From Iceland — I’ll Have What He’s Having

I’ll Have What He’s Having

Published November 2, 2009

Are you tired of writing your own damn poems? Does it feel like you’d rather plunge through the fiery gates of hell rather than come up with one more metaphor/ simile/ aphorism to explain the human condition? There’s so much poetry in the world already! So much language! Why make more?

Now, what if there was a way of making a poem without actually having to resort to our supposedly original ideas? What if we could simply appropriate somebody else’s words and call them our own? Text-piracy, of sorts. Plagiarism. Theft. We’ve gotta fight for our copyright to “party.

A found poem is a piece of language reframed. In some cases the pieces were already poems to begin with, collaged together in a new context, as in Eliot’s The Wasteland or Pound’s Cantos; but in other cases they are bits of overheard conversation, the text from a commercial or a news story, reframed as poetry. Charles Reznikoff’s famous book, Testimony, is just what it says: slightly altered texts from American court transcripts. Kenny Goldsmith’s Day is one issue of the New York Times—word for word, retyped. The Norwegian poet Paal Bjelke Andersen is working on a book of sentences found in the New Year speeches of Nordic prime ministers, including the Icelandic ones. Icelandic artist Ragnhildur Jóhanns recently published a limited edition book, Konur 30 og brasilískt (Women 30 and Brazilian), consisting of sentences lifted from an online forum about women over thirty and Brazilian wax treatments. Doesn’t that sound fantastic? Delightful? The language around you actually runs amok, constantly, all on its own it seems and needs merely to be picked up and repeated to forthwith metamorphose into wonderful poetry.
Now, finding language in a world so full of it (pun intended) may not seem like a great challenge for the average creative mind. Quite the contrary, most of us wouldn’t mind finding somewhere, anywhere, a quiet place devoid of language. Some calm resort, a haven, where we could be free from the incessant chatter, free from screaming billboards, blazing televisions and the latest Top 40 list.

But, as strangely as that may sound, found poems tend to provide a certain relief from their own inanity, stupidity, supposed depth or other imaginable attributes of the given source text. Like a good piece of adbusting, a decent-to-brilliant found poem both negates and amplifies the original text creating a flux of meaning and anti-meaning. An eye in the storm, if you will, where one is given the possibility to observe what actually happens within this given piece of language (or what didn’t happen, but, in some parallel universe, might have). Not to mention the irreverent joy that found poems tend to offer, as well as their quirky insight into the discourse and thought of a society.

Found poems document the movements of language, rather than imitating it—found poems leave language exposed, rather than exposing it. But trying to follow the way language moves is an arduous task. Words come and go, become fashionable and fade (particularly when enough people have realised that they indeed have become fashionable). But certain tendencies are obvious.

These days, the language that most Icelanders find themselves submerged in is legal and economic. Suffering a financial blitzkrieg does not only bring with it (rhyme-alert!) oceans of emotion (throes of woes!), but new additions to the everyday vocabulary. Concepts like “debt-equity ratio” are now household terms, as familiar as milk and honey. “Restructuring” is more common than the cold, and “shadow price” is getting so worn as to verge on being unusable.

We’ve contracted these words from reading the newspapers, blogs and listening to pundits who regurgitate each other’s language as if they were ruminating cows. And you’d think, given how much they’re thrown about, that we understand them. Yet it seems, according to a survey conducted by the Icelandic Institute for Financial Literacy, that we don’t. Only a third of Iceland’s inhabitants, 18 years and older, have any understanding of the mere basic economic concepts. And yet we keep on yapping as if everyone understands. Restructuring opportunity costs according to the debt-equity ratio of offshore shadow prices.
And if reproducing language that you don’t understand, to people who understand it even less, isn’t poetry, then by golly, I don’t know what is.

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