Found poetry

A little while ago I came across the above telescope, which enables the public to enjoy views across the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but which more importantly boasts this heartbreaking poem:

Point the telescope & insert coin,
Turn and fully return knob.
Observe the View and at night the Moon.
Don’t look at the Sun. Hold child on stand.

It hardly needs me to point out the reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the second line’s lyrical flourish (“Turn and fully return”) nor the hopeless ‘optimism’ of “and at night the Moon”. As for the double-blow of the concluding line, if there is anywhere in this world a man cold-blooded enough to read it aloud with dry eye and lumpless throat, I’ve yet to meet him and I’m not sure I’d want to.

I immediately sent it to irregular Dabbler Bryan Appleyard, himself a keen student of coin-operated telescope poems who had previously posted an analysis of a shattering example at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk (The harsh irony of that ‘enjoy the view’ borders on the inhuman. The second stanza makes hot tears spurt…). Appleyard suggested we urgently begin work on a compendium of Scopepoems entitled Don’t Look at the Sun. So far the collection amounts to two, so do send them in if you have any.

The Clifton Scopepoem is a fine example of ‘found poetry’ – the phenomenon whereby text from prosaic sources can be reframed as poems. A well-known example is this passage from William Whewell’s 1819 work An 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.

Apparently the miserable sod changed the wording when this was pointed out to him.

The absolute apotheosis of the found poetry phenomenon is BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast. Read in a soporific rhythm, a typical poem might be:

Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later.
Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor.
Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 3 or 4. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor.
Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west.
Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.

In a 2003 article for Slate, waggishly entitled The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld: Recent works by the secretary of defense, Hart Seely turned the pronouncements of Donald Rumsfeld into verse, including:

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.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Seely’s idea here, of course, was to poke fun, though I would argue that Rumsfeld’s famous ‘known unknowns’ speech actually did us a tremendous service in clarifying hitherto vague epistemic categories. An even better example from Rumsfeld, to my mind, is this devastating example of existential crisis, which has clear echoes of Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime

A Confession
Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.

—May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

18 thoughts on “Found poetry

  1. russellworks@gmail.com'
    ian russell
    June 9, 2011 at 09:59

    Many a night I have hungered to observe the moon , alas, not a single child could be found.

    I can’t see Mr. A’s found poem. Is it just me?

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      June 9, 2011 at 10:00

      Alas I think it went kaput when the Yard changed from Blogger to WordPress. Much like his blogging, in fact.

  2. Worm
    June 9, 2011 at 11:18

    Here’s one I found online detailing the American kennel Club’s list of Weimaraner “Major Faults”

    Doggy bitches. Bitchy dogs.
    Improper muscular condition.
    Badly affected teeth.
    More than four teeth missing.
    Back too long or too short.
    Faulty coat.
    Neck too short, thick or throaty.
    Low-set tail. Elbows in or out.
    Feet east and west.
    Poor gait. Poor feet.
    Cowhocks.
    Faulty backs, either roached or sway.
    Badly overshot, or undershot bite.
    Snipy muzzle.

  3. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    June 9, 2011 at 12:19

    Oh god Worm – that is truly heartbreaking!

  4. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    June 9, 2011 at 14:02

    Worm – That one should be called “No Rosette at Crufts”

  5. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    Spam
    June 9, 2011 at 14:23

    I was hugely contented to betray
    this web-site.I wanted to thanks in behalf
    of your while
    of period in the paraphernalia
    of this wonderful betoken to!!
    I certainly enjoying every shrivelled up map of it
    and I partake of you bookmarked to
    into simple bushy-tailed possessions
    you blog post.

    • Brit
      June 9, 2011 at 14:36

      “Paraphernalia” – a fine spam-poem word.

      • davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
        David
        June 9, 2011 at 23:49

        “I certainly enjoying every shrivelled up map of it” really speaks to me.

  6. tanith@telegraphy.co.uk'
    Adelephant
    June 9, 2011 at 14:52

    This offering from a bee disease chart:

    American Foulbrood

    bacillus larvae- bacterium, sporeforming
    scattered brood pattern
    cappings
    sunken, perforated, discoloured, greasy
    dead larvae
    flat on bottom of cell
    light brown, dull white, dark brown,
    eventually coffee to dark brown;
    sticky to ropey
    scales
    black-brown and rough, removed by bees wih difficulty;
    lies flat on lower side of cell
    odour
    unpleasant glue-like.

    • Brit
      June 9, 2011 at 15:21

      Doesn’t make beekeeping sound very enticing, does it?

  7. katie@thelalatheory.com'
    June 9, 2011 at 15:06

    Wonderful post. Poems are hiding all over the place in plain view. May I share one of mine? I found this in the Orienteering chapter of an old copy of the Boy Scout Handbook; the section was called “Find Your Way.”

    With simple means
    and using your own personal measurements,
    determine a height you cannot reach
    and a width you cannot walk.
    Call loudly for help if you are alone,
    and keep on calling.

    • Brit
      June 9, 2011 at 15:09

      Brilliant, Katie! Every line is profound and vertiginous.

    • Worm
      June 9, 2011 at 15:38

      love it Katie! that definately stands alone as a poem

  8. Worm
    June 9, 2011 at 15:06

    good lord Adelephant that could be the script for a new David Cronenberg movie, with set designs by HR Geiger!

  9. info@shopcurious.com'
    June 10, 2011 at 12:51

    Curiously creative, Brit – and all other poets above! Shame Malty isn’t here.

  10. petty.mike@gmail.com'
    MikeP
    June 13, 2011 at 13:32

    There used to be a sign in the Queen’s Building (as was) at Heathrow which, though not in itself a poem, was a perfect iambic pentameter and begged to be read aloud in all manner of fruity voices:

    The waving base is closed from dusk to dawn

    • katie@thelalatheory.com'
      June 13, 2011 at 17:57

      Nice one! I love to find the music in prosaic speech/text, too. Einsturzende Neubauten has a song with this repeating line:

      “You will find me if you want me in the garden / Unless it’s pouring down with rain”

      Blixa Bargeld, who wrote the song, wrote in the album’s liner notes that the sentence is something he once overheard an elderly woman saying to her friend at an art museum, and it sounded like music to him. Delish.

Comments are closed.