#mumpoemprompts September Challenge: Found Poetry

By Madhushala Senaratne

For our final September challenge, Mum Poet Club member Madhushala Senaratne introduces us to "found poetry" and encourages us to have a go too.

If you fancy sharing your found poem with us, use the hashtag #mumpoemprompts so we can find and share your work.  

What is found poetry?

Found poetry involves extracting words, phrases, and passages from other sources (such as newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, documents, other poems, spam emails, magazine articles etc.), and shaping them into poetic form. The power of found poetry lie in how words not intended as poetry can take on new meaning.

Forms, techniques, and practices

 Found poetry can take the form of both ‘treated’ and ‘untreated’ poems. In ‘treated’ poems, a poet would alter the original text, changing its format, syntax, meaning, and context. However, in some found poems, poets would opt to make minimum interventions or alterations (‘untreated’), adding only line breaks or spacing to create a poem.

Some common forms, techniques, and practices (derived from The Found Poetry Review):

  • Free-form excerpting and remixing: extracting words and phrases from found material and re-organising them to create poetry
  • Cut-outs: cut-out words/phrases from the found material, rearranging those cut-outs to create something new
  • Erasure and blackout: poets take an existing text, and can either erase or black out words, revealing new meaning through the remaining words. The remaining words are not rearranged, and a poet can also engage further with the found material, adding sketches, notes, photographs, and other bits.
  • Cento: an ancient poetic form, poets juxtapose lines from other writings. While the original lines are unchanged, they are re-arranged and presented in new contexts. It resembles a patchwork of sorts.

Influences and examples

 Found poetry techniques were influenced by the Dada and Surrealism movements, which emphasised the juxtaposition of unrelated and everyday material in art and poetry. Such characteristics influenced various poetic forms and techniques, including cut-out writings.

 The cut-out poetry technique was popularised by poets such as William S. Burroughs in the mid-20th Century. For example, his poem, Formed in the Stance, uses found text from a 1959 Saturday Evening Post article on cancer cures. An extract is below,

“….The girls eat morning

Dying peoples to a white bone monkey

in the Winter sun

touching tree of the house. $$$$....”

 A prominent example of altering found material is Tom Phillips’ work, A Humument. In 1966, Phillips set out to use methods of painting, collage, and cut-out in alternating the pages of the first second-hand book he found for three pence. He came upon a forgotten Victorian text, A Human Document, and began its ‘radical treatment’. Some of the pages of A Humument are available on the author’s website: https://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument/slideshow/1-50

In another example, Ian Hamilton Finlay, used names and serial numbers of Scottish fishing boats in his poems, Sea-Poppy I and Sea-Poppy II. Finlay also used graphic patterns and other visual means, to rearrange words and letters, in conveying meaning, with the letters of Sea Poppy poems arranged in circular patterns, resembling the shape of a flower: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/finlay-sea-poppy-i-collaboration-with-alistair-cant-p07451.

Your turn 

  • There is poetry everywhere! Get hold of any text that you fancy. Junk mail? Menu cards? Shopping lists? The back of cereal boxes?
  • Draw inspiration from any of the forms, techniques or examples discussed above, to create your found poem.
  • Be aware of copyright, especially when using someone else’s work – credit the original source as needed.

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