Gumshoe Poetry

  • Jena Osman


When I introduce T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” to students for the first time, I often approach it as an example of found text collage. In conjunction with their reading of Eliot, I ask students to write a poem where each line is taken from a different textual source they find in their homes. They are instructed to think about why they are ordering the pieces the way they do, and to annotate the poem with footnotes. This assignment makes Eliot’s seemingly impenetrable text more accessible, in that it shifts the focus of inquiry from “what does it mean” to “how was it made.” More specifically, it allows students to actively understand the relation of form to content; in writing their found poems, they discover that we are surrounded by all kinds of texts, and that these texts communicate differently when placed in a variety of formal contexts. Students in my undergraduate creative writing classes often see their personal experiences as being the only material appropriate for writing poems. The study of found poetry shows that self-expression comes just as much from “how you say it” as it does from “what you say.”


Secret Message Source Text Formal Context Paper Clip Paradise Lost 
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    A mesostic is similar to an acrostic, but with the key word running down the middle of the poem rather than at the left margin. Cage would choose a key word while reading through a source text. For example, “James Joyce” was the mesostic strand used while reading through Finnegans Wake. Cage would look for the first word in Finnegans Wake that began with “j,” then the next word that had the letter “a” in the second position, and so on. Mac Low’s diastics would take a title phrase (such as “Ridiculous in Piccadilly” from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves) and use it to “spell thru” the source text. The first word of the poem would be the first word found in The Waves that began with “r,” the second word would be the next that had the second letter “i,” etc. For more on these procedures, see Mac Low’s note to The Virginia Woolf Poems (Providence: Burning Deck Press, 1985) and Cage’s Empty Words (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1981).Google Scholar

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© Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr 2006

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  • Jena Osman

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