Cut-Up Poetry

Cut-up poems with scissors and reassembleYesterday at Birkbeck we experimented with the cut-up method of poetry.

A cut-up poem is made by taking words and phrases, seemingly at random, from existing pieces of writing and reassembling them to create a new piece. From this mash-up of words and phrases, you hope to produce original and exciting work.

You can layer a poem with a section of prose, or juxtapose a newspaper article with an extract from a novel, or simply snatch words and phrases from a selection of different pages.

The results of the cut-up method

I mixed alternate words from a poem with sequential half-lines taken from a how-to-write-poetry book. Each word from the poem was appended at the beginning of the half-line from the book. I stuck to this formula and resisted all urges to edit and manipulate the prose as I went along. The results, in my case, were not very poetic.

One student used several of his own poems to construct a new poem. Other people took snatched phrases from a variety of sources and created work that contained some stunning images and, in a few cases, poems that were almost finished pieces and would require little further editing.

Learning points

  • If you truly use a random method (as I did) the results may or may not be interesting. In my case, my constructed piece contained very little that was original or particularly interesting.
  • If you use a selection method, by snatching up a piece of paper and choosing words and phrases, the resulting piece seems to be more cohesive. This proves there is no such thing as true randomness if we allow our unconscious brains to direct our actions.
  • By using your own work, you create a new work in your own voice. This is great, but limits the possibilities of your created poem – as you will be using your old, familiar vocabulary and constructions.

I have worked on my cut-up poem some more; editing by excluding and rearranging phrases. The finished piece is far from satisfactory and needs to lie fallow a while longer before I have another go at it. In the meantime, I’m going to have fun experimenting with mixing different texts and making some new cut-ups.


Read some of William Burroughs’ cut-up poems on the Reality Studio site.

And I discovered a wonderful cut-up machine on LanguageisaVirus.com. I guess that using this machine will eliminate the effect of your unconscious mind and the results will be, truly, random.

Author: Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, Doctor, woman, etc.

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