These words might come from books, other poems, speeches, overheard conversations, or any other written or oral source imaginable. The words might not be the poet’s own, but their organization is what matters. The poet reimagines what the words mean and reorganizes or re-contextualizes them to create something new.
Sometimes the reorganization of words involves cutting out lines from a book, mixing them, and redefining a passage altogether. Other times it might mean adding in more words to create a new meaning or rearranging the letters in individual words to make new ones.
Found poetry is often considered to be the literary equivalent of creating visual art via collage. It is taking already complete source material and re-imagining what it can be. There are numerous very visual examples. For instance, book pages that are drawn on top of, deleting words and sentences, sometimes entire passages, with pen or paint. Therefore, what is deleted sometimes becomes just as important as what remains.
History of Found Poetry and Found Object Art
The form first became widely popular after Dave Forman used it on his television show Dave Gorman: Modern Life is Goodish. In the episodes of the series, he would include a found poem made up of comments he’d received on the internet. Each was topical to the episode it was included in.
Considering that this form of poetry is usually much more visual than other forms, it is even easier to connect to a wider art historical background. The concepts interlaced within found poetry, such as those that deal with authorship and originality, are also found in art movements like Dadaism and the readymades that came out of. The default leader of this movement, Duchamp, is best-known for his urinal, titled Fountain, that was submitted but rejected from the Society of Independent Artists Exhibit in 1917. He, and the other Dadaists, took found objects and presented them as original artworks.
Examples of Found Poetry
Example #1 The Humument by Tom Phillips
This example of found poetry is a perfect combination of the world of visual art and that of written art. The Humument is a work in progress that Phillips began in the 1960s. It is an altered Victorian book that he found in a second-hand shop and has since been deleting and painting into. He allows some of the original text to show through the paintings, creating poems and statements, as well as a larger story, within the artwork. The work tells a nonlinear narrator of a protagonist named Bill Troge.
Example #2 The Unknown by Hart Seely
Seely’s poem, ‘The Unknown’ was taken from Department of Defense news briefings Donald Rumsfeld. Take a look at the first few lines of text:
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
By selectively removing words from the briefing he was able to create this unusual and twisting poem that speaks to the time at which it was written while also utilizing several poetic techniques that make it a great representative of this poetic form. This poem, along with others, was published in Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2003. The poems were later set to music.
Example #3 The Writings of William S. Burroughs
Burroughs, a beat poet, poet-modernist writer and artist of the 1950s and 60s, provides lovers of poetry with a new way of considering how poems are created. He became famous, among other things, for his “cut-up” technique. This technique, which falls into the category of found poetry, involves taking a page of text, cutting it in half and then in half again. These sections get cut into smaller pieces and then smaller yet again. What one has when they finish cutting is rearranged into semi-cohesive sentences, forming an entirely new narrative.
Burroughs’ technique has had a lasting influence on fiction writers, poets, and even musicians. Artists like David Bowie and Brian Eno were influenced by his technique and used it within their own music in the 1970s.