Snippets Issue 10 : The Hangover Issue

Found Poetry

Katie Haegele discusses a new type of poetry, constructed from found text.

Found Poetry

By Katie Haegele

A lot of the 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're certain they couldn't write anything good now if they tried. But I know different: Anyone can write poems, and everyone should.

One reason for people's uneasiness, I think, is that the definition of poetry is so much more open than it once was. Formal verse was 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 because it's so hard to define. 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 fun experiments to try. Take found poetry, which if you ask me has as much in common with craftiness as it does with literariness. A found poem is made up of lines of 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. Basically, making found poetry has to do with learning a new way to look at the world, and then finding a new use for what you've discovered there. It's writing meets crafting, a kind of creative reuse, like the time you repurposed that beautiful vintage tablecloth into a skirt, or realized that beer caps can make excellent earrings, or bound a zine with dental floss.

Found Poetry How-To:

Would you like to find some poems yourself? Here's a quick how-to.

* Look at things. Really look. I learned what found poetry was a 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--never a bad thing to have in your back pocket.

* Copy. I like to look at old books and magazines and these can be wonderful sources of unintentional poetry. At a rummage sale I 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," and the paragraphs I liked and cut out choice lines. It's certainly not necessary to physically chop up the original text, but it is fun.

* Paste. An especially fun part of making my found poems was the actual MAKING. I sat on my living room floor and spread the cut out lines from that boy scout book in front of me. This way I could rearrange them in a variety of combinations before I settled on the best version. One line from the boyscout 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 gluestick. 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 everywhere, are you ever totally alone?

If you would like to read some of Katie's found poetry then you can pick up her zine Word Math, filled with her first batch of poems, from her website.


Found poetry is great, however it isn't 'new'. It's been going for decades and had a major upsurge in the late 90s and early 00s, when it got mixed up in the whole 'performative writing' scene.

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