how to make a found poem
A wonderful how-to on making poetry from things which have already been written. I love the idea of it ‘helping you develop a sense of irony,’ as Katie Haegele says.
Haegele references using an old Boy Scout handbook for a found poetry project. I’m thinking about the collection of ‘power 80s business books’ collecting dust in my parents’ basement. I wonder what a found poem would look like from, say, Dress For Success, circa 1985?
A lot of people I know feel shy about poetry. They’re not sure they understand it, they’re embarrassed of the poems they wrote when they were really young, and they think they couldn’t write anything good now if they tried.
I think one reason for people’s uneasiness is that the definition of poetry is so much more open than it once was. Formal verse is simpler in a way; a sonnet is always made using the same rules, so you know what you’re getting into with a poem like that. But free verse seems intimidating in part because it’s hard to define, hard to see the structure that holds the thing together. How can you learn to write a poem if you’re not sure what a poem is?
Well, people are still working in formal verse, of course, so you are encouraged to write a sonnet some time. But there are other experiments to try. Take found poetry. A found poem is made up of excerpts from a non-poetic text that someone else already wrote, like a newspaper article, a sign prohibiting littering, a science book for children, or the real estate section. Making found poetry has to do with learning a new way to look at the world, and then finding a different use for what you’ve discovered there. You know that Emily Dickinson line about poetry, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”? Once you learn to see slant, the poetry starts to assemble itself.
There are different ways to go about it, but here’s how I make a found poem:
Look at things. Really look. I learned what found poetry was a good few years ago and the effect it had on me was profound. I saw poems everywhere, in everything. That summer I visited my mother at her new house, which she had bought furnished. The very meticulous people who sold it to her had apparently kept everything they’d ever acquired, including the owner’s manual to the oven they bought back in the 60s. “Know Your Range,” the little booklet was called. Tell me THAT’S not poetry. Every day we are all surrounded by language — cheesy or manipulative advertising messages, overheard conversations, news headlines. So use it. Look for double meanings in words and phrases. It will help you develop a good sense of irony, which is never a bad thing to have in your back pocket.
Copy. I collect old books and magazines and these can be wonderful sources of unintentional poetry. At a rummage sale I once found a copy of the 1948 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, and I made a poem from bits of the Orienteering section. I photocopied the title, “Find Your Way” — which has a pretty obvious double meaning, if you’re looking for it — and cut out that and other lines I liked. It’s certainly not necessary to physically chop up the original text, but it is fun.
Paste. When I’m making found poems using that cut and paste method, I’ll sit on my living room floor and spread the cut out lines in front of me. This way I can rearrange them in a variety of combinations before I settle on the best version. One line from the boy scout book said: “With simple means and using your own personal measurements, determine a height you cannot reach and a width you cannot walk.” This writer was being literal, of course, warning the scouts to know their physical limitations before they braved the wilderness. But the poetic readings of a line like that go much deeper. I reassembled this and other sentences I liked until a strange little narrative emerged — a new one, which I kept in place with a glue stick. One of the lines goes, “Call loudly for help if you are alone, and keep on calling.” Good advice indeed. But when there’s poetry all around you, are you ever totally alone?