A FRIENDLY REPARTEE ABOUT FOUND POETRY
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