Redeeming Prose: Colombo' s Found Poetry

by Manina Jones

Some texts are born literary,
some achieve literariness,
and some have literarinesss thrust upon them.

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory

In the opening of his article "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One," Stanley Fish describes an experiment he once conducted with one of his classes.  He takes a list of names written vertically on the blackboard — the reading assignment from a previous seminar — draws a frame around them, writes "page 43" at the top, and tells the unsuspecting (though, as the exercise demonstrates, far from innocent) students it is a poem to be interpreted.  What was a reading assignment to the previous class becomes an assignment in reading to the class that follows.  Skilled in "detecting" poetic imagery, Fish's students develop an ingenious series of interpretations of the passage, interpretations produced, Fish infers, not because his students know poetry when they see it, but rather because they see poetry when they know it.  The text as poem does not exist a priori; their shared repertory of interpretive conventions generates it.

     The series of literally and contextually framing acts Fish performs in "setting the snare" for his students (acts, which, as Peter Nesselroth points out, Fish's analysis virtually ignores [41]) are analogous, if not identical, to the gestures that "create" the genre known as "found poetry," "poetry," as Franz Stanzel defines it, "not written by a poet but found, that is to say, taken from a nonliterary context and printed in the traditional format of poetry" (91).   Just as Fish's selection is divided vertically into lines, the found poem is typographically arranged in a manner we associate with poetic convention, and like the list of names, the found text undergoes a conceptual shift from a purely referential to an "aesthetic" context, that is, a context in which we are likely to put into play certain interpretive procedures, like formal analysis.  Fish directs attention to the text as written by literally drawing and labelling a page, and overtly states an interpretive challenge to a class full of literature students.  The found poem, similarly, is framed by formal elements that denote a book of poetry or a literary magazine, and which also imply a community of readers and a challenge to interpretation.

     Franz Stanzel points to the Dadaist movement in the visual arts as a predecessor of found poetic practice (91).  The Dadaist readymade presented everyday, practical found objects like a coat rack (Duchamp's Trébuchet), urinal (Duchamp's Fountain), or stovepipe (Picasso's La Venus de Gaz) in an aesthetic context, thereby placing in question not just the meaning of the specific object displayed and the observer's relation to it, but the very definition of the art object and institution in general.   Bruce Barber observes that the readymade's procedure of aesthetic appropriation "allowed the primary interrogatives: 'What is the status of this object if not by my hand, if not unique, if an object originally of functional use value? and how is it that this can come up for the count of art?'" (220).  Such questions are equally pertinent to the production of the literary "readymade."

     The resurgence of interest in Dada and the revival of Dadaesque techniques in artistic endeavors like Pop Art and collage in the 1950s and 1960s was coincident with the popularizing of the found poem.  In the introduction to his 1966 volume of found poetry The MacKenzie Poems, John Robert Colombo writes that the found poem "seems stylish in the 1960's.  It seems part-and-parcel of our informal relationship with the past, in the same way that pop art, camp, environments, happenings, events, son-et-lumière productions, the non-fiction novel and town houses are part of a contemporary approach to the world of the past"(25).

     Canada had particular reason to reassess its relationship with the past at this time: the date of Colombo's comments is the year preceding the nation's centennial celebrations.   1967 saw the publication of F.R. Scott's volume of found poetry Trouvailles: poems from prose, much of which transformed historical documents into contemporary found poems.  In 1975 the appropriately-titled "Towards a New Past" project of the Government of Saskatchewan's Department of Culture and Youth published its Found Poems of the Metis People, a revisionist account of the history of Native participation in the two world wars, achieved through the presentation of "documents in poetic form rather than . . . contrived poems in the classical European literary tradition" (iv).  The latter venture occurred at roughly the same time as the "Aural History" project of the Provincial Archives of British Columbia, which resulted in the documentary volume Steveston Recollected and, ultimately, Daphne Marlatt's long poem Steveston.

     In his "A Found Introduction," which precedes the found poetry section of Open Poetry: Four Anthologies of Expanded Poems, Colombo begins a "Background.   Literature" discussion with more historically distant analogues of the found poem including "stichometry," the practice of arranging rhetorical texts into meaningful lines, and nineteenth century "whimseys," poems shaped from popular prose texts (432).  He notes such obvious Modernist "finders" as Joyce, Eliot and Pound, all of whom use, as Louis Dudek puts it, "documentary quotation" (Introduction 2).  Colombo, however, calls W.B. Yeats "perhaps the first poet in the English langnage to practise the literary alchemy of turning the base metals of prose into the rare metrics of poetry," since, when he edited the 1936 Oxford Booh of Modern Verse, Yeats included as its first entry a versified passage from Walter Pater's prose essay on Leonardo Da Vinci from Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Mackenzie Poems 21).  Yeats' comments on his selection in the introduction to the volume explain, in effect, that he has found in Pater an unrecognized Modernist poet whose role in the movement can only be revealed by printing the essay selection in vers libre (vii).  Colombo adds to the list of predecessors such writers as Blaise Cendrars, Marianne Moore, and José Garcia Villa ("Found Introduction" 433).

     The found poem's historical analogues and the exercise undertaken by Fish both pose the problem of identifying a text objectively in terms of "its" inherent qualities, and point to contextual factors that contribute to the production of the text by its readers.  When Colombo asks "What is found?" he is also posing the question of textual definition, and when he suggests "Perception?" he, like Fish, locates the answer in the unstable, self-conscious realm of interpretation ("Found Introduction" 434).  The found poem necessarily implicates its readers in such questions, since its central gesture depends on a violation of a passage's apparent identity; in the reading of the found poem, the "same" text becomes somehow "other."  Tom Hansen's definition stresses the reader's participation in this process: "Most found poems begin their lives as passages of expository prose.   Their intended purpose is to feed easily digestible information to the reader.   Nothing could be less poetic.  But suddenly poetry is discovered embedded within the prose.  The discoverer is someone alert to the possibilities of irony, absurdity, and other incongruities" (271).

     The sense of one genre "embedded" in another is crucial.  The found poem always bears the traces of a contextual shift, either because the text's "original" instance is familiar, or because it is evoked in the poem's title or a note.  To his students, for example, Fish's passage is "only" a poem, to us it is a found poem, since it operates as a kind of pun; we cannot read it without consciousness of its plural contexts.  The defining characteristic of the found poem is in fact that very consciousness of plurality, and not any objective criterion.

     Despite the demonstrated complexities of Fish's student-generated "poem," we are unlikely to encounter it on a standard reading list for a course in literature.   Found poetry is a genre that exists by definition in a contradictory position on the margins of the literary canon, since it places in jeopardy the very notions of literature, genre, work of art and artist that circumscribe the status of the canon.   Ajit Singh Bhati, in fact, places the found poem under the heading "expanded poetry," a category that attempts to establish "non poetry, anti poetry and pop poetry as genuine integrants of poetry instead of letting them grow into a separate class" (85).  In Canada, the equivocal position of both the finder and the found is perhaps best demonstrated by John Robert Colombo, whose "marginal" found writings, I would argue, are theoretically central to our changing conception of the literary text.

     Colombo's "found" writings are typically divided into two categories: the lesser-known found poems, such as those contained in Abracadabra (1967), The Great Cities of Antiquity (1979), The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (1971), The Great Wall of China (1966), John Toronto (1969), Leonardo's Lists (1972), The Mackenzie Poems (1966), Mostly Monsters (1974), Praise Poems (1972), The Sad Truths (1974), Translations from the English (1974), and Variable Cloudiness (1977); and the popular reference works such as Colombo's Canadian Quotations (1974), Colombo's Canadian References (1976), Colombo's Names and Nicknames (1979).

     Colombo, it is no coincidence, is more frequently recognized for his "legitimate" activities as anthologist, collector, editor, and translator, surely because these are in some sense projects more recognizable to a tradition that likes to make clear distinctions between those who "produce" language, and those who "merely" put it into circulation.  Found poetry or, as Colombo aptly terms it, "redeemed prose," is precisely a recirculation of the linguistic coin with an implicit reappraisal of its value (Mackenzie Poems 17).  The economy of found poetry further suggests that language is never "produced" in any truly creative sense, but rather that it is always borrowed, and with a varying rate of interest.  Jacques Ehrmann notes that the found poet uses quotation marks both as an indication of his borrowing and a sign of his refusal to accept the borrowed text at face value.  The quotes "underline the transformable nature of language.  Being a 'writer' or 'poet' no longer corresponds to any particular identity, but to a particular situation, accessible however to everyone" (243).

     As a sequel to this line of thought, it is possible to think of Colombo's found poetry as a kind of tongue-in-cheek contemporary reading of Northrop Frye's famous statement that our concept of the literary must be expanded to include Canadian literature.   "The literary in Canada," Frye writes, "is often only an incidental quality of writings which, like those of many of the early explorers, are as innocent of literary intention as a mating loon" (214).1   The found poem, as we shall see, expands the category of the literary to universal proportions.  It also pushes the literal writer to the margins of the literary, making meaning a function of reception, an "incidental" social act rather than the product of an individual's "literary intention."

     Martha Rosler calls attention both to the social nature of quotation in general, and to its ironic potential: "One speaks with two voices, establishing a kind of triangulation — (the source of) the quotation is placed here, and the hearer/spectator there — and, by inflection, one saps the authority of the quote" (196).  In light of Rosler's comments, it is possible to read Colombo's "To W.D. Moodie of 'The Literary Garland' "as a comment on the very issues raised in the Frye quote, since the poem places the "Canadian literary problem" squarely on the shoulders of Canadian readers, and since the found text's "new" context seems to invite those readers to transform this apparently univocal and disparaging text "against its will" into a piece of playfully ironic self-reference:

We are
I fear
too little
as yet
in this
new country
to appreciate
literary merit
as we ought,
the support
may not
be so good
as your friends desire (John Toronto 22).

Jean Mallinson refers to Colombo as "the poet as supreme opportunist, [who] joyfully exploits instead of lamenting his position as epigone or, to use Harold Bloom's term, 'belated poet' "(67).  Indeed, Colombo actually draws attention to the social nature of "his" writings: he literally equivocates (equi-vocates) on the matter of the artist's signature by subtitling John Toronto "new poems by Dr. Strachan, found by John Robert Colombo."  The book's main title, in fact, potentially refers to both John Strachan and John Colombo.  Colombo also takes second billing to William Lyon Mackenzie on the title page of The Mackenzie Poems, explaining in the introduction that the volume "is the product of a creative collaboration spanning a hundred years" (7).  Another introductory note tells us that the found text of The Great Cities of Antiquity is The Encyclopaedia Britannica, a work already considered by its authors to be "a vast engine of cooperative effort" (ii).

     Other poems put the social issue in an even broader context.  As we have noted, all language is always an already-given social fact, and is borrowed therefore from a complex socio-linguistic system, and not just individuals who can be duly attributed with a quote.  Colombo's poems are frequently composed of excerpts from etymological dictionaries, dictionaries of quotation, dictionaries of proverbs, dictionaries of rhyming words.  "Interrogation," for example, is composed of citations from Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Clichés (Variable Cloudiness 20).  Such quotes make obvious what is the case for all uses of language: their "attribution" is intertextual; it necessarily goes far beyond the reference work in which they can be found.

     "Reference work" is clearly a key term.  It was, we might recall, the heading of the second, "non-literary," category of Colombo's found works.   We routinely make the distinction between language that simply and unambiguously refers and language that is somehow differentiated by its "literary" status, but found poetry draws attention to the fallaciousness of that distinction.  It may employ exactly the same materials as "non-literary" works as, for instance, does Colombo's poem "Love in Quotes," which is a pastiche of quotations from Colombo's Canadian Quotations (Variable Cloudiness 30).  The difference, then, as Stanley Fish's example demon strated, is one of context, rather than content.  In an article on "Non-genre literature," Jonathan Culler demonstrates the transformation of a piece of journalistic prose into a lyric poem through a shift in the reader's generic expectations.  Similarly, Colombo's recontextualizing of da Vinci's inventories in Leonardo's Lists literally "re-invents" them in the sense of "invent" that means to find, or come upon.  The "poetic" context puts into play interpretive possibilities that might otherwise have been ignored.

     It goes without saying, then, that Colombo's work brackets the notion of Literature itself: Louis Dudek calls him "a non-poet who also writes non-books" ("Poetry in English" 119).  The Great Wall of China, for instance, eludes literary genre classifications in its subtitle, "an entertainment," and Mostly Monsters flouts the notion of high literature by placing Mary Shelley alongside gothic tidbits from horror films, advertising slogans and comic books.  Finally, "Written by an Unknown Hand on the Margin . . ." might be considered an epitome of Colombo's found work, since it literally places marginalia at centre-page (Translations 72).

     Colombo's footnotes, especially those in Translations from the English, frequently go beyond mere attribution to provide a guide to the reading of the poem.   Characteristically, in fact, they are themselves often quotations ("found meta-poems" perhaps?).  For example, "Some of the Artifacts of the Twentieth Century" cites Marshall McLuhan's comment that "The poet dislocates language into meaning," and the footnote to "Dear Ann: I'm Afraid" quotes Ronald Gross: "Found poetry turns the continuous verbal undertone of mass culture up full volume for a moment, offering a chance to see and hear it with a shock of recognition" (Translations 65, 69).

     That shock of recognition is perhaps best explained by the dislocation Colombo describes in Abracadabra: "these days the aesthetic distance between an objet trouvé and an objet d'art is a short one indeed — a short circuit, some might say" (124).  Redeeming prose involves a short circuiting of the conventional distinctions between the "aesthetic" and "non-aesthetic," "poetic" and "ordinary" that reveals all language as highly charged.  "Redeeming" is perhaps a better word here than redeemed, since it implies an ongoing process of redefinition and reconsideration (re-deem-ing), as well as a reciprocal relationship between reader and text.  As Jacques Ehrmann puts it, "Poetic language is not another language, it is the same language.  Or, more precisely, it is language itself whose capacity (and function) to change and expand is suddenly exposed" (243).


  1. On the subject of the "incidentally literary" quality of explorer writing, attention might be drawn to such works as George Bowering's Burning Water, John Ferns's Henry Hudson or Discovery, Don Gutteridge's The Quest for North: Coppermine, David Helwig's Atlantic Crossings, Lionel Kearns' Convergences, Gerald St.  Maur's Odyssey Northwest, and Jon Whyte's Homage, Henry Kelsey, all of which incorporate "non-literary" explorer journals into the literary context. [back]

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