A Sketch in Time: Poets Painting the Moment

We are excited to again celebrate National Poetry Month with the help of poet Shirley McPhillips, author of Poem Central. She introduces us to “word sketches” as a way of slowing down, noticing details, finding the wonder if everyday details. She offers some ideas for trying out word sketches in the classroom.

A Sketch in Time: Poets Painting the Moment
By Shirley McPhillips

The poet, in the novelty of his images, is always the origin of language.

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

One morning this fall, I found myself walking in circles—this time by design. A teen’s Boy Scout project resulted in fashioning a labyrinth on the lush green lawn of his church. A labyrinth—not a maze intended to confuse, but a circular pathway for thoughtful or meditative walking, intended to soothe and heal. At first it was hard to quiet my mind. Walking the labyrinth over time, however, my feet found a rhythm. My mind centered as if following a heartbeat.

Yet still, the rattling times we live in can knock attention, rapid fire, from one matter to the next. Even nature seems to join in with erratic weather patterns—disorienting record heat in February followed by epic arctic blasts. But the lesson of the labyrinth becomes a touchstone: allow the quiet voice inside you to speak; put your attention to the mysteries of a moment, find the surprise, feel the wonder.

Writing “word sketches” is one way teacher-writers and their students can practice finding the wonder in moments of their daily lives. Anyone can train the eye by frequent sketching—slowing the gaze to follow the lines of an object. A simple sketch a day (a coffee cup, a candle, a pear, a chair), even done quickly, can result over time in “seeing” of a different kind—noticing the drama of light and dark, the intricacy of detail and design, the subtle vigor of white space. Writing short word sketches holds the same promise.


The sophistication of the word sketches will, of course, depend upon the experience of the writers and will vary one from another. But, we can start with paying attention: jotting in our notebooks, making lists of what we see—on a walk to school, driving to work, looking out the window.

-a wet street

-a sparrow

-white chairs

-an old plate

As we go, we find our “noticings” becoming more particular and nuanced, especially if we share them, chart them, join others in finding things intriguing.

Next, we’ll want to get some language around what we notice. What else? Where? Doing what? Make a picture.

-the wet street streaked with colors

-a sparrow peeking out of a drainpipe

-two white chairs at the beach

-a plate with cracks in it

Zoom in closer. Enter the moment as if it were a painting. Look around with all your senses. Find the uniqueness. Get out the paints. Don’t be afraid to find unusual words to paint with.

Jack pictures himself walking along a wet side street in his boots. Colors from the buildings are reflected in the rain. His elaborated sketch has the tone and brevity of haiku.

On a narrow street

rain paints a watercolor—

amber, peach—

boots brush a slick design.

Shuyi imagines the sparrow working tirelessly to make a home in such an ignoble place. We know, without any mention of a nest. A true poet.

The sparrow

has built its palace

in a drainpipe.

Mr. Vitturi writes a pure image. Then, like Shuyi, pushes himself to imagine something surprising.

Two white chairs, sunwashed,

sit side by side at the beachfront—

a seat for seagulls.

Sometimes word sketches can be the start of a longer image. Or they can find their way into an elaborated poem. Often, looking back through my notebook, I find lines that seem right in a new poem. Lila pushes past the “cracked plate” observation to find the heart of a longer poem based on a personal story. She sticks very close to the image, revealing “the poem within the poem.” We can see how her practice with observation and detail, her sense of image, sticks with her as she composes “The Cracked Plate.”

Afternoon tea, with tea things spread out

on a lace scarf she made

when she was an English girl,

thin now like the skin of her hands,

lifting the delicate pot to pour.

We sit and talk about different things,

like the cookies on the cracked plate

with the castle scene and the gold rim,

some of this and some of that.


The way we lift our cups and our cookies

to our lips. The way she says, “Do have another,

my dear,” lifting up the cracked plate that holds

so much of what we love.

7 comments April 4th, 2017

Poems, right from the start

Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

In her book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers, author and poet Shirley McPhillips shows how teachers can include poetry in the daily life of the classroom and in the lives of students. Dozens of poems throughout the book can be used as mentor texts as they serve to instruct and inspire. In her latest guest post, Shirl helps us consider the importance of getting poems out into the classroom airwaves on day one, to lay a foundation for engagement and growth throughout the year.

Poems, right from the start
By Shirley McPhillips

I became a poet because of poetry’s great mystery and partly because of a second-grade teacher I had who believed poetry was at the center of the universe.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Here’s a story:

One steamy first day of school in eighth grade, the students, still barefoot on the beaches of their minds, sat in muted reverie. The teacher, Miss Eloise, smiled, said hello, then bravely picked up her faded blue copy of Emily Dickinson. She looked at the students for a time, to let some seriousness sink in, then “introduced” herself.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Miss Eloise said hearing a poem once was never enough for her. She wondered if anyone else would like to read it to the class. She waited. Daryl’s hand went up. That got everybody’s attention. He tried to use the same expression as Miss Eloise, to the amusement of all. She smiled appreciatively and thanked Daryl for his “spirited” rendition.

That was it! No rules and regulations. Just hanging a poem in the air. This was my new class. My new teacher! A rare and strange feeling (as Dickinson said herself) came over me, as if the top of my head were taken off. I didn’t understand that poem really, nor some poems we read later, but I felt their power. And the power of a teacher who believed in words to instruct and inspire. Believed is us. Had faith that when we became friendly enough with poems, we would make connections. We would find out how they might work, on paper and in our lives.

I no longer recall what happened next that first day so long ago. I do recall we didn’t dissect the poem, or try to figure out what we thought it “meant.” I remember at the end of class Miss Eloise gave each of us a small packet of poems, as a welcome to the new year. Perhaps we might find one we liked, she said. If not, we needn’t worry. There were plenty of poems in the world for everyone. We would find what we wanted, what we needed. And leave the rest for others.

The waters parted.

Of course, as the year went on, no matter what other subject matter presented itself, there were always poems. We were building up a friendship with them. We opened up to talk about them, to consider our own connections. To consider our own questions, not just answer Miss Eloise’s. We collected poems in folders and began to write our own. That was the beginning of my discovery, with poet Mary Oliver, that poems can be a “life cherishing force.” That understanding has lasted to this day. Ever growing.


Poems are short. It doesn’t take much time to read a poem and think about it. And that’s what our students who hope to live with poems, who hope to write poems, need to do. Day one / week one, we can get poems out into the airwaves, pin them up against the light. Give them a chance to circulate with pleasure. It works best if the habit of poetry is embedded in our experiences from day to day, where we live. Not just on special occasions.

To build up a friendship with poems that will be the foundation for going deeper over time, we need some foundational beliefs about what might support students in this goal. Once we say, “Yes, that sounds like something important for readers and writers of poems,” the next question becomes, “So what can we arrange that will give this a chance of happening?” Considering the first question, here’s my short list for now. You might want to revise and add to it.

Students need opportunities to:

•read and listen to some poems without an expectation to “do” anything.

Just breathe them in and out. Not to “analyze.” Just hear the sounds. Feel the rhythms. Experience. Get a “taste.” Crack open the door of fear to let a little light come in. Realize one can be moved by words without always knowing why. Just like we can be moved by music without knowing why. A little mystery is good. Not everything has an answer, in poems and in life.

•read poems more than once, the more often the better

Revisit poems they’re attracted to for different reasons. To be allowed time to “request” poems to listen to and read together again. To revisit and share poems they’ve collected, or that have been charted, or tagged.

•choose their own poems to enjoy, explore, talk with others about
(in addition to those the teacher will want to introduce them to).

Collecting poems, sharing with each other, reading poems consistently across time, students build up their own personal taste, an identity with poems and poets.

•write out lines and poems they like

For sounds of language, for image, for memories they evoke, because of an intimate connection. Writing (or typing) out a poem helps you know it more closely. You are doing exactly what the poet did, and what you can do any time you want.

•listen to and read different types of poems, by different authors, to broaden the field and welcome challenges.

Becoming more familiar with different ways poems can look and sound, we become more comfortable with tasting something new. Like a traveler who happily anticipates trying new cuisine instead of turning up her nose because it’s “different.” If we feel we have to do something “serious” with every poem we read, we won’t read enough of them to get a sense of what they can be, of finding those that stick with us.

•give voice by reading poems aloud, individually and in chorus with others.

To catch the sounds and tune the ear. To bring poems inside. And out again. Poetry is a “bodily art” says poet Robert Pinsky. Reading aloud, we can begin to intuit a feel for craft. Craft is partly what directs us how to read a poem.

•excuse themselves from the company of those who would beat a poem “with a hose to find out what it really means” (Collins 2001, 16).

“Meaning” is made at the point where a reader connects with the “voice”—some inner verbal music— of a poem. An immense intimacy is felt. An exchange takes place in which something new is created. This is a personal relationship. Mysterious and miraculous. We do want to get closer to some poems as we go, especially as writers learning craft. Also, to take pleasure in the challenges of the poem, in what the writer has done to delight or move us.

•respond naturally and openly to poems

To begin, simply “say something.” Or, “What do you notice?” “What does this make you think?” Noticing and thinking. Two actions we want to become habits. They can last all year, carry over to other endeavors, the responses and interactions becoming deeper and more extended. A good way for teachers to observe, listen, get to know the students: What is she noticing? What is she thinking based on that observation? From that information, notice how the ability to observe and think deepens with consistency, experience and the work of the community. This is a foundation for those who will be writing poems.


In the beginning of the year (and always) I choose to read poems aloud that I delight in, that move me in some way, that show extraordinary craft. I also hope these poems will help set a tone of openness and thoughtfulness; will help build “community think.” At the same time, I want to encourage a curiosity for the limitless ways poems can be. We will revisit these poems along the way. Some of the specifics I list here may be helpful in choosing many other poems for read aloud and discussion. You’ll find your own.

A very few examples. Key:—perhaps older students, •perhaps younger students, **perhaps both

“Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell Luscious words, wonderful metaphor, September experience

“Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon
Anaphora (repetition of first lines), tapping into memories, things that represent a life, springboard for sharing appreciation of life’s moments, great as a model for exploring one’s own life

“Unfolding Bud” by Naoshi Koriyama
Amazing metaphor for unfolding of a poem, for reading again and again

“The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes” by Mekeel McBride
Different perspectives of ordinary object, touch of humor, human condition we can relate to, conversational tone, comparison to a poem

“Deformed Finger” by Hal Sirowitz From the author’s collection of advice from his mother, funny stream-of -consciousness, identifiable, poems from the ordinary made extraordinary

** Stone Bench in an Empty Park selected by Paul Janeczko
Anthology of haiku that shows poets looking carefully at what’s around them in the city.
Intriguing images, like taking a walk and looking around.

** “Teased” from Secrets of a Smaller Brother Richard Margolis
Short, sensitive poem, few words with deep underlying emotion. Collection of typical sibling situations. Oldie but goody.

“Dear Apples” by Takayo Noda
Speaker talks to apple, sensuous language, detail, no rhyme (the young need that too)

“Skyscrapers” by Rachael Field
A list of all questions. Could extend to notice, ask questions of objects, standard rhyme

“A Lazy Thought” by Eve Merriam
Strong noisy verbs, questions inside, internal rhyme not the usual, good for choral reading, provocative ending

“Beginning on Paper” by Ruth Krauss
Jazzy rhythm, list in syncopation, repeated phrase, great images, surprise ending, nice human touch, good for choral reading. Note: Can find poem in this wonderful anthology:

And so it goes…

Shirl is Poet Laureate for Choice Literacy online. Read some of her poems and reflections at ChoiceLiteracy.

7 comments August 24th, 2016

A picture and a poem: An intimate connection

We are happy to celebrate National Poetry Month with Stenhouse’s resident poet and author, Shirley McPhillips. In this guest post, Shirl talks about finding connections between paintings and poems, about creating “art from art.” At the end of her post, be sure to look at her paintings and try your hand at writing a few lines inspired by the images. Share it in the comments section for a chance to win a copy of Shirley’s book, Poem Central.

A picture and a poem: An intimate connection
By Shirley McPhillips

I’m growing more and more to believe that our fundamental task as human beings is to  seek out connections—to exercise our imaginations.

—Katherine Paterson, The Spying Heart

03142016 7

It’s all about making connections, both in learning and in life. When objects and activities of the outside world meet an inner world of consciousness and imagination, there is a chance for new perspective, new possibility. In this exchange we develop a sense of self, an anticipation of finding new ideas.

Recently my friend Molly and I had the opportunity to set up an exhibit of our art work for a month in a local library: watercolor, acrylic, found-wood sculptures. Being poets as well, we wanted viewers to find  connections between the visual and the word.

We mounted some of our original poems along with one or two established and student poems and placed them among the paintings. The content of poem and art may have suggested a direct alliance—e.g., “Birdhouse on the Old Outhouse” next to a watercolor of that scene. Or a loose connection like a sound poem next to the abstract “Rooster Ruckus.” Or a random juxtaposition with no obvious connection. Better, we thought, for reaching. Or head scratching.

03142016 8

Poems and art together on display

As an added opportunity to interact with the art work, we set up a “Poet’s Corner.” A place for viewers to invite the muse. To sit in a quiet place, contemplate what they were observing and reading and to compose a short poem of their own. They could write off things around them in their lives, or think off a mounted poem or work of art in the exhibit. If the muse was busy right then, folks could compose at home and put the poem in the book later.

It was important for us to make the “corner” writer-friendly:

-A framed invitation to write, with a quote from Seamus Heaney:

Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it;

            –a small bistro table;

-a Tibetan bench:

-a blue, glass pen holder for pencils (If any disappeared, we imagined they were greatly needed elsewhere, and just replaced them.);

-various types of Post-It notes and paper;

And most importantly, an elegant, flat-lying, “guest book” for poems and art with a photo of a George Bellows painting we mounted on front.

As the book opens, Jack’s hand-printed poem graces page one. He writes of a painting by Eli Rosenthal. His poem encourages those who come after, eliminating “first page shock.”

On Poetry Night, visitors browsed the exhibit, chatted with one another about the art, the poems (and the “nuance” of the Pinot Noir), then settled down for an evening of presentation. Presenters responded in various ways: Expressive readings, movement inspired by a painting or poem, a reading with shamanic drum interpretation, telling a memory connected with a painting, and so on.

At the end of the evening, a few folks who had contributed to the “Guest Book” read their poems and told about connections they had made which resulted in this work.


Scan 2016-4-7 0005People who participated in “A Picture and a Poem: An Intimate Connection” said it best:

Ted: The painting of the birdhouse on the old outhouse cast me right back to my grandmother. Visiting her in the summer.. The weathered boards. Wasps’ nests inside! Her standing outside humming a tune so I wouldn’t be scared. A big hug afterwards. I haven’t felt that safe since.

Marley: “Ah sunflower weary of time.” Blake’s poem. We had to memorize it in high school. I went up to that painting first. Sunflowers are my favorite flowers. I wanted to think about why. Their faces. The connection to the sun. The casting off of so many seeds.

For lots more ideas about making art from art, you might refer to “Poets Facing Art: Ekphrastic Poems,” on page 196 in Shirley’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers.


Take up the pen. “Dig with it.”

We invite you to look at Shirley’s paintings below. (Or choose an artwork you like.) What do you notice? What does that make you say? Ask? Remember? Pretend you are sitting or standing somewhere inside this painting. Look around. Write a short poem and leave it in the comments section or e-mail it to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com. Have fun with it!

Scan 2016-3-5 0002-1 Scan 2016-3-5 0002-5 Scan 2015-7-27 0017-1

6 comments April 11th, 2016

The Results of Our Twitter Poetry Contest

We are excited to announce the winner and honorable mentions of our Twitter Poetry contest. The challenge was to write a poem in 140 characters or less. Shirley McPhillips, poet and author of the recent book Poem Central, served as our judge.

And the winner is….

HER by Erika Zeccardi

curved back
leans against the maple,
bare branches outstretched.
Faint whispers of red river valley
dance across the yard


Honorable mentions:


Allowed to speak? Yes.
Of course. But always we must
have something to say.

–Carol Kellogg

Phoenix rises from ashes
Memories in flashes
Fall hard on ground
Voices call her
Daggers take her
A new day begins


Tomorrow’s mystery today?
Please, no.
Now needs full attention.
I can’t afford spending
today with tomorrow.

–Chris Kostenko

Congratulations to Erika, as well as to Chris, A.T., and Carol! Keep writing!

3 comments May 8th, 2015

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Stenhouse

On this last day of March, we are excited to look forward to April and National Poetry Month. We are doing something fun this year — a Twitter poetry contest!

We have asked poet and author Shirley McPhillips to serve as judge for our contest and she enlisted her poet friend Drew Myron to help out. So, if you feel inspired, head over to Twitter and write a poem with 140 characters or less. Leave space for the hashtag #stenpoems so that Shirley can find and read your words. At the end of the month, we will pick one winner and three honorable mentions who will receive signed copies of Shirley’s latest book, Poem Central. The poems will also be published right here, on the Stenhouse blog. (If you are not on Twitter, you can send your poems to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com with the subject line Twitter poem, or you can also leave your poems in the comments section of this blog post.)

Now, what is a Twitter poem? Shirley wrote this great post about Twitter poems — a great read before you begin to write your own. If you are a teacher, encourage your students to give it a try as well! And if you are a teacher who wants to incorporate more poetry into your classroom, here is a FREE download of poetry resources from trusted Stenhouse authors.

Up for the Count: Twitter Poems
Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

I have made this (letter) longer than usual because I have not had the leisure of making it shorter. Blaise Pascal, 1657

Seems like short is the new long. That’s the fun of a Twitter poem. It’s expected to be short. 140 characters or fewer (including the title, if it has one). We may ramble in the beginning, getting lists and lines down quickly. But then reality sets in. How to write something short that has the qualities of a good poem. Now that may take some leisure.

The 140-character limit has spawned waves of creativity as folks test their ability to do more with less. There’s the twaiku movement and Twitterature, a book containing major works of literature boiled down into a bouillon cube. And lest we think this is an activity for the obsessed techno-masses, four major prize-winning poets, two of them former laureates, published Twitter poems in the New York Times one year: Billy Collins, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Alexander and Robert Pinsky.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) sometimes sponsors a National Poetry Contest on Twitter. That’s where I met two Twitter poem contest finalists: Leslie Kenna and Liesl Dineen. Their stories about coming into the world of Twitter verse instruct and inspire.

Leslie’s “Short” Story

Leslie grew up in a New York City neighborhood that has an elevated train (the el) running through it. “For years,” she writes, “everything—eating, shopping, reading, sleeping, dental appointments, etc., was done to the beat of passing trains. I think all that shaking got into my bones.” Here is her Twitter poem:


In a waiting room under the el

each time a door closes

the collection of mysteries and tragedies

rattles and sways.

poem-centralLeslie was strategic in her approach to writing “Bound.” A daydreamer and lover of words, she sat down in a comfy chair, stared out the window and remembered her relationship with books when she was a library-card-carrying New Yorker. After all, she would be submitting to a library contest. She would write about reading on the subway. Standing up. Sitting down. All jammed in, touching shoulders. An escape, making the commute go faster.

Once she had a topic in mind, she wrote down every word that came to mind—even repeating a few—looked over the list and circled words that jumped off the page for her…passengers, carry, one inch, bound, commute, straphangers, immobile, gripping, book, still room, sentence, subway, novel, plot, gripping, Delay, air oxygen, freeing nourishing filling feeding raising relaxing, excursions, expansive, colors ideas novelties trips chartreuse, amaranthine, ideas, thoughts, reach, nourish, deep within She played around, rearranging words.

Then came crafting. “Staring up at the ceiling, reciting words over and over in my head, swapping verbs out, stepping back to gauge the effect.” Neglecting the poem for a while, “returning to it with fresh eyes and ears.” Reading it aloud for rhythm and sound. She also kept in mind that the NYPL was judging on originality, creativity and artistic qualities.

Overall, Leslie finds Twitter poems less intimidating than other forms. “No large blank sheet of paper staring at you.” Since it’s a new form, “you don’t have to be versed in 15th Century Twitter poetry to be taken seriously. You can put it out there.” If people like it, they let you know. Right away. “You can keep trying without feeling bad because no one sends you rejection letters. People can access your poems from a smart phone or computer and even contact you long after you write them.”

Liesl’s “Short” Story

One year Liesl and her husband splurged and bought lovely matching plates but never got around to matching silverware. Pondering the “mismatchedness” of things, she wondered about their future. As she thought about some serious life issues, the sorrow started to flow in. At that moment her husband came booming inside with the dogs, and the kitchen was suddenly full of noise and “this new, mismatched crazy, beautifully rhythmic, full life. John, the dogs, our family and my favorite spoon stirring in the cream of life.”

Our mismatched spoons

stir in the cream

in staccato beats to match

the clickety-clack of dogs in the kitchen.

As Liesl worked on this Twitter poem, “The mismatched spoons,” became “Our mismatched spoons.” Her ear caught the sound of the dogs and that came next. “The spoons weren’t sure what they were doing for a while.” She actually started with milk. She uses almond milk but this wouldn’t do. She was telling a story of chaos and fullness, so cream had to be there. “That word carries so much in our collective. The other words arranged themselves once that fell into place.”

Liesl takes herself to sites that nudge her to practice writing short. There she hones her skill of cutting and rearranging. Recently she worked on a #sixwordstory prompt from @WriterlyTweets. Someone meets a clown. She started with, “The girl fearlessly reached out for his nose,” the idea she wanted. Not short enough, and too dull. She changed “the girl” to “she.” “Fearlessly she reached” took her halfway to six words. Three words left to tell a story. Ah, action. She would beep his nose. A fearless girl might do that! The final six-word story: “Fearlessly she reached, beeping his nose.”

Some Tips From Writers of the Short Form

From our conversations online, Leslie, Liesl and I share some suggestions for you as you write your Twitter poems.

  • A Twitter poem is a little poem with a big thought. Like any poem, it is about one thing or theme. Stick to it. A small moment, a simple action, a sound, can carry a big story.
  • Ideas, lines, images, words, stories, come at us all the time. On the subway train, in the shower, on the treadmill, places inconvenient to writing them down at that moment. Keep a list someplace where you can revisit them and choose one when the time is right.
  • To be generative, to practice paring things down, create opportunities for yourself to write and/or submit lots of short poems. 5-word poems, 10-word poems. Write a Twitter-like poem every day. The more you write the better you get. Try: 14wordsforlove.com; #sixwordstory, prompts from @WriterlyTweets.
  • When brainstorming your topic, be generative. Words beget words.
  • Use words that capture an action and tell more of the story: “whispered” instead of “said;” “cream” instead of “milk” (as in Liesl’s poem).
  • Stay in the present tense to create immediacy and sometimes eliminate characters: stirs instead of stirred.
  • When trying to tighten or shorten the poem find one word to do the work of two or three. Instead of “the girl,” use “she.” Strip your lines of small words you don’t need: and, that, was, the.
  • Make your line endings (breaks) strong by using strong nouns and verbs.
  • Say your poems out loud. Hear them the way readers will, not just the way they sound inside your own head. When something snags or doesn’t sound “right,” change it.
  • Step away from your draft for a while. Come back to it with fresh eyes and ears. You might be surprised or enchanted. A “just right” word might slip into place. A glitch might relax.
  • With the right words in the right place, readers can fill in the “story.” Read this by Erel Pilo. Is there anyone who can’t imagine the story?


Eleven cupcakes.

Twelve toddlers

  • The title counts toward the 140 character limit. Decide if you need one. Leslie’s is integral to her poem. Liesl wants more characters in the body of her poem.

After the NYPL retweeted one of Leslie’s poems she was contacted by a beloved author with congratulatory messages. The beginning of a rich conversation. Months later, the author tweeted her the link to a poetry contest run by NASA. “Writing,” Leslie says, “doesn’t have to be a solitary affair. I can connect with people. Directly! In real time.”

“The real challenge,” Liesl says, “was going public with my voice.” Since then she’s started a blog and writes whole months of poems-a-day. “Entering contests is a great way to grow!”


14 comments March 31st, 2015

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: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/low_concept/2003/04/the_poetry_of_dh_rumsfeld.html. 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 (http://www.foundpoetryreview.com/), 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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