Cut-up or collage, the challenge this month is to concoct something new from other people's words
One night sometime in the early 1930s a New Jersey doctor left a note for his wife on the door of their fridge. He looked at it again and saw something he hadn't noticed when first writing it down, something that made him write it out anew. The doctor was William Carlos Williams and the note became This is just to say, one of the best-known and most widely discussed "found poems" ever written. There was nothing particularly new about poems that used existing texts as their starting point, but Williams managed to create an example that was both ordinary and controversial at the same time, and it still stands as something of a breakthrough moment in American literature.
This is just to say is an oddity of the genre, not just for its fame but also because the original source was a text by the poet himself. Usually, poets find their poems in prose written by others. In the case of Howard Nemerov's aptly titled Found Poem, the source was a newspaper and I can't help but imagine that the original was somewhat less entertaining than Nemerov's reimagining.
Other poets have drawn on historical documents and records as a rich source for their work. Charles Reznikoff's Slave Sale: New Orleans is a fine example of the poetry that can be unearthed from these texts by the sensitive addition of line and stanza breaks. While Reznikoff's found poems tend to the narrative and expansive, Ian Hamilton Finlay made terse lyrics from nothing but the names, and sometimes serial numbers, of Scottish fishing boats. While many of these poems were published on paper, he often turned them into quite literal examples of concrete poetry.
Other writers like to take a more active part in the remaking of their found texts. When William Burroughs collaborated with the artist and writer Brion Gysin on a book called The Third Mind they set out to explain the techniques they had been using to create their strangely disjunctive styles of writing, the cut-up. Cut-up poems are a form of collage where an existing text is literally cut into segments which are then rearranged to make new pieces of writing. In print, they often lose the visual clues to their origin, but many writers are happy to present them as they made them.
Sometimes the sources for collage poems are other poems, in which case there's a name for them, the Cento. We tend to think of collage and the like as modern inventions, but there are examples of the Cento to be found in the works of Latin poets of the third and fourth centuries and the basic rules were formulated by Ausonius in around 350. A more recent example is Wolf Cento by Simone Muench.
Characteristically, avant-garde composer and poet John Cage pushed the idea of the found or collage poem further than most with his mesostic poems, acrostics constructed from other writers' works where the letters of the words being spelt out run down the centre rather than on the left-hand margin. This process of "writing through" an existing poem or text to a set of formal rules provided, for Cage, a discipline similar to that involved in the process of composing music. His poems are a kind of serious game, which isn't a bad definition for any art.
And so this month's Poster poems challenge is to write found/collage/cut-up poems of your own. You can use any kind of source text or texts that takes your fancy. Think of it as being a bit like making scrambled eggs; everyone has their own favourite recipe, but if you mix the ingredients well you're bound to end up with a tasty treat. So don't just sit there, get scrambling.