Tuesday, June 24, 2008



My comment on the Found Poem and citation of one of Christopher Levenson’s poems led to a fine discussion via email about what exactly constitutes this kind of poetry. Christopher quite rightly pointed out a certain looseness in my definition. I quote:

“I hope you won't think me picky if I say that, as far as I am concerned, (unfortunately my bible on such matters, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, doesn't have an entry on Found Poems) it is not a found poem. For me a found poem is one that is composed exclusively of words, phrases or sentences taken from a non-poetic context and never intended as poetry (such as a public announcement, a tourist brochure,a questionnaire) that nevertheless in the eyes of the poet contains lines that are poeticallty suggestive. All the poet does is to n o t i c ethe ambiguities or other poetic potentials in the non-poetic texts, in the same way that the convoluted pipes of a natural gas installation might be seen by a sculptor as a kind off unintended sculpture and, if mountain on a stand would be viewed as such. The only real found poem I ever found was 'The Beaufort Scale' (published in a mag decades ago) which gives the definitions of various force winds. The closest I come to the form otherwise is in a poem "From a Romanian Phrase Book" (published in The Journey Back, 1986), which uses almost entirely actual phrases that I found in such a book but rearranges their order and repeats one or two, so as to subvert for surreal, satiric effect the self-importance of such books:

"A child has fallen in the water.
It can't be repaired.
Do you have one in a different colour?

Must I stay in bed? these sheets are dirty.
You're hurting me.
Will you come and see me again?
This is the only room vacant.
How much do I owe you?

I have lost my luggage, passport, travellers' cheques,
There's no plug in my washbasin,
There's no toilet roll in the lavatory.
Is there any danger of avalanches?
A child has fallen in the water.
My appetite's gone."

So Prague 1987 does not for me fall anywhere near this category but simply records aspects of an actual experience: the posters for U2 and the Police, the dead swan and the remark about Kafka all actually existed and happened and needed only to be juxtaposed with other actual events, such as the chamber concert to create a specific unreal atmopshere. But this is in fact my normal way of writing poetry, by starting from a specific incident or scene or spoken statement and then trying to suggest further dimensions of meaning.”

to which I replied

Christopher, I meant that you found the materials of the poem from a journey to Prague, the U2 poster, Lennon lives, and the 300 Kafkas in the phone book. One aspect of your poetic talent is seeing the surreal, ironic, strange in these elements and noting them down in a poem. Certainly, if all poetry comes from experience, whether lived or read about, then all poetry is found.

You are of course quite right to say that the found poem is assembled from already available materials. I guess I felt here that you had assembled your poem together from precisely such materials.

All the Best


Friday, June 20, 2008


The found poem is a delightful subset of the poetic art. Poets wake up every morning hungry for images. They scour nature programs, read newspapers, comb their pets, anything to tease out some reminiscence, or to enable themselves to describe the sometimes human-like behavior of a centipede in its inexorable march towards a leaf. We are an anthropomorphic lot, blessed (or cursed) with a fertile imagination but unwilling to engage in countless hours of patient study of an amoeba under a microscope. We are not scientists. Yet, we cite Freud at every pause—“that the poets always knew’—meaning the Greeks, who gave us Oedipus and Cassandra and the battle for Troy where gods and men worked together and at cross purposes.

I have gone far afield just to say that each time we write we need to trammel this exceeding imagination, this bountiful garden gone to seed. Why blinker the beast, make it follow our will? Therein lies the rub, the eternal and unanswerable question that rises in conversation between the wild horse and its domesticated brother or sister. The found poem offers a detour from this debate, a chance to find wonder in the odd fish served in reality’s basket. English and Canadian poet Chris Levenson produced a fine example of the found poem in “Prague, 1987,” one of the precise, lyric beauties of his 1990 collection HALF TRUTHS.

PRAGUE, 1987

Now for the first time I see them
in daylight, the statues on the Charles Bridge—
abolished ikons persisting—the Hradcin castle
blurred by scaffolding and rain, the narrow
stairways between old, half-derelict hostelries,
and they are grey: it is not time alone
that wears down the roofs, files away
at the wrought-iron bars of palace gates, and chokes
with cobwebs and dead leaves the once bright fountains.
A dead swan drifts upon the Vltava.

We walk through drizzle to the Maltese Church,
among the baroque impedimenta hear
a string quarter play Haydn, Mozart, Ravel
with, outside, thunder continuo.
in the heart of the Old Town, “Lennon lives”
on several walls, posters announce U2 and The Police;
I ask the hotel receptionist where Kafka’s house is
and I am handed a telephone book: “You look him up,” he says,
“There are over three hundred Kafkas in Prague.”

-- Chris Levenson, from Half Truths, Wolsak & Wynn, 1990

Oh to be the 301st Kafka in Prague or anywhere and receive a call from the poet hungry for an image. My mere presence is enough. I just need to be found. Under K.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

AFTER THE PARTY (In Memoriam: Anura Bandaranaike)

We suffer the loss, try to incorporate the legacy into our lives and then go with eating and drinking, loving and sleeping. Let us remember Anura's great heart as we move on trying to wend our way through the chaos of modern Sri Lanka.


-- in Memoriam: Anura Bandaranaike

I remember an evening
flavoured by my mother’s
cooking, bringing
two smart patriots
together, to speak
about devolution
not yet realized,
what makes sense
seeing the island
from afar, the only
way forward,

two dear friends
who met then
for the first time.
Now, one is laid
to rest, and
the other engages
readers still
to think afresh
about slow or fast
bombs, double-speak,
cynical tongues, how
to bring more than

twenty five years
of war to an end
before all our parties
break up and families
gather, with shot-gun
shells and confetti
to scatter, at weddings
held on holy ground
beside gravestones
where fathers and
brothers, mothers
and sisters are buried.

-- Indran Amirthanayagam, March 16, 2008

Saturday, June 7, 2008

THE LOST POEM-- for Paris Hilton

I found this poem the other day composed a year ago, forgotten in a misplaced archive of the home computer. Paris Hilton’s brief dalliance with incarceration led me to reflect on writing behind bars, within earshot of the jailer’s keys.


Miss Hilton’s jail time journals
may be read in this syllabus along
with the Diary of Anne Frank and
human landscapes described
on cigarette papers by Turkish
poet Nazim, not to mention U's

letters after reading Twenty
Love Poems for the first time
thanks to the Red Cross. Am
moved by the transformation
after twenty days deprived
of free walking in New York

or Sunset Boulevard or
the Champs Elysee, to know
the Bible belongs also to Paris
and she has no favorite passage;
she will now use fame to raise
awareness of cancers that afflict

women, breast in particular,
not any desire to highlight
hair and ride elevators up
to studios where she will
record the 500th episode
of the long-running reality show

that does not belong to me,
distracted by Gramsci,
lean-boned and bearded
on the book jacket
of my friend’s master class
in making social sense.

I will read him too once
I’ve finished Gibbon’s
history of the Romans
and Mandela’s letters
from Robben Island.
So much to absorb

in the words of tragic heroes,
big men and women,
and now Paris poised
to sweep them all off
the bestseller lists
if only in my lifetime.

-- Indran Amirthanayagam c) 2008