Alan Maley is well-known as a trainer and materials writer. He has been involved in ELT for 55 years. Now in retirement, he continues to write and give presentations and workshops. His main areas of interest are in innovative methodology, spontaneity in teaching and in literature and creative writing. Email: email@example.com
How do you find poems?
One way into writing poetry is not to try to write it at all but to look for poems hidden inside existing texts. One of the first poets to introduce the idea of ‘Found Poems’ was John Daniel. Here is a poem of his which says it all:
Found Poem (extract) John Daniel
I found a poem.
I will tell you how I found it
I was walking along the beach
when I saw a stone with a bump
I brought it home and stood it on the mantelpiece
where it immediately turned into
a Work of Art.
If I can find a Work of Art on the beach I thought
I can find poems on fire extinguishers, in recipe books,
insurance policies, telephone directories,
the index to The Oxford Book of English Verse,
my grandfather's diary.
I read out the Smiths, A - J,
from the London telephone directory
and was attacked by a lady in the Lamb and Flag
screaming This isn't poetry!
In: Missing the Boat Etruscan Books 2007 p . 10
So Found Poems are a way of re-framing existing texts. We extract from a text written for one purpose and re-present it as a poem.
Here is an example from a text by Leonard Cohen, which, when reformatted becomes a perfect haiku:
There’s a crack in everything –
that’s how light gets in.
As John Daniel points out in his poem above, we can look for poems in all manner of texts.
- Here is one based on the index of first lines in a poetry anthology:
Found in index to Oxford Book of English Verse. John Daniel
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back
Love guards the roses of thy lips
Love in fantastic triumph sate
Love in my bosom like a bee
Love is a sickness full of woes
Love is and was my Lord and King
Love is enough; though the World be a-waning
Love is the blossom where there blows
Love not me for comely grace
Love, thou art absolute; sole Lord
Love, wing'd my Hopes and taught me how to fly
Lully, lulley; lully, lulley
In: Poetry Introduction 1 Faber and Faber 1969 p. 38
2. Here is another example, based on an ad for PA Consultancies which I found on a train. I simply added a number of nouns ending in ‘-ality’
(Graphic -Silhouette of a man) -ality
Consulting with quality?
Consulting with reality?
Consulting with morality?
Consulting with singularity? Or plurality?
Or mortality? Or fatality?
Or sensuality? Or sentimentality?
Or just plain old banality?
3. Here is one more example, taking a well-known text from Shakespeare and mining it for a few haikus. In this case, small changes have been made so that the syllable count of the haikus (5-7-5) can be preserved. (eg. ‘Our revels now are ended’ becomes ‘our revels now end’.)
PROSPERO (The Tempest. Act IV, Scene 1)
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.
our revels now end
and are melted into air –
rounded with a sleep.
(The Tempest. Act IV , scene 1)
this baseless fabric
leaving not a rack behind –
rounded with a sleep
(The Tempest, same)
as I foretold you
our actors were all spirits
melted into air
(The Tempest, same)
rounded with a sleep
our revels now are spirits
dissolved into dreams
(The Tempest. Same)
4. Here is one based on a walk around my local city of Canterbury one morning during lockdown (based on a suggestion by Jane Spiro)
The New Normal. Alan Maley
Angela’s Florists – closed
Fitzgerald Jewellers – closed
Kennedy’s Footwear – closed
London School of English – closed
Stephen James Hairdressers – closed
Public Library – closed
Town Museum – closed
Games Workshop Ltd. – closed
Oxfam bookshop – closed
Pinocchio’s Italian restaurant – closed
Rymans stationers - closed
Sandwich bar – open for take-aways only
Post Office – max. 2 persons at a time. Please queue outside
Sturry Pharmacy – max. 2 persons at a time. Please queue outside
Debenhams department store – closed down. Leasehold available
Funeral Directors – Day and night service
Other possible sources
Here are some more suggestions of fertile sources for Found Poems:
~ Letters (both personal and official);
~ Forms and other legal documents;
~ Shopping lists;
~ The Yellow Pages or classified pages of the telephone directory (good for extracting particular names for businesses, like hairdressers):
~ The names of stations on the London Underground or any other railway line (Flanders and Swan wrote a song once using the names of stations closed down by the government in UK – available as The Slow Train on YouTube.);
~ The names of the planets in the solar system (and the constellations);
~ The names of pubs and restaurants;
~ Newspaper headlines;
~ Extracts from novels and short stories.
Found Poems in class?
I would suggest that working on Found Poems with learners has a number of advantages:
~ It exposes them to a wide variety of texts.
~ It requires them to pay close attention to what they read because they have a focus in seeking out possible Found Poems.
~ In some ways, it makes the writing of poetry less daunting. The raw material is already there – they have only to select and re-shape it.
~ It offers multiple points for discussion and debate.
~ Much of the source material is readily accessible on line, so projects can be done outside class hours – which is particularly relevant during lockdown.
How to get started?
Start with a relatively simple activity. For example, hand out a prose text you have selected for its rich imagery. Their task is to write it out as a poem.
Here is an example:
Akhila has often dreamt of this. Of being part of such a wave that pours into compartments and settles on seats, stowing baggage and clutching tickets. Of sitting with her back to her world, with her eyes looking ahead. Of leaving. Of running away. Of pulling out. Of a train that trundles and troops into a station. Akhila is seated by a window. Everything but the train is still. The moon hangs at her shoulder and rides with her. She travels through a gallery of nightscapes, each framed by a window. A family huddled around a fire. A howling dog. A distant town. Black oily waters of a river. A menacing hill. A curling road. A railway crossing with the streetlight glinting on the glasses of a man on a static scooter, hands dangling at his side, heel on the ground, head cocked, watching, waiting for the train to hurtle past.
At the station, portraits replace impressions. Reunions. Farewells. A smile. Tears. Anger. Irritation. Anxiety. Boredom. Stillness. Akhila sees them all. The train begins to move.
Anita Nair. Ladies’ Coupe. (Vintage Books 2001. pp 1-2)
Essentially, the task is to decide where the line breaks should come. Here are two possible ways of starting.
dreamt of this.
of such a wave …
Akhila has often dreamt
Of being part
of such a wave …
Clearly there will be many different versions which can be discussed as learners compare their texts. Once they are used to the idea of manipulating texts in this way, you can vary the tasks. For example:
~ They use the text as a mine. They first choose 8 words or fragments of the text which they find especially striking. They then put the original text to one side and use the fragments to write a short poem, adding words as necessary.
~ They look for haikus hidden in the text.
~ They search for a new text which can be used in the same ways.
You can then move on to using other sources of Found Poems as suggested above : newspaper headlines, letters, etc.
Let me end with another Found Poem, taken from a novel:
Found Poem: Pre-emptive Strike. (from Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces. pp 596)
The truth is
that we know very little
about this illness.
We know very little
as a matter of fact.
It is really not important.
It is just that one day
I may no longer know your name,
and I ask you to forgive me
if I pass you in the street
or on the stairs
and my face does not light up
Please forgive me.
I shall no longer be myself.
I am going into a dark country
and I very much wanted
to say goodbye
to those that I have loved
before I go.
Good luck with finding many more poems yourselves! They are all around you. All you have to do is identify them.
Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website
A New Normal: A List Poem
Stefania Ballotto, Italy
Alan Maley, UK