Finding Poetry from Odd Sources

Poets are often characterised as agonising for hours over a single word or phrase, or even a punctuation mark. Yet sometimes, the source material arrives almost wholesale and just needs a little packaging. This is the art of found poetry.

In 2003, the journalist Hart Seely wrote a piece for the Slate website in which he took chunks of speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the US Secretary of Defense, and turned them into short verses. The phrase ‘There are known knowns,’ caught the imagination of the public for a brief time.

Sometimes the phrase is just a single line that the poet then expands into a further thought. Some years ago, Luke Wright took a quote by Boris Johnson and turned it into a piece called Once You Clear the Bodies. In this instance, a lot has been added to that one line in a satirical manner.

Away from politics, a classic source of material is the shipping forecast, issued by the Met Office. Looking at any given part of it, there are no wasted words; even a phrase like ‘gale force 8’ often has ‘force’ removed to increase its brevity. The forecast is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, always at a moderate pace, which is easily parroted and parodied.

If you’re dabbling in found poetry, always be careful not to steal someone’s work outright. The examples above use politicians’ statements and public weather reports, so they’ll generally be safe to use.

But simply adding line breaks to work that’s already creative, such as a novel or a film script, is unlikely to be considered fair use. In short: have fun but be cautious.

Stand Up For Yourself.

The BBC News website ran an article yesterday about the health benefits of standing up more. It ties in with a documentary that can be viewed on the iPlayer. For the record, I’ve been standing up most of the evening, so I’m sitting right now. It lists a few people who like or liked working on two feet, including Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Donald Rumsfeld.

I’m a great fan of writing this way, not just for the health benefits, but I find it helps ideas flow a little bit more freely. However, I’m stuck for opportunities to assume this pose. At home, I used to work on a chest-height set of drawers, but I needed the surface for something else. Cafés usually require you to take a seat, as does the library, while in pubs, it’s acceptable to stand and drink at the bar, but whip out a laptop, and I expect you attract strange looks.

I don’t rely on my writing for a living; I have a day job in an office, and I’m again required to sit down. It would be impractical to raise my desk, both physically and because I’d need special permission. But I do have to use the printer a lot, so I’m able to walk a short distance. I’m also recovering from some upper back strain — not caused by working — and being on my feet helps it enormously.

I’m eager to try out the poll function so, to that end, what is your preferred writing position?