Thursday, September 16, 2010

In My Grandfather's Voice: Found Poetry

A few weeks ago, I saw a comment on Twitter from Mary J. Johnson, The Primary Source Librarian:

I visited the Library of Congress Primary Source Set that Mary had recommended, then did some background research.

By definition, a "found poem" is a composition made by combining fragments of such printed material as newspapers, signs, or menus, and rearranging them into the form of a poem. Found poetry is fancifully described as the literary equivalent of a collage. In its purest form, found poetry uses only the original text, without alterations or deletions.

There are a number of lesson plans available online that focus on creating found poetry, including

My own foray into found poetry was inspired by some papers I found in my late father's office. Dad's parents, my grandparents, were Italian immigrants. They worked hard, found their version of the American Dream, and proudly became U.S. citizens.

Just prior to the outbreak of WWI, my grandfather had to return to Italy to settle an estate. Unable to leave the country once war was declared, Grandpa was given a choice: enlist in the Italian army, or be shot as a spy! He opted for the former, and served his time, while Grandma managed the family and their businesses. While far from home and loved ones, he kept a journal.

At some point, a photocopy of this document came into my father's possession, along with a translation of a few of the entries from their original Italian. On these pages, I see my grandfather's beautiful script and hear the loneliness and longing in his words.

Here are a selection of "found poems" in my grandfather's voice:

I. Malachin

Last night
at the usual hour
we had a roll call
of the 13th squad
and everybody was present
except for one soldier,
He is a country boy
and he likes to drink wine.
This evening
he is still missing
and nobody knows
where he is
or if anything happened to him.
The Commandant of the platoon
ordered us
to look for him
for some time
and at 11 pm
he was declared a deserter.
Pity for him.

II. Mail Call

The mail came this morning,
but for me, nothing.
I write almost every day,
but for me always nothing.
Word goes around
that in a few days
we have to advance,
and we hope
that God will keep us
in good health and safe,
so we can be together and
I think about my loved ones a lot...a lot.

III. Cold

The icy air really
cuts your face
and freezes your feet.
Just in a few minutes,
your feet
are not just frozen
but like marble.
The night is beautiful,
with so many stars,
a night for lovers!
The stars shine so
in the sky.
If a poet were here,
he would write
some beautiful
poetic words.
I look at my watch
and the time is 2 am.
We have to stay up
for another 3 hours
with this
tremendous cold air
and we feel
the nervousness
of the time.

IV. Battle

We hear the sound
of battle
machine gun fire
and even the air
smells of
gun powder.
We also hear soldiers calling for help
and, to top it all off,
is the feeling
of insecurity,
the end of this
messy and gory raid.
The potent
machine gun light
sweeps across the land
and everything is dead silent.
But this time
the light has a
from the other side,
and it seems that
it is a duel
between the
two giant lights.
Our light is
and the enemy light
tries to confuse us.
After a while,
the lights from both sides
go off.
No winners.

"Grandpa's Journal" by dmcordell


Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

They make wonderful poems! Thank you so much.

Mary J Johnson said...

Diane, I am so pleased that a little idea on Twitter ended in your own found poetry. Your grandfather's journal is a treasure beyond words! I tried writing a found poem based on the Library of Congress slave narratives for an upcoming article in School Library Monthly. It's harder than it appears, especially for someone like me who rarely writes anything creative.

Thank you so much for sharing your grandfather's amazing story, as well as your poems!


Beth said...

These are spectacular! I think line breaks can make such a difference in how we read - it casts the words in a whole new light.

So glad you shared! You inspired me to work on some with my students.


Anonymous said...

Hi Diane,
This is email I sent to my children that I thought you might like to see. Thank you for posting Grandpa's beautiful words. As we all know, we couldn't have been blessed with any better parents and grandparents.

Love Always,

Uncle Phil

Kathy sent this to me and I thought you would like to see it. I have the original journals that grandpa wrote, there were two of them. I'm sure there were more but I assume they were lost over the years. I had one translated but have been unable to find someone to translate the other. I made copies of the journals and the one translations and gave copies to all the brothers and sisters. The hand writing is beautiful as well as the content.
Love Always,


diane said...


Thank you. It's was a privilege to read them.


You're right - it isn't easy to see the poetry in prose. Fortunately for me, my grandfather's writing had a lyrical element that made this little exercise in "found poetry" easy for me.


Please share some of your student work, if you can.

Uncle Phil,

I'm glad to know that you have the original journals. We were born into a remarkable family, a fact which daily becomes more apparent to me.

Grandpa's journals, dad's photos, and other family artifacts keep us connected to each other and to those who are no longer with us.

The photos of grandma and grandpa are in a little leather case, which I believe my father carried with him throughout WWII.

I'll continue to share family photos as I upload them.

Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

A Keeper's Jackpot said...

I don't think I had ever heard that bit of family history before, thanks for sharing!

Joanna Paterson said...

Oh these are tremendous! Thanks so much for sharing them, and giving me ideas, as well as sharing your grandfather's voice.

I know I'm a year late in commenting, but google just pointed me here, or rather, I just opened my eyes to what I could find :-)

Unknown said...

Diane I love this idea. It is a great way to honor your grandparents. It's a cool story about your grandfather. I have stories my grandpa but they are all verbal. There are no surviving letters or photos from that era. You are SO lucky to have all these old items of your past. I do have my other grandfather diary though... hmmm.