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Blackout Poetry: The Art of Stealing Art

Amvi Mishra

A few weeks ago I had the intense pleasure of dipping myself in the cathartic pool of Blackout poetry. The process lent me copious amounts of creativity, making me addicted to this craft. As I got more sucked into this world, the more it revealed to me. The findings of my research about the craft and its origins baffled me and this article is an attempt to gather what I have learned and to share it with the ones who dare to read about the ultimate truth behind any art.

What is B-L-A-C-K-O-U-T Poetry?

Have you ever fussed over the amount of scrap accumulated at your house especially in this lockdown? The heaps of newspapers and magazines piled one on top of each other waiting to be carted away or your old books and textbooks which had served you for years but now sit in inertia glaring at you from one corner of the room. Well, this is exactly the right moment for you to pick up your desired piece of text and make your poem out of it because that’s what blackout poetry is all about!

According to Writer’s Digest, this poetical format also known as redacted poetry can be defined as— “A blackout poem is when a poet takes a marker (usually black marker) to already established text--like in a newspaper--and starts redacting words until a poem is formed. The key thing with a blackout poem is that the text AND redacted text form a sort of visual poem.”

Isn’t it interesting? Imagine suffering from a terrible writer’s block. All you would need to challenge this unsolicited lacuna of creative juices are: a page of text, a marker, and an eye for words.

All that these poets then do is hunt for ‘anchor words’. These are words that sound the loudest echo in your head carrying significance and beauty. Scanning each line for words that hook your attention and blacking out the rest of the text leads you to compose your own lyrical masterpieces.

The trick is, to NOT hold onto more thanthree words in a row and later stringing the chosen resonant words together in the same order of their appearance from top to bottom, left to right. The result might not be Shakespearean all the time or even one that emanates clear meaning but the very idea of it being random and broken, only for you to piece it together makes for a purgative experience.

The format of blackout out poetry has where people infuse colours, drawings, and pictures to enhance the poem’s meaning.

The History of Blackout Poetry

Often viewed as a creation of recent years by the author and poet Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout poems and inspiring several poetry gospellers like John Caroll into building an online community by the name of @makeblackoutpoetry, which brings together thousands of creators across various online platforms and gives them a chance to voice their art, the dawn of blackout poetry can actually be traced back to as early as the 18th century.

When Austin Kleon began to make these poems in 2005 using newspapers and as word spread out, a lot of people brought the history of this 250-year-old art form to his and everyone’s notice thereby calling out Kleon’s work as “unoriginal.

One of the most celebrated personalities to whom Kleon’s work was being likened to is a native Londoner and artist named Tom Phillips, who used the nearly similar technique to populate the pages of an old Victorian novel by drawing, painting and collaging figures and objects leaving a few words lurking out from the overall text. Thus began ‘A Humument’, the touchstone of Phillips oeuvre.

Then enters William Burroughs, American author and visual artist who inspired many like Phillips by his method of cut-up-writing wherein he would take a piece of writing, cut it up, reconstruct and restructure it to make a fresh new piece.

But of course Burroughs got it from someone else. Who? None other than his painter friend Bryon Gysin who was preparing his canvas but accidentally sliced through a stack of newspapers and the way the newspaper strips aligned themselves haphazardly with the words floating, ignited in his mind the idea of cut-out poetry.

But then the trail continues and we have Tristan Tzara, a French avant-garde poet, essayist and playwright who went on stage wearing a hat and stocking some newspapers in his hand. He cut words from the newspaper and put them in the hat. Drawing out the cutouts randomly, he read them out as poems.

The last person to rank this seemingly exhaustive list of people is the neighbor of Benjamin Franklin, Caleb Whitefoord who made humorous puns in the 1700s that were read across the skinny columns of the then newspapers and later went on to publish a broadsheet of them.

This is how redacted poetry began and continued to meander through the lanes of times, ever-changing its ephemeral forms.

Needless to say, Kleon was curious to have people categorise his art form as “plagiarised content” and took to making people understand the true genesis of any artistic endeavor in his book titled, “How to steal like an artist.”

The Kreative Cleptomania

The reason you read such a laborious list of people dotted across centuries of time was to make you warm to the words of Picasso who said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Confused? Surprised? Relieved? I was relieved. Reading this unknotted the twines of tension pent up inside me for years now. I am not self-deprecating or calling upon people to label me as a plagiarist. Rather I am trying to understand the genealogy of ideas as the same ideas move across time and space hinging onto people in different ways resulting in unalloyed creativity.

The idea that any creative expression of a human is cent percent original is a hoax. No writer or artist is completely unique while fashioning their innovations. They are an assortment of everything and everyone they encounter in their lives, therefore, shadowing each piece of artistry with the impressions of what they read, see, hear or meet.

This is not to term anybody’s content as plagiarised or to be in favour of plagiarism. There is a substantially marked difference between outright copying somebody else’s work or ideas and calling it your own versus letting the work of others inspire and urge you to find your own, often leaving behind the footprints of their work peeking out from

underneath yours.

One time a writer asked the singer David Bowie if his compositions were original and he replied, “No, no. I am more like a tasteful thief.” Adding, “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from”

The key to creative theft as Kleon very patently explains is to know what to steal and then molding it into your own thing.

T.S Eliot once said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

So the next time you find yourself struggling to push out great content, don’t shy away from drifting a little further from the strict rules of ingenuity and brushing your mind with others' dexterity to have your own aha moment! of discovering the art of stealing art.


Image sources:

Image 1-

Image 2- YOUTUBE

Image 3-

Image 4- Instagram- @blackoutpoetry Collage© made with UNFOLD app

Image 5-

Image 6- Timeline© made on CANVA

Sources of inside images in order-

1: Austin Kleon Facebook Home


3: Goodreads


5: Goodreads


7: Facebook


Image 7- Unknown

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