Blogstitute Post 2: Poems Waiting to be Found

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.


30 comments June 19th, 2014

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