Introduction to Found Poetry

Reading and Writing Blackouts, Erasures, and Other Literary Remixes

Colorful graffiti on the John Lennon Wall in Prague
Steal These Words to Make a Poem.  Tim Hughes via Getty Images

Poetry is everywhere, and it hides in plain view. Everyday writing like catalogs and tax forms can contain the ingredients for a "found poem." Writers of found poetry pull words and phrases from various sources, including news articles, shopping lists, graffiti, historic documents, and even other works of literature. The original language is reformatted to create the found poem.

If you've ever played with a magnetic poetry kit, then you're familiar with found poetry.

Words are borrowed, and yet the poem is unique. A successful found poem doesn't simply repeat information. Instead, the poet engages with the text and offers a new context, a contrary view, a fresh insight, or lyrical and evocative writing. Just as plastic bottles can be recycled to make a chair, the source text is transformed into something completely different.

Traditionally, a found poem uses only words from the original source. However, poets have developed many ways to work with found language. Rearranging word order, inserting line breaks and stanzas, and adding new language can be part of the process. Check out these six popular approaches to creating found poems. 

1. Dada Poetry

In 1920 when the Dada movement was building up steam, founding member Tristan Tzara proposed to write a poem using random words pulled from a sack. He copied each word exactly as it appeared. The poem that emerged was, of course, an incomprehensible jumble.

Using Tzara's method, a found poem drawn from this paragraph might look like this:

Movement up write using pulled steam a;
Was when dada member founding the tristan in words;
Poem to proposed a from 1920;
Building sack random tzara 

Outraged critics said Tristan Tzara made a mockery of poetry. But this was his intention.

Just as Dada painters and sculptors defied the established art world, Tzara took the air out of literary pretension. 

Your Turn: To make your own Dada poem, follow Tzara's instructions or use an online Dada Poem Generator. Have fun with the absurdity of random word arrangements. You may discover unexpected insights and delightful word combinations. Some poets say it's as though the universe conspires to make meaning.  But even if your Dada poem is nonsensical, the exercise can spark creativity and inspire more traditional works. 

2. Cut-up and Remix Poetry (Découpé)

Like Dada poetry, cut-up and remix poetry (called découpé in French) can be randomly generated. However, writers of cut-up and remix poetry often opt to organize the found words into grammatical lines and stanzas. Unwanted words are discarded.

Beat writer William S. Burroughs championed the cut-up approach during the late 1950s and early '60s. He divided pages of a source text into quarters that he rearranged and turned into poems. Or, alternatively, he folded pages to merge lines and create unexpected juxtapositions.  

While his cut and fold poems can seem perplexing, it's clear that Burroughs made deliberate choices. Notice the eerie but consistent mood in this excerpt from "Formed in the Stance," a poem that Burroughs made from a Saturday Evening Post article about cancer cures:  

The girls eat morning
Dying peoples to a white bone monkey
in the Winter sun
touching tree of the house. $$$$ 

Your Turn: To write your own cut-up poems, follow Burrough's methods or experiment with an online cut-up generator. Any type of text is fair game. Borrow words from a car repair manual, a recipe, or a fashion magazine. You can even use another poem, creating a type of cut-up poem known as a a vocabularyclept. Feel free to shape your found language into stanzas, add poetic devices like rhyme and meter, or develop a formal pattern such as a limerick or sonnet

3. Blackout Poems

Similar to cut-up poetry, a blackout poem begins with an existing text, usually a newspaper. Using a heavy black marker, the writer blots out most of the page. The remaining words are not moved or rearranged. Fixed in place, they float in a sea of darkness.

The contrast of black and white stirs thoughts of censorship and secrecy. What's hiding behind the headlines of our daily paper? What does the highlighted text reveal about politics and world events?

The idea of redacting words to create a new work goes back centuries, but the process became trendy when writer and artist Austin Kleon posted newspaper blackout poems online and then published his book and companion blog, Newspaper Blackout.

Evocative and dramatic, blackout poems retain the original typography and word placement. Some artists add graphic designs, while others let the stark words stand on their own. 

Your Turn: To create your own blackout poem, all you need is a newspaper and a black marker. View examples on Pinterest and watch Kleon's video, How to Make a Newspaper Blackout Poem.

4. Erasure Poems

An erasure poem is like a photo-negative of a blackout poem. The redacted text is not blackened but erased, clipped out, or obscured beneath white-out, pencil, gouache paint, colored marker, sticky notes, or stamps. Often the shading is translucent, leaving some words slightly visible. The diminished language becomes a poignant subtext to the remaining words.

Erasure poetry is both a literary and a visual art. The poet engages in a dialog with a found text, adding  sketches, photographs, and handwritten notations. American poet Mary Ruefle, who has created nearly 50 book-length erasures, argues that each is an original work and should not be classified as found poetry.

"I certainly didn't 'find' any of these pages," Ruefle wrote in an essay about her process.

"I made them in my head, just as I do my other work." 

Your Turn: To explore the technique, try the online erasure tool from Ruefle's publisher, Wave Books. Or take the art to another level: Forage used bookstores for a vintage novel with interesting illustrations and typography. Give yourself permission to write and draw on time-worn pages. For inspiration, view examples on Pinterest.

5. Centos

In Latin, cento means patchwork, and a cento poem is, indeed, a patchwork of salvaged language. The form dates back to antiquity when Greek and Roman poets recycled lines from revered writers like Homer and Virgil. By juxtaposing lyrical language and presenting new contexts, a cento poet honors literary giants from the past.

After editing a new edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman wrote a 49-line "Oxford Cento" composed entirely of lines from the anthologized writers. Twentieth century poet John Ashbery borrowed from more than 40 works for his cento, "To a Waterfowl."  Here's an excerpt:

Go, lovely rose,
This is no country for old men. The young
Midwinter spring is its own season
And a few lilies blow. They that have power to hurt, and will do none.
Looking as if she were alive, I call.
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground.

Ashbery's poem follows a logical sequence. There's a consistent tone and a coherent meaning. Yet the phrases in this short section are from seven different poems:

Your Turn:  The cento is a challenging form, so start with no more than four or five favorite poems. Seek out phrases that suggest a common mood or theme. Print several lines on strips of paper that you can rearrange. Experiment with line breaks and explore ways to juxtapose the found language. Do the lines seem to flow together naturally? Have you discovered original insights? You've created a cento! 

6. Acrostic Poems and Golden Shovels

In a variation of cento poetry, the writer draws from famous poems but adds new language and new ideas. The borrowed words become a modified acrostic, forming a message within the new poem.

Acrostic poetry suggests many possibilities. The most famous version is the Golden Shovel form popularized by American writer Terrance Hayes.

Hayes won acclaim for his complex and ingenious poem titled "The Golden Shovel."  Each line of Hayes' poem ends with language from "The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel" by Gwendolyn Brooks. For example, Brooks wrote: 

We real cool. We   

Left school. 

Hayes wrote:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we

cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

 

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.

His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

 

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left

in them but approachlessness. This is a school

Brooks's words (shown here in bold type) are revealed by reading Hayes's poem vertically. 

Your Turn: To write your own Golden Shovel, choose a few lines from a poem you admire. Using your own language, write a new poem that shares your perspective or introduces a new topic. End each line of your poem with a word from the source poem. Do not change the order of the borrowed words.

Found Poetry and Plagiarism

Is found poetry cheating? Isn't it plagiarism to use words that aren't your own? 

All writing is, as William S. Burroughs argued, a "collage of words read and heard and overhead." No writer begins with a blank page.

That said, writers of found poetry risk plagiarism if they merely copy, summarize, or paraphrase their sources. Successful found poems offer unique word arrangements and new meanings. The borrowed words may be unrecognizable in the context of the found poem.

Even so, it's important for writers of found poetry to credit their sources. Acknowledgments are usually given in the title, as part of an epigraph, or in a notation at the end of the poem. 

Sources and Further Reading

Poetry Collections

  • Dillard, Annie. Mornings like this: found poems. HarperCollins, 2003.
  • Kleon, Austin. Newspaper Blackout. HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
  • McKim, George. Found & Lost: Found Poetry and Visual Poetry. Silver Birch Press, 2015.
  • Porter, Bern, and Joel A. Lipman et. al. Found Poems. Nightboat Books, 2011.
  • Ruefle, Mary. A Little White Shadow. Wave Books, 2006.

Resources for Teachers and Writers