up poems in my articles I quite often tell you a bit about the origin of the work but in a magazine there's nothing, all you get is the poem and that's that. Take this poem:
Today I found a
poem in a book
written with scissors,
cut out of each page.
It gave the poem
a new dimension:
sliced wide open and
gutted of meaning
the text was waiting
to be fulfilled.
Tuesday, 08 April 2008
Are those words mine or did I get them from someone else? I would argue that they're mine although some of them I found in someone else's text.
Here's the 'found poem' as it stood originally:
Yesterday I found
a text in a book
written with scissors
the words literally
cut out of the page.
It gave the language
beginning with thought
but closest to poetry.
This was a poem I 'found' in a text on found poetry posted here. Below you can see the words I extracted.
Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it. Hannah Arendt
Yesterday I mentioned working with found poetry or using snippets of text from one or many sources arranged into a poem. Jim's comment about giving a few more examples inspired this post. Thanks Jim! P.S. Jim's blog today has a great post on confident writing and a link to his guest post on power.
I found this informative article on found poetry by Katie Haegele. And then an example of one of her found poems. She used a section of a vintage Boy Scouts manual to form a poem. For me the idea of found poetry or found text poetry is to see poetry everywhere and to play with words and language. Enjoy words. You can photocopy a section from a book and literally cut and paste your words onto a new document. For many beginning poets this lessens some of the fear associated with
writing an original work. Many altered art artists use found text or found poetry to add another dimension to their art work.
Today, think about how play can add to your creative body of work. Take something you've written and photocopy it. Add scissors and paste. Cut out words or phrases. Arrange text. Don't worry about the right way or the wrong way. PLAY. Now get back to work!
I found the poem but not in the same way that the writer of the Rumsfield poem found the poem. The thing restricted me to the words in the text and forced the meaning of my poem in a certain direction. I think the result is an okay poem but I also think that when I used it as a source of inspiration the resultant poem is better.
If we look at the first version of 'Power Cuts' what I have to admit is that I didn't so much write the poem as arrange it. What turns a bunch of flowers into a bouquet? I could have written it, none of the words were unknown to me and no one owns them, and in that respect all my poetry is found and arranged because that's what I do, I look for words to fiddle with. All day long words, phrases, sentences flit through my head, things my wife says, things off the TV. In my first novel there's a whole sentence that Captain Kirk said but God alone knows where it is in the book or even if it remained unrevised in the final print. Besides the line's mine now – finder's keepers – and so why should I credit him?
All our words are borrowed. Every poem I will ever write is already in my head. All I have to do is locate the words. Marshall McLuhan said that "The poet dislocates language into meaning." Like all attempts to define poetry it falls short but not completely, not at its basic level, i.e. poetry = words arranged on a page. I know that prose is arranged into sentences and paragraphs but the arrangement of the words has always been of much greater importance to the poet. As Jacques Ehrmann puts it, "Poetic language is not another language, it is the same language." There is poetry to be found in prose text just as there is prose to be found in poetry. It all depends what you're looking for what you'll find. Take this for example:
Every thing has its history. It is all but impossible to be without acquiring one. Indeed one possible definition of 'existence' might be 'a talent for amassing histories'. Things drag their histories along with them. Some attract such detailed histories that they completely bury the things themselves. They form a hard crust around them so that the things' true meanings shrivel up and die. And all we're left with is an empty shell.
Is this a passage of prose or a poem that's been formatted as prose? I'm not going to tell you. The thing is most people are okay about 'dislocating' a poem from a block of text but does it work the other way round? Or does that somehow feel wrong?
So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
Did I do a bad thing? Has it stopped being poetry? If you didn't know it had been a poem would you think to extract it from this article, give it a title and send it out into the big bad world as . . . okay, maybe not one of your own but perhaps an adopted poem?
There is another thing here. 'The Red Wheelbarrow' is still in copyright as is the paragraph above, the extract from The Writing Nag's site, the quote from the New York Times and this sentence that I'm writing right now. I own these words, these words I'm typing now and you can't use any of them without asking me first. Now we're just getting silly.
I used to know a woman whose son 'found' things. "Where did you get that from, son?" "Oh, this? I found it, mum." You have no idea how long it took for it to dawn on her that he was stealing stuff.
So I'm really not sure where I stand on the whole 'finding poems' thing. At the end of the day they're just words and no one owns any of them (apart from me who owns all the words on this page) so where do you draw the line and do you really need to reveal your source? To my mind that goes against the whole notion of a poem standing of falling on its own merit. By directing people to the source material all I'm doing is saying: "Hey, look at me! Aren't I clever for being able to get a poem out of all of this?" And that's not really me.
Nowadays people use machines to help them find things, for example the humble metal detector. What about using a machine to find poetry? No, it's not as daft as it sounds. Andrei Gheorghe, a Romanian web developer has done just that. He's created "The Longest Poem in the World", composed by aggregating real-time public Twitter updates and selecting those that rhyme. At time of writing this (13th December) he was up to 750,706 verses but you can check his progress to date here. It rhymes so it must be a poem. Right? But it doesn’t make any sense. Now that's me harping on about meaning again. But, tell me the truth, all those out there who truly believe that the primary function of a poem is not to mean something, where's this thing going other than into a) a bin and/or b) the record books?
Recently Andrew Motion caused a bit of a kerfuffle when he published a 'found poem' for Remembrance Day, which, to quote The Guardian, "stitches together the words of several generations of shell-shocked soldiers from the first world war to the present." There was even a fragment of Siegfried Sassoon in there! Now rather than praising the ex-poet laureate for embracing this new-fangled form of poetry he got accused of plagiarism by military historian Ben Shephard. Shephard said that Motion's poem draws heavily from his history of medical psychiatry A War of Nerves:
Of the 152 lines in An Equal Voice, all but 16 are taken directly from A War of Nerves. Only in two places has Motion quoted my own words: in all the other cases, they are those of soldiers and doctors. So, in terms of copyright, he's clean as a whistle. Morally, it's another story. Motion has added nothing new or original to this subject. There is a word for this. It begins with 'p' and it isn't 'poetry'.
Motion defends himself in an article in The Guardian saying that:
…his poem drew on "a long and honourable tradition" of "found" poetry, pointing to TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land', Ruth Padel's poetic biography of Charles Darwin and Anthony Thwaite's Victorian Voices. "It goes right back to Shakespeare," he said. "It's very well established."
"I wanted it not to be about me – it's their poem ... Quite a lot of my annoyance is precisely to do with the distortion of that," he added. "The reason I feel so robust about this is that if I felt I had done anything at all underhand, I would be sitting here with a hot conscience, but that's absolutely not the case. I was absolutely clear about what was involved in the process. I'm very sorry he doesn't like it, but as far as I'm concerned I feel OK about it."
Like most thing I can see both points of view. But it's nice to see a high profile examination of the issue. Really the role that Motion has taken on here is slightly different from the one you would normally associate with a poet. Nick Piombino explains this difference when he writes in his essay 'The Aural Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry':
While at one time the poet's central role was to declaim his or her beliefs, experiences, wisdom, and ideas eloquently or adamantly through lyrics and narrations in a kind of public speech or song-making, for many poets these notions of a poet's essential role are no longer completely apt. Frequently, the poet seems to view his or her expressive function more as a medium or a "conduit" as Barrett Watten has phrased it. The poet is a researcher who must listen closely to the sounds and voices of actuality to discover where the poetry may exist within it.
I think the key word here is "conduit" and I'm sure it’s one that many poets will relate to, a feeling of being the middleman, just the guy or gal whose job it is to write the poem down; that it's not theirs. I've felt like that in the past but not any more.
I prefer to think about what I do as an 'assisted readymade' to go back to Duchamp. The best known example of that is probably his Bicycle Wheel. There's a lot of me in my poems but it's not all me, never all me and sometimes not nearly as much me as you might imagine. Pound said, "Make it new," and that's what I try to do but really I have more in common with Marianne Moore than producers of pure found poetry. In an article on East of Mina, Rebecca has this to say:
Marianne Moore … quotes everything from Shakespeare to National Geographic (and unlike Eliot, carefully notes all their original homes in the back of her collection). Some of her poems (“Marriage” for instance) seem to merely be the notes from a lifetime of avid reading cut up and pasted together. And, although intentionality and commentary emerge with deeper attention, her poetry foreshadows the found poem: a poem patched together from bits of language discovered in other places. – italics mine
I wonder how many of us have written a poem and then a few weeks later pick up some old book and lo and behold there's our poem only written by, and probably written better by, someone else? There is nothing new under the sun. Everything 'found' was 'lost' by someone else somewhere along the line. Poetry is pure recycling.