Blogstitute Post 2: Poems Waiting to be Found

June 19th, 2014

blogstitute2014Welcome back to the second post in our summer Blogstitute series. We are staying with the topic of writing — but this time we are joined by author and poet Shirley McPhillips who shares her thoughts on “found poems.” These poems are all around us — on traffic signs, in letters, in newspaper articles. We just have to have an open eye and an open ear to find them. Shirley shares some student-found poems and ideas for inspiring students to write their own poetry.

Shirley’s latest book is Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers. Leave a comment — or better yet, a found poem — in the comments section for a chance to win a package of eight Stenhouse books. One winner each week! You can also use code BLOG to receive 20% off and free shipping on your order from the Stenhouse website.

Poems Waiting to be Found

“Those happy poets who write found poetry go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps. They hold and wave aloft usable artifacts and fragments: jingles and ad copy, menus and broadcasts. . . .”    

—Annie Dillard (1995, ix)

Once addicted to words—to the tune of words, to the feel of writing them down, to the look of them in print—they do indeed begin to “wave aloft” their hidden treasures. I hold onto them in my notebooks: lists, snippets, clusters, lines. Many times before I begin to write a new poem I read a few pages by an author I admire in order to get into a certain thoughtful zone. When I feel itchy (or most often before) to walk down that writerly path, I read through some pages of disparate lines in my notebook hoping to catch not so much an idea but a thought, an image, or a sound that will start me off. Often a new poem begins with a line I like the sound of. That sound will lead me to places I never expected to go. The words lead. I follow. Connections are made. In this way I “find” my poem.

But “found” poems tweak the process a bit differently. These are poems in which someone else’s phrases or lines are taken from their usual context (fiction, nonfiction, signage in our daily lives, another poem, etc.) and arranged to make a new poem. In this way the new poem is not a “copy,” nor is it “plagiaristic.” And, if published, the origin of the lines may be attributed. Once you’ve recognized and arranged found lines to make something new, your eyes and ears will find it hard to resist the search thereafter. We go “pawing through the popular culture” like the sculptors Dillard writes about in the epigraph.

Finding Poems in Unexpected Places

Blog posts online describe fascinating found poem experiences. Patrice, for example, noticed a line in the carriage of the Paris Metro, “A sonorous signal announces the closure of doors.” She thinks the English translation reads better than the French. Benny wrote a poem from suggested recipes for the Ultimate Banana Daiquiri. Bill reminds us of a whole book of poems from the broadcast musings of Phil Rizzuto, shortstop and announcer for the New York Yankees. Danika has written a collection of poems from comments on YouTube. Randy wrote poems taking lines from articles about Hurricane Sandy. He sent one to each of his relatives who lost property on the Jersey Shore.

Poet Hart Seely scoured official Defense Department transcripts of news briefings and speeches by then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He took the best nuggets from Rumsfeld’s “verbosity” and turned them into art. His poems, published as The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, first appeared in Slate in 2003, and readers shivered with recognition and newfound truth. No doubt you will recall these words from a February 12, 2002, press briefing addressing the lack of evidence of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”: “There are known knowns . . . there are known unknowns . . . there are things we do not know we don’t know.” You might want to read Seely’s poem online: What a difference a form makes.

Jenni B. Baker and her friends in graduate school arranged an online poetry-writing group. They posted and responded to a prompt each week. One week they challenged themselves to write a poem using words found on product packaging. Not having much faith in the idea, Jenni reached for a product at hand—teeth-whitening strips—and copied down all the words. She did it in half an hour, and it was fun. Since then she uses this strategy as an exercise when struggling with an idea, “a way to unclog the creative pipes.” Eventually, she began practicing “crafting poems from speeches, menus, Twitter streams and more” (“Finding Poetry” 2012).

By 2011, Jenni had become an active devotee. So she founded the Found Poetry Review (, a biannual literary journal, to showcase poets finding poems in their everyday lives and to encourage others to try.

Students Find Poems in the Everyday

Following is a sampling of poems students have found from everyday sources. The lines have been left wholly intact, nothing added. They have provided a context for their poems. And each source has been attributed. When you read these poems, imagine the poetic eye sharp enough to recognize selected print as a source for a poem. Imagine the mind composed enough to separate out words and lines around a single idea or image or event or experience. Imagine the ear receptive enough to hear and select words and lines that sound so right in their arranged places. Imagine the poetic knowledge required to find a beginning line, to end-stop or enjamb (one line spilling over into the next) those lines, to break the stanzas, to land in a strong place. These are some of the skills all poets need. Even found poets.

James—a found poem from the book The Most Beautiful Place in the World by Ann Cameron (1993):

I remember the peacocks on the lawn,
thousands of stars in the sky—
my town.

But back
the wall,
a good
I ran out
of signs.

I can’t go there again.

Nathan—a found poem from a Public Service Electric & Gas monthly statement:

Public Service

This is the charge
for delivering.
This is the charge
for balancing
for transporting.

This is the charge
for generating.
This is the charge
for commodity,
for Worry Free.

This is the charge
for the balance
of those, energy strong,

William—a found poem from the Playbill of Kinky Boots on Broadway:

Play Bill

Welcome to the vault.
Something wicked
this way comes.

Kinky Boots,
Viva glam!

Bank your Broadway
memories, unlock
the last five years.

It’s about taking you
on a journey, beyond
your four walls, beyond
a new town.

As the Poem Finds Its Way to Paper

Finding lines that have possibilities for poems is one thing. What to do with them is another. Poets spend years honing their craft. It’s serious business. So some might bristle to hear that folks think they can just find some lines on a bottle of olive oil, and voila!

Granted, not all found poems are created equal. Not all found constructions work well as poems. And readers’ tastes run the gamut. But finding lines and crafting these types of poems can be liberating and fun. When feeling strapped for an idea, or stuck on a poem of our own, we can take a break and use someone else’s words and still feel creative as we try to arrange and order them to represent some kind of new truth. We can still practice the craft of making a poem and yield something honest, artful, even moving, as the preceding examples show. We might transform what is found using a traditional form such as a sonnet or villanelle, or write in free verse making decisions about line endings, spaces, stanzas, and so on.

As students and teachers get started writing their own found poems, I think Baker’s breakdown of the types of submissions she receives for the Found Poetry Review online, and what she tends to accept as quality, can be instructive. She describes three broad buckets:

1. Reportage: A problem

Excerpted, sequential lines from a text, with added line breaks and spaces. “Singling out a pithy paragraph in Lolita, pressing the return key a few times and calling it a found poem doesn’t do much for me on the editorial front—it is not surprising or inventive.”

2. Distillation: Can work

Words and phrases from a text rearranged so the message is the same but the lines are arranged in a different way. She looks for originality in arrangement.

3. Reinvention: Works well

Words and phrases from a text arranged so that the poems meaning has little or nothing to do with that of the source material. It answers the questions: “What can you add to the source material? What new story can you find within the original?”

Some Tips for Crafting a Found Poem

•Your source is any text that’s not already a poem (unless it’s a cento, which is made of lines from other poems).

•As you read source material, you may underline or highlight lines or phrases that speak to you, that you like the sound of. Maybe you have a theme or mood or image in mind as you’re reading, and you find yourself jotting around those. Or you may review your listings later and discover your central idea.

•Jot the phrases and lines on a notebook page or in a word-processing document. Or cut them out and arrange them on a table. Short lines probably will work better. Arrange them by common characteristics or theme or sound or grammatical units.

•Begin to write your poem. You might find a good first line and let that line push you sound-wise, sense-wise, and rhythmically to the next line and the next. Lines and phrases can be repeated too. Some people like to group their lines and phrases in various ways: good beginnings, description, actions, speaking to the reader, repetition, statements or commands, great landing pads (endings), and so on.

•Revise. And revise again. Now you’re thinking “poem.” You might have a few poems you like next to you as you work, including some found poems from this text, or Dillard’s (1995).

•Read your poem out loud. Again. To yourself. To a kind person. When your voice follows your notation, does it sound right? Does it feel right? Does thought move from the first line and push its way forward? Do you land at the end?

•You might experiment by writing several different poems using the same lines and phrases.

Finders Keepers

Summertime, that beautiful word. Seems like a good time to practice finding poems in the print all around us. With the folks you’ve just read about as inspiration, dive in. Bet you’ll never see the words on your hand sanitizer the same way again.


Cameron, Ann. 1993. The Most Beautiful Place in the World. New York: Yearling.

Dillard, Annie. 1995. Mornings Like This: Found Poems. New York: HarperCollins.

“Finding Poetry in the Existing and Every Day: Jenni B. Baker on Found Poetry.” 2012. Metre Maids.


Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amanda Villagómez  |  June 19th, 2014 at 9:25 am

    I look forward to using this idea with my pre-service teacher next year. This year they enjoyed Erasure poetry, inspired by a blog post I saw on Two Writing Teachers. It will be fun to pair Erasure poetry with Found Poems. I especially appreciate the second half of the post with support in order to craft your own.

  • 2. Susan  |  June 19th, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    I can’t wait to try this with my third graders. They love to write poetry.

  • 3. Laura Purdie Salas  |  June 19th, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Great post! I like the reinvention method. It’s especially fun when the found poem isn’t the same topic as the source material but still manages to comment on it in some way. Georgia Heard’s anthology of found poems, The Arrow Finds Its Mark, is a great resource for sample poems.

  • 4. Laura Purdie Salas  |  June 19th, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    P.S. I’ve got Poem Central on my tbr list–can’t wait to read it and share it with teachers…

  • 5. Lisa  |  June 19th, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks for this inspirational post! As teachers, what more could we desire than to help open minds to the amazing world of language? I love the idea of noticing and collecting words and phrases everywhere…like a never ending treasure hunt! Children and poetry are a natural combination.

  • 6. Donna  |  June 19th, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    A good description of found poetry, and a wonderful way to find my way into found poetry. I’l never look at the writing on the back of a cereal box again!

  • 7. Julie  |  June 20th, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Hi Shirley & Everyone — I’m inspired to have my class work collaboratively to create a found poem. On Poem in Your Pocket Day we created a “First Lines” poem using the first lines from their pocket poems. To start the year I will ask students to bring in a phrase from…. (the possibilities are endless). We will then collaborate as readers and writers to create an original poem from the phrases brought in.

  • 8. Ellen  |  June 20th, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Shirl – You are, as always, inspirational and practical in your advice. My daughter did a demo lesson on found poetry using leveled nonfiction texts for the second grade students. Her (now) principal has told her, and others, that it was the best demo lesson she has ever seen. This is such a fun way to be successful quickly when trying to write poetry. Can’t wait to read your new book!

  • 9. P of Park  |  June 20th, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    Wish I had a class to try this out. But when my grandson is ready he will be writing poetry. But then again that will be easy considering that his dad is a poet. As we speak he is writing a poetry book about ropes.

  • 10. Theresa  |  June 21st, 2014 at 1:32 am

    Thank you so much for sharing these free professional growth opportunities. Great summer reading!

  • 11. Dawn Sunderman  |  June 21st, 2014 at 8:32 am

    I can’t wait to try this, so that I can encourage my fourth graders to try it. I will be doing some research and looking at more examples, then diving it to try writing a few myself. Thanks!

  • 12. Linda  |  June 21st, 2014 at 10:26 am

    I have been fortunate in having a preview of the “Poem Central” new book of Shirley’s and there are many other wonderful ideas there as well. I am looking forward to trying some “found poems” with a group of friends over the summer.

  • 13. barb caldwell  |  June 21st, 2014 at 10:37 am

    As poetry-lover and word addict, I am most appreciative of the idea of “found poems.” I am also a mom and former teacher who for many years played “Mother Goose” to kids all over the tri-county area. When my daughter, at the time aged 3, asked to wear her “zebra having a party dress” (multi-colored stripes) to preschool I realized that from the get-go, we are all poets in the making. Children in particular, see poems everywhere. As they get older, other stuff gets in their way. They (and we!) need to relearn that forgotten skill –rediscover the joy and pass it on. Thanks to Shirl for great ideas so thoughtfully shared. I’ll be telling my teacher friends to get ready for a book that will be a great teaching tool besides being a darn good read!

  • 14. Molly  |  June 21st, 2014 at 10:49 am

    What a great idea!! No one can NOT be a poet with this method. And it teaches a widening of vision in the midst of the mundane. The part about revising the work is very important. I’ve been writing poems for decades and find that the revision process is the best part.

  • 15. Carol Kellogg  |  June 21st, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Many thanks for this! Your post was inspirational, and as I read the New York Times this morning I kept scanning the text for material. Having rejected news articles and crossword clues for material, I was inspired by an essay by Akiko Busch on the Op-Ed page and wrote the following:

    The parking lot is awash
    with radiant glow, the garish
    gleam of illuminated signs.
    From the floodlit night we go,
    hand in hand we flee
    the high intensity beams of Stop&Shop.

    The translucent sky is awash
    with shades of rose, pearl, gray
    lucidity of thought
    gradations of uncertainty.
    Into the shadow world we go
    singing an anthem to obscurity.

    Dim shadows of white pines
    random flickering of fireflies
    somewhere the sound of
    an animal plunging
    into the water
    maybe a raccoon
    maybe a badger
    we know not what.

    –A found poem from “The Solstice Blues,” by Akiko Busch

  • 16. Drew Myron  |  June 21st, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    I love the spirit of discovery that found poems provide, and I can’t wait to use these ideas with my summer writing camp kids next week. “Poem Central” is going to be a great resource!

  • 17. barb caldwell  |  June 22nd, 2014 at 11:01 am

    As poetry-lover and word addict, I am most appreciative of the idea of “found poetry.” I am also a mom and former teacher who, for many years performed as Mother Goose for school children in my tri-county area. When my daughter, at age 3, asked to wear her “zebra having a party dress” (multi-striped) to preschool, I realized that from the get-go we are all poets-in-the-making. Children in particular, see poems everywhere. As they age, other stuff gets in their way. They (and we!) need to relearn that forgotten skill–rediscover the joy and pass it on. Much thanks to Shirl for great ideas so creatively shared. This lady knows how to pass on the love!. I’ll be telling my teacher friends to get ready for a book that is not only a great teaching tool, but a delight to read!

  • 18. Barb Caldwell  |  June 22nd, 2014 at 11:18 am

    As poetry lover and word addict,I am most appreciative of “found” poetry. I am also a mom and former teacher who for many years performed as Mother Goose for school children in my tri-county area. When my daughter at age three asked to wear her zebra-having-a-party dress (multi-striped) to pre-school, I realized that from the get-go we are all poets in the making. Children in particular, see poems everywhere. As we age, other stuff gets in the way. They (and we) need to relearn that forgotten skill, rediscover the joy and pass it on. Many thanks to Shirl for great ideas so creatively shared. This lady knows how to pass on the love! I’ll be telling my teacher friends to get ready for a book that is not only a great teaching tool, but a delight to read!

  • 19. Linda Van Orden  |  June 22nd, 2014 at 11:54 am

    I have been fortunate in having a preview of Poem Central, the new book of Shirley’s, and there are many other wonderful ideas there as well. I am looking forward to trying some “found” poems with a group of friends over the summer.

  • 20. Aimee Buckner  |  June 22nd, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    seem significant
    and important-
    until the realization:
    it’s about

    (From the questions on my son’s summer assignment regarding FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes. RIP Daniel Keys 6/15/14)

    Thanks for the post, Shirley. It’s a wonderful way to keep kids interested and loving the different ways words work together.

  • 21. Teresa  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 8:28 am

    Thanks for all the great resources…off to check out Poem Central.

  • 22. Shirley McPhillips  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Gosh, in addition to, finally, the joy of some great summer days, I get to read your heartfelt responses about poetry. Your enthusiasm for “the word,” your inspired and creative ideas for engaging in poetry makes me glad.
    Thanks so much for sharing your poems and ideas with everyone.
    And for keeping Poem(s) Central.

  • 23. Patrick Westcott  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Ms. McPhillips continues to inspire educators with her love of poetry. I had the great honor to work with Shirley for several years when she served as a staff developer for public schools in a prominent northern New Jersey school district. She generously shares her wonder of the written word.
    I walked our two dogs today in the beautiful park near our home. Nature provides so many poems waiting to be found: the lush green canopy, the conversation of the swallow and robin, the snake bathing in the heat, the scent of wild phlox and rose, the ephemeral taste of summer’s warmth. I so look forward to reading Shirley’s newest work, Poems Central. Thank you, Shirley, for being you!

  • 24. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks for a great posting. As I wrap up my last week of school, I am inspired to try out my own found poetry in order to inspire my new students next year.

  • 25. Dorothy Barnhouse  |  June 24th, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Great to “see” you here, Shirley. This is very inspiring, especially for those of us, and our many students, who feel we can’t “do” poetry. I found myself eavesdropping today on other people’s conversations (on subway, on the street) and thinking of the many possible poems there as well. I so look forward to reading Poem Central.

  • 26. Tammy Petty Conrad  |  June 24th, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Grateful for Gratitude
    Words from benefits of Gratitude by Marcus Tullius Cicero

    Increase our goals
    Reach more likability
    Support health
    Improve others
    Better love life
    Stronger energy
    More sleep!

  • 27. Erika  |  June 24th, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Shirley, thank you. This “found” poem post helped remind me what is central to us all—the importance of finding the beauty or the gem in the ordinary. Keeping our eyes peeled for words and lines that could have a second life. I look forward to teaching towards this kind of writing in September with my small groups. I have been trying out some of this work in my own writer’s notebook as well.
    That is what I love about Shirley’s writing and work. It is practical for the classroom, but also, and maybe more importantly, organically challenges the “teacher” to give it a go–to try out the writing process we ask the kids to take.
    I am most excited to have Poem Central on my classroom easel ledge next year.

  • 28. Elsie  |  June 24th, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Love the details you’ve included in how-to create found poetry. I will be saving this and referring to it in the future.

  • 29. Justin Greene  |  July 2nd, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    I have just started reading Poem Central and can’t wait to use the plethora of ideas in it. My copy is already marked up and full of sticky notes. The found poem is one of my favorites to have students write after reading a novel. I look forward to finishing the book and finding out other ways to bring poetry in to my classroom.

  • 30. Julie DeMicco  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 8:38 am

    I love this idea! I need to check out the book!

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