What is Erasure Poetry?
Erasure poetry is a form of graphic found poetry, including blackout poetry, as well as other styles of poetry.
The first use of erasure poetry may be in the 1965 work by Doris Cross, entitled Dictionary Columns. Doris is mostly known as an artist rather than a poet, and as such is often neglected from the canon of erasure poetry. In Dictionary Columns, Cross navigates a dictionary, painting and drawing over sections to discover poetry hidden throughout.
Following this, several authors began to construct elaborate examples of erasure poetry, inspired by the artistic practice of Altered Books. This includes A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Philips, a work built upon the 1892 novel A Human Document by W H Mallock, and Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, which revises the first four books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
In more recent times, erasure poetry has been used for political purposes, such as Jenny Holzer’s Redaction Paintings which use large scale reproductions of declassified military documents. By working with these documents, the concept of erasure within the military system is addressed. In some cases, the entire document may be blacked out.
Current Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracey K. Smith, has created several erasure poems, including ‘Declarations,’ which is a revision of the Declaration of Independence, and ‘The Greatest Personal Privation,’ taken from letters regarding slaveholding.
There are several forms of erasure, the most common of which is blackout poetry. In this, dark black pen is used to cross out words, leaving behind selected words in order to form a poem. Some choose to use a single black line, circling the remaining words, while others prefer to black out the entire page baring the chosen words.
Another form of erasure poetry uses illustration to mask out words, creating a link between the poem and the art.
Cut-up poetry could also be thought of as a method of erasure, in which the chosen words are cut out from the original text and re-ordered. Some modify this form and leave the poem as a skeleton of a page which has been cut apart.
Poetry written in these ways has a tendency to follow a choppy rhythm, bridging words that have jumped out as particularly fascinating or images of interest.
The beauty of erasure poetry lies in its ability to use a source material to comment on itself. While any poem can be made from any text, it might be considered that a great erasure poem is that which offers commentary on the source. An essay on poverty can be an excellent starting ground for a poem about the effects of poverty.
The poet should always be aware of the source, but also consider the manner in which erasure is practiced. Can the method used reinforce the point being made?
Erasure poetry is an interesting way of brainstorming new poems or moving into a more visual practice. I’ve also found it great to use in a workshop setting, once people get comfortable with ruining a book.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.