Found, or self-found poetry, in an age of instant trash

Poetry, like air, exists everywhere, particularly when it comes to findable material in a plethora of things ranging from books of fiction or nonfiction, memoirs, biographies or autobiographies, history books, books of philosophy, diaries, books of letters, newspaper articles, remarks made by people online, including social media platforms such as FB, Twitter, IG, and WeChat, particular WeChat, and even emails, all, in my opinion, instant trash that contains gold only an appreciative eye could pick.

This is a piece then that is intended to show how the poet has over the years found poetry everywhere, including in his own published or unpublished books, which will form the second part of this essay.

Found Poetry: Instance 1

What has Jacky Chan got to do with found poetry? I wrote about it in my On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, Thinking Chinese and Living Australian (Wakefield Press, 2008). Rather than look for the reference there, I’ll just tell you here that Jacky Chan’s martial arts are poetic in that he uses whatever that lies at hand, chairs, tables, frames, stools, piles of paper, books, anything that can be used as a weapon even when he is barehanded and unarmed. That makes his art so funny and unique, different from all the others that seem so serious and hell-bent. It is like painting, too, with his ‘found objects’ that he grabs hold of and chucks in your face or anywhere that is hittable.

In a way, that is what I did myself when I started reading Christopher Isherwood’s Liberation: Diaries, Volume Three: 1970-1983. Inadvertently, stuff that turned up caught my eye and prompted me to turn it into poetry, particularly this paragraph,

Either Billy or Ed said I ought to be president. Whereupon Don said, ‘Well, I absolutely refuse to be First Lady!’ He laughed when he said it and they all laughed too, but it was a curiously daring remark for Don to make in that circle, because he is always a little afraid of embarrassing them (or rather, just Billy) by bringing up the queerness thing.[1]

How can you find a poem in that or turn that into a found one? Here’s what I did,

First Lady

Either Billy or Ed said
I ought to be president
Whereupon Don said, ‘Well, I
absolutely refuse to be First
Lady!’ He laughed when he
said it and they all
laughed too, but it was
a curiously daring remark for
Don to make in that
circle, because he is always
a little afraid of embarrassing
them…by bringing up the
queerness thing[2]

Did you notice anything peculiar about this poem? I won’t tell you till later, possibly by the end of Instance 2.

Found Poetry: Instance 2

Letters, too, provide a fluidity of things susceptible to poetic findabilities. Here is a passage taken from my book of prose, Thought is Free,[3] just published, in which a poem is found from a letter by Joseph Roth,

Some of the things said can be turned into instant poetry, such as this:

Can I go to some third country – Albania, maybe – and write another book?[4]

A found poem, now:

Can I go
to some third country—Albania

maybe—and write
another book?

Time to reveal the secret about ‘First Lady’. Did you notice that each line consists of five words except the last one?

Found Poetry: Instance 3

What about history books? I heard you ask. Why not? Said I. A found poem may not be a mere poem. But it has the potential of becoming a critical comment on the book itself. See this one, found from David Day’s Claiming a Continent: A New History of Australia,

‘As many as’[5]

As far as I can see
This book has as many as
454 pages, including the last one
Of an advertising page

And this book of history
About dispossession
And the claiming of a con

Has as many as
7 praises, including 2
By the same person
Front and back cover

And, yet, on p. 84
It’s written that ‘Hundreds of the Wiradjuri
were killed, although their exact numbers were never counted
while as many as 20 Europeans were killed’

Not the other way around as it should be:
As many as hundreds…
While only 20 ‘were killed’—
What’s your problem, David?

Found Poetry: Instance 4

Philosophy, of all the other things, is a good source of found poetry, too. Take E. M. Cioran, a Romanian-French philosopher whose writings are fragmentary, and full of lightnings of thought that strike across the mindscape, much resembling poetry or that, simply put, is poetry.

Following is the process in which I found the poem. First, I picked the paragraph and used ‘Dictate’ in my computer. The result is this,

Every impulse is every manifestation of release evolves a negative aspect when we had a
longer beer any visible chain or nothing is left to restrain is from within one for lack of
vigor of innocence we cannot afford new politicians we should constitute a mass of
weakness more expert index disease then in the practice of sexuality not without danger
do we exceed to a high degree of consciousness just as we do not strip ourselves with
impunity of certain sanitary constraints however If the excess of consciousness contributes
to his increase Dixit excess of freedom and equally deadly phenomenon in the opposite direction
invariably murders freedom

After straightening it up, I rearranged the lines and it becomes this, with a title based on a word found from the words,


impulse, as
every manifestation, of
release, evolves a negative
aspect: when we no longer
bear any invisible…chain, when nothing
is left to restrain us from within,
when for lack of vigor, of innocence we
cannot forge new prohibitions, we shall constitute a mass
of weaklings more expert in the exegesis than in the
practice of sexuality. Not without danger do we accede to a
high degree of consciousness, just as we do not strip ourselves with
impunity of certain salutary constraints. However, if the excess of consciousness contributes to
its increase, the excess of freedom, an equally deadly phenomenon in the opposite direction,
invariably murders freedom.

The secret of this arrangement, a word I first used for my found poems before I eventually settled for found poems or found poetry, is that this poem starts with a one-word line, moving through 2 until the line of 14 words before it ends in a line of three words. Just count the number of words and you’ll know.

Any significance of that? You tell me.

Self-found poetry: Instance 1

In the 1980s, I wrote much in Chinese in my mid-20s while a university student. Out of the diverse writings I produced and left unpublished then, I have recently found much that is of a quality that I can’t match myself after going native in English. I’ll include a found prose poem here below,






As I assume my readers are capable of reading an Asian language by themselves or by using machine translation, I won’t make bold to translate it here.

Self-found poetry: Instance 2

I have a habit of recording flying throughs across my mind on scrap pieces of used paper and, for the convenience of doing that, I have a few spots of piles of paper, half used on one side and the other half blank, laid in various places in my unit. One day, I found a poem from one of the recorded messages and wrote a poem that I titled, ‘A Poem’,

A poem

My question to them:
‘What do they know?’

And their answer is:
‘What does it matter if we don’t?’

(5.29pm, 13/6/19, at home in K, based on a hand-written fragment done earlier today, at 2.50pm) (taken from the ‘wushiji’, vol. 18)

Wushiji, by the way, means Nothing Happens, which is a diary I’ve been keeping for the last twenty-odd years, in mixed Chinese and English. When that poem found its way there, I further found it here and slipped it in.

What about the quality? A voice, of all sorts of voices I heard, raises itself. So what? I said. Can you stop me from writing and from engaging in a creative process that I enjoy doing? Why are you so prone to slamming people with your minor weapon of destruction such as your ‘quality’? Who cares about that if I don’t even want to publish it, have never even submitted it for publication and can’t be bothered inviting judgemental people to pass judgements? Can’t I simply live as part of my own poetic process? Why judge all the time? Is the quality of the shit a president shits the best as compared with that of a commoner? I said to that voice that raised itself, from a crowd of other voices heard.

Self-found poetry: Instance 3

You don’t know whose fiction you read that is alive with poetry. Most novels fail the test. A few don’t. Letter from Peking is a novel that doesn’t. See a poem I found from it,


Gerald…did not like to see me work
with my hands

It is true that I have nice hands
It was the first thing he said to me

‘You have lovely hands.’
I held them up to look at

‘Do I?’ I asked stupidly
No, not stupidly, for I wanted to hear him say it again

‘American girls do not usually have good hands,’ he went on
‘I notice this because my mother, being Chinese, had exquisite hands’

‘Do all Chinese women have exquisite hands?’
I asked

I think he never spoke of my hands again

but I have not forgotten
Perhaps he began to love me because my hands made him think

of his mother’s
How can I know now?

(done at 6.19pm, Monday 10/2/20, at home in K, found from Pearl S. Buck, Letter from Peking. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1959 [1957], p. 10) (from ‘wushiji’, vol. 19)

From the note provided at the bottom of the poem, you can see that it’s a twice-found poem, again.

Self-found poetry: Instance 3, continued

Sorry but I’ve made a mistake as the Buck one is not a self-found poem. But I’m happy to keep the mistake and find a self-found one. I won’t even apologize for the mistake because it is great if you can make one in the process of creating poetry.

I might take up this opportunity to give the Chinese poem above a translation, or self-translation,

The Ward


I found Dad getting fat. When he finished washing his feet, I poured out the water for him, in which he had washed his feet. Soon, it was time to fetch hot water. I took his blue thermos bottle, uncapped and marked with a number, to the boiled water room, just diagonally across the corridor, a washroom with a boiler, as a thought flashed across my mind: Should I help fetch the water for them as well? Forget it, I thought. After I spoke a few words to Dad, I found him in high spirits. Right now, a storm was raging outside. The sycamore trees, as high as the five storeys, began swaying wildly from side to side. I did not carry an umbrella and I was wearing a pair of cloth shoes. While I was talking, I took a look around, at the other patients. On the bed next to Dad’s, the patient lay motionless. He was wearing a crumpled yellow hat, not of the genuine military green, but of the fake military green, the hat brim not quite aligned with his nose. He was cross-eyed. The patient opposite was asleep. I couldn’t see his face clearly. Another was covered by a quilt, three needle bottles hanging over him, three huge bottles underneath his bed, each inserted with a rubber tube, one bottle already half filled with a liquid that was the colour of soy sauce. I knew that it was his urine. The man had just been operated on. The one sitting on his bed against the wall opposite us wore yellow clothes, a thin face, a pair of eyes that looked spirited. He kept sizing me up. The patient on this side, with one bed between us, looked fiftyish, with grizzled hair, with the looks of a cadre. A woman who limped, with a face as black as an African, was serving the patient on a drip, pulling off the rubber tube and emptying the piss off the bottle before she inserted the tube into the empty bottle and mopped the floor clean with the mop. Can I give them a hand? I thought. Like Zhang Haidi? Really, in here, how do people need help! These thoughts flashed across my mind and I found them funny.

All the thermos bottles were left in the boiled water room, for a nurse on duty to fill them before each one took their respective bottles back. I first took mine back. Then I saw the man looking like a cadre stumbling out and stumbling back in, with two bottles of boiled water. Shortly after, I went out and, from those steaming bottles, I recognized one that belonged to one of the patients in this ward. So I picked it up and brought it back. It belonged to the yellow hat. He look a look at me, with his crossed eyes, without saying thanks. He’s possibly from the countryside.


Self-found poetry: Instance 4

While I was writing my novel, All the Rivers Run South, due out in late 2023, I was amazed by my own ability to produce prose that reads very much like poetry. When I entered into a period of revision, I told myself from time to time in these self-expressed and self-directed words: I’ll find this as a poem or I’ll find this as a prose poem. Now, this is what I found, out of a number of the other found ones,

Get Sling

The sky was covered with characters, written in Chinese and automatically translated into English, over the Cornish diggers and the Chinese diggers, separate from each other but co-existing, all dead, underground now, in different cemetery compartments. A dead man came alive and said, ‘Why, but the moon is so bright tonight? What is it that is written all over the sky? Are they the characters or are they the stars? Hey, wake up, all of you. You have been sleeping for more than a century, in fact more than a century and a half now. Why don’t you wake up and see the sky? Therein is contained the most mysterious scripts mutually unintelligible. I see my name up there but I don’t recognize it. I don’t even understand it any more. Why did I come here? you ask. I don’t remember. Wasn’t it all about the gold? You ask again. I have no idea, I said. We did have an ideal: to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time. But our ideal deflected us, inflected us, so we stayed the longest, we stay forever in this land, so familiar it’s like our gravebed. The sky looks like my gravestone, so beautifully blue and grey depending upon the mood. No one regrets anything, everyone has found a home, a permanent home, most headstone-less except me, my head being my stone.

Who else is this but Get Sling whose spirit is out prowling once again in this totally deserted cemetery near a deep gully cut by the flash flood?


When the end comes to an end, that’s when I run out of things to say, and poems to show because the end has come to an end.

Oh, I remember something. When Richard, a friend, asked if I re-read my work when published, I told him that I never do. Now I want to add to that that I do if I want to find poetry from it. In fact, I’ve found quite a few. But this piece is getting too long to include them.

[1] Copied and re-arranged from a paragraph in Christopher Isherwood, Liberation: Diaries, Volume Three: 1970-1983. Harper/Perennial, 2012, p 188.

[2] 1 poem, titled, ‘First Lady’, Quadrant, June vol. 64, no. 6, 2020, p 104.

[3] Ouyang Yu, Thought is Free. Ginninderra Press, 2023, p 50.

[4] Joseph Roth, A Life in Letters, trans./ed. by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books, 2013, p 49.

[5] Harper/Perennial, 2005 [1996].


Image by Daniel Jensen

Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu is a poet based in Melbourne and since his first arrival in April 1991 in Australia, he has published quite a few poems. His eighth novel, All the Rivers Run South, is forthcoming with Puncher & Wattmann in 2023.

More by Ouyang Yu ›

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