On Found Poetry
Outside of the Walker Art Center, on the side facing the Sculpture Garden, is a box.
The box is tall—taller than I am, anyway—and one is side is open, revealing interior shelves well-stocked with colored chalk and poetry books. The exterior walls are covered with chalkboard that has been neatly divided into white-bordered squares, possibly to suggest a space limitation to interested visitors.
Last Thursday night, I commandeered four.
I pulled out my phone so I could recite the poem that I claimed as my summer mantra for the friend who had accompanied me to the Walker. She, in turn, found a Shel Silverstein book amidst the box’s small library and treated me to a reading.
I selected a half-dozen, noncontiguous lines from my chosen poem and copied them onto the box.
The poem in question, Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” wasn’t even a particularly original selection on my part. I adore it—I would continue to adore it even if it ended three lines earlier, even if it didn’t include its (too) oft-quoted concluding challenge, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”—but it’s not a poem with which I assumed passersby would be wholly unfamiliar. I only hoped that they would absolve me of the sin of a clichéd infatuation by discerning my youth from my awkward, chalky handwriting and declaring me young enough to still think of life as something unexplored and infinite—as wild and precious.
Still, what they found—what I wrote—was not the whole poem. Instead, it was a handful of scattered lines that are personally significant to me. My shortened version is choppy and, obviously, lacks the weight of the full original. Nevertheless, the exercise served as a reminder of how deeply we invest ourselves in what we read, even if what we read is only 165 words long.
In its own small way, my public act of abbreviated poetry was an act of found poetry. A found poem takes an existing text—a newspaper article, street sign, another poem— and refashions it in some way. “Pure” found poems can consist of either a single outside text or a collage of multiple works. Notable poets, including Erza Pound and T.S. Eliot, have also used elements of found poetry amidst their own pieces.
One iteration of found poetry that particularly intrigues me is blackout poetry, wherein the poet selects scattered words or phrases from the chosen text (often a newspaper article or other long prose piece) and literally “blacks out” the unused words, creating a work that is visually stimulating. Last January, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a creative writing group of which I am a part used the civil rights leader’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a foundation, and it was incredible to hear the new messages of justice that participants pieced together from his words.
As someone who doesn’t write poetry herself, I hold found poems in the highest esteem. They’re often astoundingly intelligent; they can honor or subvert; they bring otherwise estranged voices into conversation. They’re collaborative, even if the authors of the base texts don’t know it. I’m always loath to leave behind the works that mean the most to me, and found poetry offers an additional level of engagement.
Public art, then, functions in many of the same ways: it offers new mediums of expression, unique modes of engagement, and novel means of collaboration. I don’t know if my Mary Oliver excerpt has survived. If it hasn’t, that only means that someone else needed my four borrowed squares in order to add words of their own. And then another person will come along, stumble across those new words—a found poetry of a different sort—and perhaps become a part of the cycle. That’s the thing about found poetry: you never have to reach “The End.”
Grace Miel Jasper is the Loft’s marketing and communications intern. She enjoys practicing how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to be idle and blessed—which is what she has been doing all day.