Fighting Words 1

Found Poems and Free Verse

by Marcus Bales

Found Poem: a poem consisting of words found in a non-poetic context (such as a product label, conversation on a bus, physics textbook) and usually broken into lines that convey a verse rhythm. Both the term and the concept are modeled on the objet trouvé, an artifact not created as art or a natural object that is held to have aesthetic value when taken out of its context.- Encyclopedia Britannica

Everybody, it often seems, or almost everybody, wants to be a poet - at least almost every writer. They think being known as a poet has a clear value, or they’d call themselves journal-writers, or diarists, or something else more descriptive of what they do. They write free verse because it is easy to make and easy to pass along. The virtues it claims are prose virtues; and those who write it not only disdain but disparage poetic virtues. There is, in fact, less to writing free verse than there is to writing prose: in prose you at least are expected to make sense, expected to have some obligation to try to bring something of significance, or importance, or both, to the reader.

Some people argue that it’s not that easy. Their claims run from that poetry is not a matter of how a thing is said, but of what is said, through saying poetry is built on the line- or flow-break, through claims that we know it when we see it, through claims not to write poetry at all but only to produce texts, through claims that delineated prose is an original "found poem", through claims that excising words from existing poems creates an original "poem of erasure", through a variety of combinations of these failed notions and justifications, to that each poem has a natural or organic meter.

This last is not a strong claim, only the strongest offered. It fails because a piece of language art is not "natural" in the least - it is artifice, intended to play with and on the language, and with and on the expectations of the native language speakers of that language. A piece of language art hasn’t got a "natural" meter - it is either given one by the artist, or such a meter cannot exist. The only way meter can be explained is that it’s a piece of artifice, an artificial imposing of an expectation on that which, in nature, in its natural state, hasn’t been artificially imposed-on. This defense of free verse fails as the most twisty bit of special pleading I’ve read since Aquinas.

Poetry inheres in the presentation of the matter to a reader capable of responding to both the presentation and to the matter. Poetry is created by an agreement between the reader and the writer: the writer demands that the reader read the arranged words in a special way - not special as in "Special Olympics", but special as in of the matter being presented, and at that matter itself. One must, in short, trust that the poet isn't just wasting one's time and energy with a trivial or otherwise inappropriate claim on one's serious attention -- and it is a disappointment to find that a poet has done so. Encounter that disappointment often enough and the cry of "Poetry!" gets as disregarded as the cry of "Wolf!" in the fable.

And where does that leave "found poems"? Can we legitimately cut any text up into what looks like free verse and, by putting that metaphorical border around it, claim original authorship of a poem? What I have been doing to try to illustrate that we cannot is to take various pieces I find on the internet, in blogs, email, bulletin boards, wherever, edit and re-lineate them into what looks like free verse, title them "Found Poems", and sign them, in order to call into question the entire enterprise of "found poems" and "free verse" - for if as George Simmers, the editor of this magazine, put it in describing one of the "found poems" I sent him:

The virtues of this piece were there, I guess, in the original - unlike the sort of Found Poem that foregrounds things the original writer was not aware of.

My "found poem" pieces satirize both "finding" poetry in texts and "free verse" itself, since the definition of "found poem" speaks of "a verse rhythm" and free verse theoreticians’ best defense of the existence of "free verse" entails that free verse, too, has "a verse rhythm". I hold that free verse has no "verse rhythm", and that "found poems" are theft, not writing, and mock both by recasting prose lines into faux verse lines, and calling them "found poems". My point is that the virtues of the "found poem" are always there in the original or there is nothing to "find" in the first place! What is "found" in "found poetry" is nothing more than any good reader finds in any piece of writing, and that "finding" doesn’t justify trying to claim it as original work of the finder’s own.

This is the first in a series of monthly polemics about literary issues by different
writers. We hope that later contributions will tackle a wide variety of themes,
from strongly differing points of view. Contributions to the series are invited.

If you've any comments on this polemic, Marcus Bales would probably like to hear from you.