Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Random Thoughts on "Found Poetry"

I've been thinking a bit about "found poetry" lately - that is, poetry whose words are lifted from some other source. The poet's job is to rearrange the words.

There's quite a bit of variation in the form. The first example I was ever shown was a poem called "Parents" by Julius Lester, in which the entire content is lifted straight from a news article in the New York Times - all the poet did was to add line breaks. If you have good eyesight you can read a copy of the poem here.

Here is another example which appears to have been lifted from a newspaper article, without alteration apart from line breaks, though I may be wrong about that.

Is this really poetry? It seems to be the literary equivalent of Marcel Duchamp's toilet exhibited as a piece of art. It all depends on the context - and it takes a keen eye for language to spot and arrange these newspaper pieces as poems. (Personally, I find them more artistic than the toilet, but perhaps that's because I write rather than sculpt).

Still, you can't lift just any piece of language and call it a poem. You can't for instance, "find" a Wordsworth poem, rearrange the line breaks and call it your own. Nor turn a piece of creative prose into a poem. It seems to be a requirement that the words you are lifting were not originally intended as creative literature - the further from literary intent, the better. I wonder, even with the newspaper articles, if the poet risks being pursued for breach of copyright.

The more common form of found poetry is to take pieces of text from other sources and combine them in a collage effect. I've done this in poetry workshops, and it's a lot of fun. The first one I wrote (I don't think I still have it) consisted of about a dozen lines, each from a different poem, combined. Collage artists combine images from different sources all the time. Again, it's not without problems. Apparently you can't clip an image of say, Mickey Mouse, out of a magazine, and use it in an artwork that is displayed publicly, without being pursued by Walt Disney for breach of copyright. So, I suspect that there may be similar pitfalls to creating found poetry - again, it may be safer to use text from other sources such as nonfiction articles, textbooks etc.

A more recent poem I created used the subject lines of spam e-mails I had received. I suspect no one is going to pursue me for breach of copyright over that. I thought I was being terribly original, but of course I wasn't . I recently found a "Spamtoum" in New Zealand poet James Brown's collection "The Year of the Bicycle". I was a bit disappointed as I felt my chances of having mine accepted in any journal had just dropped, as the editor would think I had copied James Brown - James seems to claim some originality for the idea, but a little googling revealed that there have been online competitions for poems created from spam as early as 2000.

I'd be interested to hear other's opinions on the validity of found poetry as an art form - and on possible copyright problems.

And as a bonus, though I've posted the spam poem in an earlier post, I'll repeat it here to save the trouble of clicking:

Here is the Incredible News
someone is interested in you
it is a world of love
this is a limited time offer

become the man that women desire
Dave did it, so can you
nail fungus is a thing of the past
passion should last forever

peel your hardboiled eggs in seconds
Spot’s got nothing on Dave
elevate mood and improve sleep
stop e-mails like this one

stir up your morning
fresh roasted gourmet coffee
the aroma will put a smile on your face
energy never tasted so good

tired of running to the Post Office?
Elvis endorses Google’s g-mail
please scan for errors by March 25
what’s Bill Gates got to do with it?


Anonymous said...

There is a sense in which all poetry is 'found' rather than invented. You can only make up so many words and still be understood after all. Just as all sounds are at some level musical, there is a kind of poetry in all arrangements of words. The poet has to learn the art of composition and arrangement and using found snippets of language is an excellent tool for learning that particular skill.

Kay Cooke said...

I still think found poetry has a place. It's like the artist who paints a white square and calls it a painting ... well, no-one else thought of it. It's got something to do with being the first to think of it maybe, rather than 'I could do that.' Sure you could do it - but you didn't.