I’ve been thinking about found poetry because of a class I’m taking—this link points to some resources for producing found poetry, though that really makes it more like manufactured poetry:
I once subscribed to an e-mail group that included some well-known poets and some anonymous spectators like me. One list-member linked to a site that he had helped develop, which generated on the visitor’s computer a brand-new cento consisting of lines from three different poets. The three sources included a living British avant-garde poet whom I’d never heard of but whose fans considered him to be the cat’s meow. His friends and fans on the list responded hysterically to this affront, outraged by what they (quite wrongly, I believe) regarded as a copyright violation, but much more by the lack of reverence for Mr. X’s work and stature. If they could, I think they would have called in drone strikes on the web host. I am tempted to say that any form of expression (the site’s creators didn’t claim it was art) that can so enrage a bunch of pompous prigs has got to have value.
Such playful experiments are probably immune to the perils attendant on the visual art industry, as described in the Ian Wallace essay on found art: when you cash the 7-figure check from Sotheby’s or MoMA, your critique of modern capitalist culture really does become merda d’artista. No risk of that ever happening to a poet…still, there is the danger of institutionalizing subversion, as you can see from the ponderous pronouncements in the standard endorsed by the Found Poetry Review, for example that the “merely decorative or entertaining” should be avoided. Aren’t you glad to know that the Experimental Art Earnestness Police are protecting us from fun? I know I am.
I cannot say that a true found poem has ever really stuck to me. The closest thing has probably been some quasi-found poetry in the work of Anne Carson. Her book of Sappho translations, If Not, Winter, is in a sense, an instance of aggressive erasure; the title phrase, for example, appears almost by itself on a page, with a few other scraps of language in a sea of whitespace. The difference is that the erasure was performed not by Carson but by that notorious critical tandem, Time and Ignorance. The papyri on which the poems were written were torn up and put to various uses (some as strips of funereal wrapping), so that even some of the bigger fragments may consist of a strip containing the middle of each line, or conversely the middle of every line may be missing. This ancient process of fragmentation produces a modernist effect that must be part of what attracted Carson to her career as a classical scholar.
There is also her pastiche, “A Fragment of Ibykos Translated Six Ways””
The found text here has been rather aggressively manipulated (this is especially clear to me from the mangled names of London Underground stations), both to place it within the “on the one hand…on the other hand…nay, rather” frame and to lend surprise and significance to the text. For me to find a poem worth re-reading, it probably has to derive its form either from history or from conscious effort, rather than a purely mechanical tool or engine. But I suppose that a counterexample could change my opinion.
So far, I’ve been looking at the reader’s experience of poems that have found text or randomization as organizing principles; they can also be seen as sources for the writer, whether or not the ultimate product is deemed to lie within the found poetry genre. I mentioned in an earlier post that nowadays the very act of framing can turn ordinary into poetic language, but though I recognize this as a sociological fact, I feel that it has grown a little tired as an artistic statement.
Still, the idea that poetry might be found anywhere in language helps to keep us observant, just as the idea that any object or landscape might be the seed of a poem helps us keep our eyes open. It is one of the key theses of modern poetry that poems are not made out of poetical words and phrases any more than they are written about poetical scenes or topics. Found text can also serve to shake the kaleidoscope, to skip our minds out of the grooves etched by culture and habit and introduce excitement and surprise instead of cliche or even logic.
In my own attempts at poetry, I have often used scraps and fragments of existing language, but have never gone looking for found text per se. Rather, I find it natural to assemble the detritus of my mental world, the beer bottles and bicycle wheels and used condoms that wash up on the shore of my stream of consciousness, and hope to make them part of something rich and strange…a little Watts Tower, or a little Car-henge.
Here is an example; if, in the words of the Earnestness Police, you find it merely decorative and entertaining, that would not be the worst thing ever:
Ghost in the Machine
The blind man’s second-best friend,
Paul the text-to-speech voice,
dogging the heels of the words I type
(I type), though you may hear
a trace of deadpan disapproval in
the impassioned “O O O” of a song lyric.
Still, his mask has cracks.
A Facebook status may provoke
“What are you doing?” “Where are you?”
or sometimes “Friends disabled
friends.” On shutdown there is “Help!”
or the still sadder “Un-named button.”
The carbon-based among us stick, I think,
more closely to our lines,
letting our Un-named Buttons stay un-named.
But pay attention and you will hear it:
What are you doing?
PS: Here is the essay on the history of the found object in art by Ian Wallace, which I referred to above: