Technically I’d argue that ALL poems are found – whether birthed by an image spied out from the corner of one’s eye while riding a bus or teased from the introduction of a social studies text – poems are the distillation of information.
But in this post I’m going to tell you about Sara and my take on the “found poem”.
Found poems come in many different flavors and persnickety-ness of restrictions. One basic tenant of the found poem is that the text comes from an outside source – which the words and phrases used to create the finished piece are literally found “as is” in the wild. Street signs, advertising copy, passages from novels, and lines and phrases from an introduction to genetics chapter are plucked from the source material and placed unadulterated into a new manuscript. This fresh lens focuses on the extracted images plays up their imagery, irony and metaphorical meaning.
A second popular version is the Black Out poem. This technique simply blacks out the de-selected words from a block of text leaving only the ones deemed most important by the reader visible. This creates an artifact that is in itself art. Sara and I go into more detail along with examples in our book High Impact Writing Clinics – but any Google search of the term found poems would explain the process. We certainly did not invent this method – but we have adapted it.
Here is how I have used the Found Poem in recent middle and high school classrooms. In a couple of classes the unit was on dystopian fiction, in others it varied from local literature (we were in China) to classic American Lit (Of Mice and Men).
In the cases where there was choice in reading the class was grouped into lit circles or book clubs – four or five kids reading the same text. One group may have been reading 1984, another Brave New World, a third Fahrenheit 451 etc. In the classes where a common text was being studied I had the kids form discussion groups of similar sizes – at least two not more than four.
I am a firm believer in stacking the deck. Choice of text to be used in the Found Poem exercise is critical to success so mapping out the areas your students will be looking for their inspiration is a good idea. I suggest two or three pages, which translates to 500 – 750 or so words. Select passages that are plot turning points, establish setting, or illustrate themes you want discovered. When we did this with Of Mice and Men at the American School of Warsaw we selected the opening of the novel – the scene where Lenny kills Curley’s wife and the scene where George shoots Lenny.
In a class where there are multiple texts this can be a bit of an onerous task but it is well worth the time. In a pinch – the first two pages of a novel is always ripe for picking. If this engagement strategy is being used after the novels have been read – the first two and the last two pages are a great source.
Once the selections of excerpts have been made have each group mine them for the power words and phrases. This is a group activity with the cohorts agreeing on what is most important. Students in the groups each have a copy of the resulting list of extracted content. This can be done via a shared document that all have access to; everyone copying the info at the same time; any way that results in each student having their own copy of the result at the end of this portion is fine. Reminding the students that this is a collaborative effort is also a good idea throughout this portion of the exercise.
If you’re working on a class novel and have selected different portions of the book for the students to be using – a single portion per group is good – remember around 750 words is a suitable amount to be working with.
After the students have worked as a team to select the important phrases and each have a copy of this list of words I like to have them read their lists out loud – everyone in the room at the same time. It’s just something I think adds to the fluency of the classroom and helps the students develop their ear for the next step.
The students should now have a collection of words and phrases that were extricated from the longer text in front of them, a list that was collaborated on with their partners. For the next step they will be working as individuals. This means each needs their own copy – so if it is a shared document they need to resave it as a personal copy. This is also where our version of the found poem begins to play a little loose with the rules – (as if rules weren’t meant to be played with.) Some folks would take this conglomeration of phrases and deem it a finished found poem. Sure thing – that could work but we like to take it a couple steps further.
We call these lists a poem skeleton. Like a skeleton this can be the framework on which a body (the poem) can be constructed. Time to add some connective tissue. I encourage the students to look closely at their lists – are there phrases that lend themselves to repetition – is there a particularly strong image that befits it being moved to become a first line? Also, what poetic elements might be incorporated as tendons and muscle to help our piece get up and run? I put a list of poetic elements and examples on the board and I challenge the students to incorporate at least two of them into their rewrite.
For more advanced classes I add an extra challenge to the two poetic elements. I assign individual challenges on top of the class wide charge. One student may be asked to turn their list into a poem consisting of three four line stanzas with the an ABCB rhyme pattern, another may be asked to start each line with the same word, a third might be asked to include a specific poetic element i.e. alliteration a certain amount of times, another to turn their piece into four interconnecting haiku, the list of challenges is only limited by the instructors imagination. One tip I picked up from a middle school Principal in Kenya was to hand these extra assignments out to pairs of students separated geographically in the classroom pointing to them simultaneously. This cuts the number handed out in half but ensures the writers are working individually. The first time I tried this I though it would crash and burn – but as is often the case, the kids ran with it and exceeded expectations.
Here is a short list of challenges I have asked students to incorporate into their pieces:
Turn your piece into four or five interconnected haiku.
Write four three line stanzas with the last word of each third line rhyming.
Start your first line with a word beginning with A – second line B – third C etc. etc.
Start each line with the same word.
Turn your piece into a sonnet.
Write three four line stanzas with a specific rhyme pattern.
Write two stanzas, which are Tankas (5-7-5-7-7 – syllables)
The list is unending – and optional. You know your students – although I have never been disappointed when trying this. I especially love the looks of eager anticipation as the students wait for their additional challenge. Remember this extra bit is on top of employing two poetic elements already.
A further lesson extension would be to have the students combine their poem with another to create a piece for two voices. This has resulted in some goose bump moments for me in the classroom. In particular I remember a couple two-voice poems from our Of Mice and Men lesson. They combined the opening scene with the shooting of Lenny conclusion to great effect and highlighting a parallelism of structure between the two moments in the book that I hadn’t noticed before. Students from the same book group combining their pieces for two voices works as productively.
Of course we end the lesson by performing our pieces out loud for the rest of the class.
So what are we accomplishing here?
We are close reading a text as a group.
We discover themes of our literature.
We are collaborating to discern the importance of what we are reading.
We are taking collaborative research and writing as individuals.
We are getting hands on experience using poetic elements.
We are accepting the extra challenge.
We are working and succeeding through a bit of cognitive dissonance.
We are coming back together to edit and write a finished piece with a partner.
We are sharing our work with an audience.
I have completed this lesson from start to performance in a single block style class periods – 1-1:15 hr. many times. This includes modeling the writing process each step as we go.
So – I hope this is something you find useful. As always adopt and adapt and feel free to share samples of what you find if you end up using this.