Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 21 January 2010

What did you find today?

 

searcher 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 LHOOQ 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

nothing depends
upon

a blue wheel 
blue wheelbarrow barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the brown
chickens.

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?

Thanksgiving

so much depends
upon
midget-white-turkey
a small white 
turkey

shivering
under

the red wheel
barrow.

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:

A Confession

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:

Paper Cuts


Today I found a
poem in a book
paper-scissors-hand-game3 written with scissors,
words literally
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:

Power Cuts 

dimension
Yesterday I found
a text in a book
written with scissors

the words literally
cut out of the page.
It gave the language

another dimension
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?

mcluhan 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 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?

andrew motion 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.

wheel 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.

 

Further reading

Redeeming Prose: Colombo's Found Poetry

Gumshoe Poetry / Poetry of Detection

Found poetry: what can it do for you?

There are a few sites devoted to this form of poetry, for example, The Found Poetry Project and Found Poetry.

18 comments:

Kass said...

This post made me grin almost all the way through - from your modification of William Carlos Williams to the Bicycle Tire Stool.

At a poetry workshop once, one of the exercises was to randomly circle words from magazine articles, then arrange them in a poem. It reminded me of how my artist friend, Richard Murray used to take a brush loaded with black paint and splatter it on an almost finished painting. When I saw him do this, I gasped and said, "What are you doing?" He answered that it was his way of adding random depth and interest to a flat painting. In trying to work those splatters into his painting, it always added a new dimension.

Maybe this is what we do with words in composing a poem. Once it's out there, anyone can find meaning in a splatter of words, if a mind is really put to it.

When I was in grade school, my friends and I would compose (or re-work) pretentious, profound poems and recite them with much drama. 50-some-odd years later, I still remember a classic:

Mirror, mirror
on the wall,
Why don't you
get chicken-pox,
Paul?

(not so far off from wheelbarrows and chickens, is it?)

Kass said...

(...and so much DOES depend on it if Paul wants to sire children.)

Dick said...

Not so much a post as a workshop, Jim. And no one else could manage to combine poetry and Donald Rumsfeld so seamlessly and so appropriately!

Rachel Fenton said...

Today I found a purpose - now if I could just figure out what to do with it...

...I like found poetry - found anything actually - it's what you do with it to make it your own though that's the really interesting part...I enjoyed your post, Jim, thank you.

Elisabeth said...

Such an evocative post here, Jim. Playful.

I love the idea of found objects, even more the notion of found words.

I read your post earlier today and have needed to come back to it later, tonight after dinner to comment on it. What stays with me particularly is your mention of Tracy Emin's bed.

I read a terrific essay about this art installation a while ago. Two literary theorists, Sidonie smith and Julia Watson liken Emin's rumpled bed to the state of contemporary autobiography today. You liken it to poetry.

Here I quote myself, ...'the unmade bed, with its soiled sheets, unwashed underwear, empty tampon packets and condoms, [are] signs of the life of an adolescent girl, testifying to her experience. Emin’s autobiographical exhibit centred the bed among numerous personal memorabilia including home videos, portraits, adolescent drawings and text, a quilt, and evocative installations related to broader aspects of her life.

In 1999 the Tate Gallery of London’s decision to select Emin as one of four finalists for the Turner Prize evoked vigorous controversy. The visual representations and the controversy this exhibit aroused reflect the state of the autobiographical genre today. There are those who suggest Emin’s exhibit "exceeds self-portraiture in what they see as its narcissistic self-absorption" but as Smith and Watson argue, there are others, particularly "young people" who experience Emin’s "daring self-making and self chronicling" as a powerful example of visual and performative autobiography that is inclusive.

Emin’s work invites the viewer to resonate with one young woman’s authentic self-representation in an immediate and evocative way. Her exhibit challenges pre-conceived notions of what is of value aesthetically and what is not.'

So, too, with your found poetry. I love it. Now I just have to find a rumpled bed, a few objects and a few words and then put them together.

Jim Murdoch said...

Always pleased when I manage to put a smile on someone’s face, Kass, as long as it’s not a derisory one. I couldn’t do what your friend did with his paintings but everything on my painting was measured with a ruler you can maybe understand why. It would be like inserting a dozen words at random into a text and trying to work them into it and I can see how, as an exercise, that might be a bit of fun but I’d be ill trying to do that with an almost-finished piece.

I never conceived this as a workshop, Dick, just me doing my usual, trying to broaden my understanding of this thing called ‘poetry’ that so many people define in so many different (and somehow valid) ways. Just for the record before I wrote this article I had no idea who Donald Rumsfeld was and, apart from what’s contained in the articles, I couldn’t tell you another thing about him.

Very witty, Rachel. I still have mixed feelings about found poetry. It’s like my reworkings of the ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ poem, why haven’t I given them numbers and included them in my red folder as part of my canon? Because I don’t think of them as worthy. I would be embarrassed to take either of them and send it away to a poetry magazine and call it my own work because I put so little work into them, no real thought at all. Does that make me a snob?

And, Elisabeth, yes, people will be talking about Emin’s bed for a long time. It’s one of those works like Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII - better known as “that pile of bricks that the Tate got conned into buying” – that you’ll find reproduced in art history books. They both ask the same questions about the limits of art. My daughter once came home with a house brick which she called “Nigel” and it sat on her dresser for a few months. The reason these pieces don’t work for most people is that they can’t see beyond the bricks and the bed in exactly the same way as many people can’t see beyond the words in a poem. They forget that meaning belong to them to assign and it’s perfectly acceptable for these two works to be meaningless to them: art can be meaningless. Meaning is transitory anyway: things can become meaningful or lose whatever meaning they once had or the meaning can change. I wonder what that bed means to Emin now?

willow said...

"Everything 'found' was 'lost' by someone else somewhere along the line. Poetry is pure recycling."

Hear-hear! Excellent, thoughtful post. I like the way you wrapped it up at the end.

Dragonblogger said...

What a tremendous amount said on poetry, I rarely put much thought into creating my poetry, I just write what comes to mind or inspires me, but often inspiration comes from outside events and things I read, hear or see in life.

Occasionally my poems are completely fictional, fantasy and originally thought but this is rare in comparison to my poetry affected by external influences.

My favorite thing to do is to craft poems from random words, which I have done for a year and half now with my twitter poetry game, it is a great mental exercise. Though most of my twitter poems are again, influenced by a common theme I find in the words played, or in something I read or was in my mind that day.

Jim Murdoch said...

What I like about that line, Willow, is that it cuts everything down to size. It’s one of those nothing-new-under-the-sun kind of thoughts. The thing that really brought it home to me is Google. Every now and then I’ll think up what I’m sure is an original idea, I google it and lo and behold 186,000 people have thunk that thought before me. So the best we can do is rearrange and make it look fresh. To my mind that should be the goal of all writers, to take a thought, e.g. poverty is bad, and make that mean something in a compassion-fatigued world.

And, Dragonblogger, yes, I’ve done that a few times. The one game I like more than any other is one my wife introduced me to. She calls it ‘firsties’. The task is simple enough, someone gives you the first line of a poem and you finish it off. The good thing about that is that it often takes you off in a direction that you might not naturally choose and exercises thought muscles that may well have become a bit flabby.

Rachel Fenton said...

I think you hold the answer to that yourself, Jim...isn't the fact that you feel that way about them only indicative of their lack of pretence...they are not your creations/inventions and you did not set out to find them...just as you cannot deliberately lose a thing, you cannot intentionally find something...to make something of found poetry you have to sacrifice your own ego and allow the piece itself to shine, hand over the microphone to the former creator in a way, and perhaps this is why the poems aren't in your canon, because they aren't truly yours? Found poetry is a shared experience and I do think poets such as Motion should acknowledge their sources. It doesn't detract from a poet to do this, it makes them more open and less snobbish.

You are not a snob, Jim, because you have shared your poems and their journeys from found to yours, and now they are there for anyone, but perhaps you get a greater sense of personal achievement from poems which have to be fought for and argued with, as if in some courtroom, and which are just. Do you think poems should be earnt (or earned)?

Dave King said...

Most comprehensive. Indeed, as close to being definitive as you could hope to get in a blog. My only (very slight) quibble being that surely Tracey Emin's bed is art, not because she says it is, but because she has changed the context in which it exists and by doing that changed the meaning to an interpretive one?

Ken Armstrong said...

I enjoyed this. I like the questions but don't have any of the answers.

Deep down, I think I feel that if something comes too easy, it isn't any good. Conversely some of my best stuff has come easy... I dunno!! :)

Jim Murdoch said...

An interesting suggestion, Rachel, and not an inaccurate one. There is satisfaction in the struggle, making words change their meanings to suit our own ends. To illustrate, here’s poem I finished a few minutes ago and which I struggled with for the past couple of days. I hope you appreciate it:


      The Death of Tears

       (For Rachel Fenton)

             All the world’s tears
      trickled down the globe and
      gathered in a pool in
      the heart of a poet
      in New Zealand. She feels
      that she’s drowning in them

      but there is no one left to
      cry for her and so she
      has to cry for herself,
      for us, for you and I,
      for her kids, their brief pasts
      their presents and futures,

      for the living, the sick,
      the dead and dying, those
      still unborn, those, too, who
      will never be conceived.
      So many tears. She quits
      her job, can’t sleep or eat:
      she cries herself to death

      and no one, no man, no
      woman or child sheds a
      single tear for the girl.
      All they can do is raise
      their faces heavenward
      and howl.


      Sunday, 24 January 2010


Dave, meaning is purely interpretive. People will be squabbling about Emin’s bed for a very long time. It’s why we need works like that occasionally to remind us of the need to stretch our perceptions. The issues it raises will always be of more interest than the art. The problem though is when someone displays something that isn’t art and says that it is. How, nowadays after everything that people have included under that umbrella, can we exclude anything? In that respect the word has been devalued. Art used to wander round proud of its capital A but I’m not so sure any more.

Nor do I have any answers, Ken, but, as you well know, I love asking awkward questions and then standing well back. My own thought is that there’s middle ground to be found. I’ve pieces that have flowed naturally from pen to paper and have barely needed a comma added whereas others are obviously worked on and it shows. Why the chicken poems will never appear in my canon is because there’s not enough me in there. I wrote a poem once inspired by Williams’ plum poem but it’s its own thing. I mean I could take Shakespeare’s Hamlet, do a global replace, a call the new work Manikin but where’s the art in that?

Rachel Fenton said...

You have left me wordless, Jim. I am staggered that you would think to write this/be inspired to and I am truly humbled by it, by you. Thank you.

Mariana Soffer said...

Amazing post, I am so into it, latelly I been feeling that true poems are everything, they involve real understanding, touch us emotionally, and come from inspiration which is what real life consist in.

Jim Murdoch said...

A writer without words, Rachel, now doesn’t that feel all exposed? We hide behind those words, at least I do, so I hope that passes. I'm glad I managed to get this to work. The ending was a bit hard – I didn’t like what I wrote at first at all – but the howl works. I kept thinking, what would I do if I couldn’t cry? Screaming at the universe seemed to make sense. The original title was ‘Compassion Fatigue’ and that’s what I started off thinking about, a world that is so tired about hearing of one disaster after another. When I read what you had to say you sounded like you felt as if you were the only person in the world who was feeling this, it was such a personal response. The rest fell into place easily enough.

And, Mariana, I agree, there is poetry everywhere. All we have to do is extract it and shape it.

robbie said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Lucy

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Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks Lucy - positive feedback always appreciated.

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