Found poetry, flarf, plunder verse, collage, non-poetry, expanded poetry, recycled text, cut ups, documentary poetry, repurposed prose, poetry from prose, poetry trouvé, ready made poetry, Google sculpting, poetry to go, déja dit, the last gasps of postmodern formal exhaustion, the leading edge of the avant-garde. Why create anything new when you can copy what already exists, add some poetic flair, a bit of postmodern intellect, and publish? Why waste your time honing the fine inefficiencies of surprising vocabulary and metaphors for a poem few will read when a search algorithm can probably do it better and quicker? Why try to do something new when you can have so much fun with what is already out there? As Craig Dworkin states “one does not need to generate new material to be a poet: the intelligent organization or reframing of already extant text is enough.”1 Regardless of what it is called (and each practitioner seems to have a slightly different definition), found poetry has long been a mainstream poetic practice and Canadian poets have been and continue to be avid practitioners of this poetic black op. At the same time, over the past decades, how found poetry has been created, what it is used for, and what it means, has changed and it is worth looking more closely at recent examples of this shift and its growing use in the poetry of protest.
Though there could be general agreement that found poetry works with existing texts, re-fashions them, re-orders them, and re-presents them, in some way, as poems, in practice found poetry should probably be seen more as a technique with varying levels of application than a poetic sub-genre. Looking at it this way, one can conceptualize found poetry along an axis that ranges from non-interventionist at one extreme (where found text is used verbatim with no or little interference from the author other than the original act of finding and excerpting) to the other end where the found text is doctored, and “poeticized,” and, perhaps, included within a larger unfound structure. Along this continuum, there exist many side variations that elude categorization altogether; here you might have texts that have been photographed (see Arnaud Maggs’ “Contaminations”2), sewn (see Jen Bervin’s “Nets”3), beaded (see Nadia Myre’s “Indian Act”4), photocopied (see the 1970s and 80s for the plethora of photocopy art), or (and you’ll see this later) shot. There are poems that are completely found; there are poems that contain found text within larger, lyrical structures. There are poems that don’t much care about what was found but only about the procedures and rules of finding. And there are poems that only want to give you the sense of being found to add to some faux-documentary authenticity. Found poetry isn’t necessarily radical, new, or experimental—though it can be all these things—but its use brings interesting new possibilities and meaning in contemporary poetic practice. At the same time, we can see many Canadian antecedents to its current use.
In Canada, found poetry as a conscious practice is generally traced back to F.R. Scott, John Robert Colombo and Dorothy Livesay. In Scott’s Trouvailles: Poems from Prose (1967), he describes his technique of turning found prose into poems: “In a strict manner, no words should be added or subtracted; the original should be printed with only a change from the prose to free verse form.” In his introduction to Trouvailles, Louis Dudek defined found poetry as “a piece of realist literature, in which significance appears inherent in the object—either as extravagant absurdity or as unexpected worth. It is like driftwood or pop art, where natural objects and utilitarian objects are seen as the focus of generative form or meaning.” Scott’s purity of approach (where the poet’s only role is to find and add line breaks) mirrors the approach of John Robert Colombo. In The Mackenzie Poems (1966), a book of poems constructed from excerpts of Mackenzie King’s speeches, Colombo defines his found poetry as “redeemed prose”; elsewhere he described them as translations from English and poems of theft. Of any Canadian writer, Colombo has made the greatest career of the found where his many books of found poetry bleed naturally into his collections of Canadian quotations and Canadiana.
With its connections to realism (and the assumed factual immediacy of prose) and with Pop Art’s new-found interest in Dadaist techniques, the 1960s and 1970s made much use of found techniques. In Canada, examples range from Dorothy Livesay’s The Documentaries (1968) and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), to Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston (1974), Robert Kroetsch’s The Ledger (1975), and Mick Burrs’ Going to War: Found Poems of the Métis People (1975). Though none of these books take a purist approach to found poetry, they are united in their use of the found to reframe history and question differences between fact and fiction. As Franz Stanzel notes: “Many if not most of the found poems, certainly most of those produced by Canadian writers, belong to documentary literature, employing historical or social documents as literature.”5 This echoes Livesay’s sentiment that found poetry and documentary techniques are “a conscious attempt to create a dialectic between the objective facts and the subjective feelings of the poet.”6 For Livesay, the use of the documentary and found was much more of a moral concern than a technical one: getting away from modernist poetry that valorized classical allusions over lived realities. Tied to preoccupations with Canadian nation building and its attendant immigration stories and mythologies, many of the found poems from this time functioned as a sort of literary archeology focused on recuperating and repositioning histories.
The exuberant production of Canadian found poetry from its early practitioners in the 1970s has only been matched in the past decade,7 as evidenced by books such as (and this is just a sampling) Gregory Betts’ If Language (2005), Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources (2007), M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), derek beaulieu’s How to Write (2010), Helen Hajnoczky’s Poets and Killers (2010), Garry Thomas Morse’s Discovery Passages (2011), and my own Err (2011). This resurgence is even stronger south of the border with the creation of the email “flarflist” by the Flarf Collective in 2001 and the exuberant production—Fidget (2000), Day (2003), The Weather (2005), Traffic (2007), and Sports (2008)—of Kenneth Goldsmith, one of found poetry’s most eloquent spokespersons. With the American poet Matthea Harvey’s 2011 Of Lamb (which uses erasure techniques to create a long poem from David Cecil’s A Portrait of Charles Lamb) making it onto Oprah’s “Top 11 Books You Never Thought You’d Read (but will fall in love with instantly),” one can really have no doubt about found poetry’s presence as a mainstream practice of the marginal.8
Though Kenneth Goldsmith reasons that our resurgent interest in found poetry lies with the cyclical nature of boredom (with the unboring boring currently ascendant),9 how found poetry is being made, and what drives the current interest, is markedly different from the past. Technological change, and the rapid digitization of contemporary and archival text, has had a profound impact on what found poetry now plays with and how it plays. Once largely the purview of academics and archivists, access to archival texts and documents has now become simple for anyone with a computer, internet access and time. Do you want to see the 1513 text of the Spanish Crown’s El Requirmiento? No need to go to the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain; just Google it and you will have it in 0.22 seconds. Want a searchable copy of the Phaedra by Racine? Go to Project Gutenberg. Simultaneously, the rapid digitization of texts has also opened up whole new methods of reading, finding and textual manipulation all with new potential for artistic appropriation. For example, derek beaulieu’s “How to Edit,” is a six page conglomeration of search results for the use of the word “edit” in 1,100 digital texts at Project Gutenberg.10 In my own “The Body,” the poem’s source material is a decades long archive of a question/answer forum on HIV/AIDS maintained by thebody.com; such an archive—the existence of which is, itself, fueled by the easy anonymity of the internet—and its found poetry have never before existed.11 Even erasure poetry—long associated with highlighters, black markers and sinus-numbing quantities of Wite-Out—has been electronically facilitated: wavepoetry.com can now help you make your own erasure poems from pre-existing texts by Henry James and others. As Kenneth Goldsmith states in the special issue of Poetry dedicated to flarf and conceptual writing, “Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers,” and found poetry is one of the most popular reactions.12
Compared to Canadian found poetry of the 70s, recent examples, though still continuing the work of historical restoration and revision, are much more interested in dissent. That found poetry can be a medium for protest might seem unlikely; indeed, flarf has been criticized for its seeming blindness to the un-neutral commercial interests that power the search algorithms upon which it depends.13 Yet, for all that, one of contemporary found poetry’s strengths is as protest poetry of the post-: post-colonialism, post-feminism, post-capitalism, post-Marxism. Its engineered play within shifting temporal and cultural contexts exalts in exposing the ridiculousness and offensiveness of previous narrative structures, writers and their writing. Today’s found poetry thrives in counter discourse—not just finding texts but speaking back to them with, and within, their own words.
Found poetry derives meaning from the relationship between the poem, poet and source material—that is, understanding the reason why something was “found,” why this “foundness” needs to be signified, and the new contextual frame in which the found material is now placed. A new context motivates new meanings. The high valuation placed on changing contexts can be seen in “No Comment” by Garry Thomas Morse and his use of historic letters from Indian Agents in the 1910s to draw attention to government efforts to destroy the cultural practices of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples. In effect, Morse, who is of Kwakwaka’wakw background, re-deploys the letters’ own strategies of control, selection and erasure to create poems.
a feast of
Wm. M. Halliday, Indian Agent
Nov. 20, 1918
[“No Comment,” p. 36]
The poem moves quickly from simple language describing arrangements for a feast of oolichan oil to the heavy gutturals and plosives of prohibition (“against / the act / persist / no choice”) and prosecution. The poem alludes to the Indian Act’s potlatch ban (the ban was added to the Act in 1884) and its enforcement—which was invigorated by Duncan Campbell Scott when he became Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1913 and by the efforts of Indian Agents such as William Halliday who was responsible for the Act’s enforcement among the Kwakwaka’wakw. What is stunning about “No Comment” is the mass of historical information these few found words bring with them, how the poem creates meaning through Morse and his finding, and how the technique of finding and erasure of Indian Agent letters draws out the larger political correlatives of finding and erasure in relation to Canadian discovery, colonization, and cultural control. “Finding” isn’t only about finding and erasing words; in this context, it is also about finding and erasing people and their cultures. Though page-based, Discovery Passages’ found poems are similar in sentiment to Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s performance piece aptly named “An Indian Shooting the Indian Act” where the performance consisted of Yuxwelupton shooting copies of the Act while O Canada plays in the background.14
In Canada, it is no wonder that so many recent examples of found poetry are taken with post-colonial concerns and reading the colonial past’s atrocities and racism through the present. Constraining itself to the 500-word decision of the Gregson v. Gilbert legal case about hundreds of African slaves murdered by the captain of the Zong in 1781, M. NorbeSe Philip’s Zong! builds poems through the gaps, sparse words and silences she finds in the original court document. As Philip states in her foreword to poems published in Fascicle: “As poet/writer/creator I become censor and magician, simultaneously censoring the activity of the reported text, and conjuring something new from the absence of the Africans as humans that is at the heart of the text.”15 Philip employs different strategies throughout Zong! to work within such constrained source material. In the first sections, the poems are constructed from whole words; by the last section, however, the poem has begun to rip the words apart and compose new vocabularies. Much of the power of Zong! is built through repetition and space which highlight both the artistic act of arrangement but also the original act of cutting from a surrounding text:
the truth was
the ship sailed
the rains came
the loss arose
the truth is
the ship sailed
the rains came
the loss arose
the negroes is
the truth was
[“Zong! #14,” p. 24]
Kate Eichorn, writing about Zong! in Cross Cultural Poetics, states “There is only one choice and that is to tell the story that can’t be told through its constraints.”16 The suspense that powers Zong! is how Philip works within the constraints of found poetry and breaks her own self-imposed constraints, all the while trying to divine the “truth” of what actually happened on the Zong through the few words she has found.
The activist nature of contemporary found poetry isn’t, however, only constrained to historical documents. In “Boycott,” Gregory Betts uses much looser constraints to sample language from boycott movements from around the world to highlight the arguments that happen in and through consumerism.
If I boycott you from my point of view I boycott you. I boycott you who boycott girls, without girls, you cannot exist and I boycott you Canada!!! You don’t boycott me, I boycott you! Really, Pampers? Must I boycott you too? I boycott you blog that is full of shit. I boycott you illiterate Facebook applications. The reasons I boycott you? At first, it was simply because it was so hard. Here’s my question: should I admire you for sticking to your unnecessary, overtly sexual guns or should I boycott you because of, um, the same reasons? How can I boycott you when I never darken your doors to begin with? I boycott you Naomi Klein. This comment has received too many negative votes to show. Click hide. I boycott you because you are so ignorant that you are mixing art and politics together. Get a crash course on Art 101!!
[“I Boycott You”]
Betts’ project, with its text built from thematically driven internet search results and the harder work of arrangement, could be considered “flarf plus”; that is, flarf with a political conscience and organizing or curatorial manifesto. As Betts stated in Geist, “The boycott project is thus a mirror held up to a black hole, an enormous globe-spanning chattering of threats of economic negation. It is a collection of the calls to boycott at both the most individual and futile of phases, from the blogosphere, from Facebook boycott groups, and from the comment streams beneath provocative articles.”17 Betts’ objective in Boycott is similar to Helen Hajnoczky’s in Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising where, through lines taken directly from advertisements beginning in the 1940s and working up to 2010, she “demonstrates how we can talk back to advertising by using its diction to undermine its messages.”
That poetry can be built from the unexpected and the unpoetic that surround us has to be one of the continuing attractions of found poetry. At the same time, what found poetry has always offered to poetic practice—whether now, in the 1970s or before—is a shift away from the expected poetic building blocks of classical allusion, metaphor, simile, rhyme and rhythm to focus instead on poetry’s ability to interrogate histories and engineer a critical space for dissention, commentary and argument. With the ever evolving integration of technology into poetry and the increasing availability of interesting source material and new means of collection, sampling and manipulation, this restoked interest in found poetry—as evidenced by recent examples—is only at the beginning. Who knows what next we will find.
1 Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston: Northwestern University Press,, 2011), xliv.
5 Franz Stanzel, “Texts Recycled: ‘Found’ Poems Found in Canada,” in Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature, Eds. Robert Kroetsch and Reingard M. Nischik (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1985), 91-106.
6 Dorothy Livesay, “The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre,” in Contexts of Canadian Criticism, Ed. Eli Mandel (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1971).
7 This short history ignores, of course, the intervening history of electronic sampling that has raged through rap, hip hop and house music for the last four decades; this has only increased the “coolness” of sampling and found poetry’s desire to capture some of that transgressive bling.
10 derek beaulieu, How to Write (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010), 39-44.
11 Shane Rhodes, Err (Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2011), 50-54.
beaulieu, derek. How to Write. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010.
Betts, Gregory. If Language. Toronto: Book Thug, 2005. Boycott. Los Angeles: Make Now Press, publication forthcoming.
Boycott. Los Angeles: Make Now Press, publication forthcoming.
Burrs, Mick. Going to War: Found Poems of the Métis People. Regina: Province of Saskatchewan, Department of Culture and Youth, 1975.
Colombo, John Robert. The Mackenzie Poems. Toronto: Swan, 1966.
Dworkin, Craig. Goldsmith, Kenneth. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, 2011.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Fidget. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000.
Day. Great Barrington, The Figures, 2003.
The Weather. Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2005.
Traffic. Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2007.
Sports. Los Angelese: Make Now Press, 2008.
Hajnoczky, Helen. Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising. Montreal: Snare Books, 2010.
Harvey, Matthea. Of Lamb. McSweeney’s Publishing: San Francisco, 2011.
Kroetsch, Robert. The Ledger. London: Brick Books, 1975.
Livesay, Dorothy. The Documentaries. Toronto: Ryerson University Press, 1968.
Marlatt, Daphne. Steveston. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1974.
Morse, Garry Thomas. Discovery Passages. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Toronto: Anansi, 1970.
Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong! Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Rhodes, Shane. Err. Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2011.
Scott, Francis Reginald. Trouvailles: Poems from Prose. Montreal: Delta Canada, 1967.
Zolf, Rachel. Human Resources. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007.
Shane Rhodes is Arc’s Poetry Editor. His most recent book, Err, was published by Nightwood Editions in 2011. “Reuse and Recycle: Finding Poetry in Canada” is based on a talk originally commissioned by Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series.