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Poetry Guide: Found Poetry

Found poetry is the rearrangement of words or phrases taken randomly from other sources (example: clipped newspaper headlines, bits of advertising copy, handwritten cards pulled from a hat) in a manner that gives the rearranged words a completely new meaning.

A classic example was found in William Whewell's "Elementary Treatise on Mechanics":

"And hence no force, however great,
can stretch a cord, however fine,
into a horizontal line
that shall be absolutely straight."

though when it was pointed out to him, an unamused Whewell changed the wording in the next edition.

In order to do this, it requires the poet to draw upon not only mental creativity but his or her own unconscious attitude regarding the nature of language. Structurally, it is similar to the process of creating a visual collage composition. Stylistically, it is similar to the visual art of "appropriation" in which two- and three-dimensional art is created from recycled items, giving ordinary/commercial things new meaning when put within a new context in unexpected combinations or juxtapositions. Appropriation art often plays upon a double-edged meaning, wherein the object's new artistic meaning makes a political or philosophical comment on its original purpose, and the same can be said for the way 'found poetry' can contain clever wordplay or evoke ironic contradictions in the way we use language.

In the web era, taking words from spam e-mail (and recently 419 scam e-mail) and turning it into poetry has a long history, dating back to late 1990s. SatireWire's contest [1] which ran in 2000 and 2001 is one of the most well-known examples.

In 2003, the press and various online communities decided they had found poetry in the speeches and news briefings of Donald Rumsfeld; this example, The Unknown being the most often cited:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.
Donald Rumsfeld, Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing