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On Found Poetry (A FOUND INTRODUCTION)
John Robert Colombo
From Open Poetry, (Ronald Gross & George Quasha, eds., 1973)


Found poetry. What is it?

• "Art must not look like art."- Marcel Duchamp

• "Obviously the basis of just about every great age in literature is the force and innocence of its plagiarism." - Bertolt Brecht to Walter Kerr

• "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." -T. S. Eliot

• "If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version.

An absurd suggestion? Well, I am only proposing that modern artists should treat each other as Greek dramatists or Renaissance painters or Elizabethan poets did. If anyone thinks that the law of copyright has fostered better art than those barbarous times could produce, I will not try to convert him." -R. G. Collingwood

• "It is the culmination of realism. So the found poem is really a piece of realistic 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." -Louis Dudek

• "Found poetry turns the continuous verbal undertone of mass culture up full volume for a moment, offering a chance to see and hear it with a shock of recognition." -Ronald Gross

Background. Fine art.

• Yuan Yuan, an ancient Chinese governor, who was also an artist, specialized in cutting certain rocks in such a way as to reveal "already painted scenes."

• Pablo Picasso has produced a number of objets trouvés. One day he found a stove element he thought resembled his own work, so he mounted it on a wooden block and christened it "La Venus du Gaz." He explained to Francoise Gilot, "It arouses a new emotion in the mind of the viewer because it momentarily disturbs his customary way of identifying and defining what he sees."

• "Kurt was at the very back of the streetcar," Hans Richter wrote about the German artist of collage Kurt Schwitters. "He was standing with his hands behind him. Accustomed as I was to his peculiarities, I was nevertheless curious as to why he kept wriggling so. He looked like a shimmy dancer. Suddenly he leaped off the car at a stop. I followed. After the car had gone on, he showed me a 'No Smoking' sign which he had removed from the streetcar with a small screwdriver he always carried. Nothing could stop the man once he wanted some piece of material for his work."

• "Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order," wrote Jean Arp. Tristan Tzara's movement gave artists an unparalleled opportunity to pillage the culture of the past and the present, and to make out of old works (like "Mona Lisa") new works (like Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q.," which is Mona Lisa with a mustache) to shock the bourgeois public which idolized Art.

• Today's Pop Art, far from destroying the real world in the Dadaist fashion, tries to redeem any reality the world of contemporary symbols happens to retain. Judy R. Lippard writes that neoDadaists and pop artists have made "a widespread decision to approach the contemporary world with a positive rather than a negative attitude." When he reproduces current imagery and iconography virtually without alteration-whether Jacqueline Kennedy's sorrow-stricken face or a beaming can of Campbell's soup-Andy Warhol celebrates what Apollinaire called "the heroic of the everyday."

Junk sculpture, concept art, earth art, expanded art-these are a few contemporary manifestations of the artistic impulse to use what is at hand, to discover rather than to invent. This involves the notion that things are magical in themselves. "If you inhabit a sacred world," Harold Rosenberg the art critic noted, "you find art rather than make it."

Background. Literature.

Before the printed page, even before the handwritten parchment, there were words, signs on stones. Lapidary inscriptions required that the messages be adjusted to the requirements of the medium, so attention to lineation produced a stylized presentation which not only heightened the reader's emotion response to the meaning but produced an over-all artistic effect as well.

When he translated the Bible into Latin, St. Jerome presented the Psalms and Proverbs as new poems in Latin. The arrangement of rhetorical texts into meaningful units is called colometry or stichometry, and the practice is the precurser of found poetry.

Three quotations from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy: "I have borrowed, not stolen." "One made books as apothecaries made medicines by pouring one bottle into another." "The matter is theirs most part, and yet mine, whence it is taken appears, yet it appears as something different from what 'tis taken from."

Popular during the nineteenth century were "whimseys," which is Carolyn Wells's term for such things as shaped poems taken from given texts (like the Bible, or the novels of Dickens). Metered and sometimes even rhymed poems were found in novels like Nicholas Nickleby, proving that found poetry could boast a "period" air.

The grass was green above the dead boy's grave, Trodden by feet so small and light, That not a daisy dropped its head Beneath their pressure. Through all the spring and summer time. Garlands of fresh flowers, wreathed by infant hands, Rested upon the stone.

• In French, found poetry is not "found." An object may be trouvŽ, but poŽsie is d'emprunt. Poésie d'emprunt translates "borrowed poetry" or "expropriated poetry."

• One of the earliest, if not the earliest, found poem is Blaise Cendrars' "Dernière Heure," which is a verbatim account of an Oklahoma jailbreak "copied from Paris-Midi, January 1914."

• In English, the found impulse informs Ezra Pound's Cantos (from 1915), James Joyce's Ulysses (1918), and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922).

• William Butler Yeats "wrote" a celebrated found poem when he turned Walter Pater's evocation of the Mona Lisa from The Renaissance into free verse and published it as the first poem in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936). He called it a work "of revolutionary importance."

• When the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid published a poem which begins with a passage from another author's short story arranged as verse, there followed a long correspondence on the morality, legality and aesthetics of such "appropriations" in the correspondence columns of the Times Literary Supplement.

• Marianne Moore has made decorous use of quoted matter in her work, but always with quotation marks and elaborate source notes. "I was just trying to be honourable and not to steal things," Miss Moore explained to Donald Hall in a Paris Review interview. "I've always felt that if a thing had been said in the best way, how could you say it better?"

• The first book of found poetry (in English, at least) is A Stone, A Leaf, A Door which was published by Scribner's in 1945. John S. Barnes "selected and arranged in verse" purple passages from Thomas Wolfe's novels. Here is a sample:

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

• The master of the comma, José Garcia Villa, started experimenting in 1951 with "adaptations" or "poems: from prose." These appeared in Selected Poems and New (1958) and have a deliberate literary air to them, like the opening of this Villa adaptation of a Rilke letter:

Do not be bewildered by the Surfaces; in the depths All becomes law.

• George Hitchcock of Kayak Press edited and published the first anthology of found poetry. Losers Weepers: Poems Found Practically Everywhere appeared in 1969, and included the work of twenty-five poets, all of whom found poetry "somewhere amidst the vast sub- or nonliterature which surrounds us all."

Cinema verité. Found movies.

The impulse to find rather than to invent finds expression in those feature films that have been shot in the documentary or cinema verité manner. Chief among these are Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, Watkins' The War Game, Godard's La Chinoise, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Allan King's Warrendale and A Married Couple. Not one is fully "found," of course, for they all merge actual and artful footage in different proportions. Perhaps the first feature "taken from life" is Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North.

Gene Youngblood, in Expanded Cinema, quotes Jean-Luc Godard as saying: "The ideal for me is to obtain right away what will work. If retakes are necessary it falls short of the mark. The immediate is chance. At the same time it is definitive. What I want is the definitive by chance."

Music. Theatre.

Ever since Tchaikovsky scored the 1812 Overture for a real cannon blast, natural sounds have been part of Western music. In musique concrete they take over, especially in the work of composers like John Cage and Luciano Berio.

At the Berliner Ensemble, Bertolt Brecht's actors did not act out their parts so much as "demonstrate" their roles to the audience. Brecht sometimes referred to this as the "alienation effect." His art was once described as "presentational" rather than "representational."

Possible distinctions.

Found object, objet trouvé, ready-made: Something removed from one context and placed within an aesthetic context. An object valued more for its aesthetic than its utilitarian appeal. If a passage of prose, it must not be altered in the process.

Found poem: A passage of prose presented as a poem. The transformation usually involves rearranging the lines on the page.

Pop poem: A found poem taken from a sub-literary source, especially advertising matter.

Pure, impure: Found poems are "pure" if they reproduce the original source verbatim; "impure" if they are a reworking of the original source. Reworking is sometimes referred to as "assisting"-hence, "an assisted found poem." Found prose. The "collaged novels" of William Burroughs are examples of found prose. It is possible to see Ralph L. Woods's commonplace book, A Treasury of the Familiar, as a collection of found prose and poetry: the anthologist as artist.

Lost prose: The New Yorker's term for a found poems that falls flat.

What is found? Perception?

"Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." - T. S. Eliot If Dada and the Bauhaus are seen as two mutually complementary art movements which occurred almost in unison, and if Dada is seen as raising chance to the level of a principle and the Bauhaus as raising control to the same heights, then found poetry partakes of both: From Dada it takes the element of randomness and from the Bauhaus the element of craftsmanship. Finding is searching; presenting is making aesthetic choices. When poetry is discovered rather than written, it is found "accidentally on purpose."

• "The message is: widen the area of consciousness." Allen Ginsberg's formulation applies to found poetry as much as to any other poetry, for found poems make us conscious not only of our immediate environment but also of ourselves within this totality.

• "The basic changes of our time lead us towards confronting the environment as artifact," explained Marshall McLuhan in Counterblast. "In a non-literate society, there is no art in our sense, but the whole environment is experienced as unitary. Neolithic specialism ended that. The Balinese say: 'We have no art. We do everything as well as possible'; that is, they program the environment instead of its content."

• Found art is the most conservation-minded of the arts, for it recycles the waste of the past and reuses it in a surprisingly different way, thereby giving the original a new lease on life. "Collage seems to me the one medium most suited to the age of conspicuous waste," painter Harold Town wrote, "and it's marvellous to think of the garbage of our age becoming the art of our time."

• An especially valuable function of found art and found poetry in particular is its ability to make us respond aesthetically to the universe around us, not just to those separate parts of the world called works of art. It is possible to act as if the universe itself were an immense piece of art, a collage perhaps. But does this spell the doom of art? As the Czech poet Miroslav Holub wryly observed, "There is poetry in everything. That is the biggest argument against poetry."



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