Blackout Poetry Form: Illuminate With Shadows

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Here’s what the Blackout poetry form is:

Blackout poems, also called redacted poems, are a form of found poetry in which the poet produces a poem by literally blacking out the words from a preexisting article or text.

This process is usually done with a marker, black highlighter, etc.

The words that are not covered constitute the poem itself.

So if you want to learn all about the Blackout poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s jump right into it!

Blackout Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: Blackout Poetry

Female hand with a black marker in blue background.

Blackout poetry, also called redacted poetry, is a subgenre of found poetry that relies on the concept of “poetry by subtraction”.

The basic premise behind blackout poetry is taking a preexisting article or excerpt and literally blacking out words.

This is usually done with a marker or similar instrument in order to only leave a poem behind.

Many people also treat blackout poetry and erasure poetry as interchangeable terms since the only difference is essentially in the words either blacked out or whited out.

This does affect the general feel of the poem, but you should go with an understanding that they’re roughly in the same genre.

Understanding blackout poetry would be difficult without a passing understanding of found poetry, so we’ll briefly discuss the broader genre first.

Basic Properties of Blackout Poetry

charming young female writing in her notebook on the sofa.
Rhyme StructureNone
OriginDadaism, but there are isolated examples from earlier
PopularityCurrently popular in classroom settings and in digital form

What Is Found Poetry?

Young attractive woman reading book in a bookshop.

Found poetry is the larger genre under which blackout poetry falls.

The general idea behind found poetry is that instead of creating a work from scratch the author ‘finds’ their poetry by recombining the words of others in various ways.

These can consist of rearranging existing passages in a sort of literary collage, and choosing lines from various original authors to interconnect.

Or, as in the case of blackout poetry, removing words in order to ‘find’ a poem underneath the surface.

One of the appealing points of found poetry is the idea that anyone can find a poem if they know how to without prodigious talent or extensive training.

There is a sense within found poetry that no words are truly owned so much as borrowed.

Of course, the harsh reality is that found poetry can be difficult to pursue professionally since it can amount to plagiarism if poorly executed.

This has not stopped found poetry from being a popular classroom topic and online phenomenon. However, found poets need to exercise caution so as not to come afoul of copyright law.

What Is Blackout Poetry?

Colored text markers and male hands writing on paper.

Blackout poetry involves marking out the unneeded words on a page either with a physical tool, such as a marker or a pen or with digital software.

The former tends to be more popular, as the image of a newspaper or magazine with physical markings in it has a unique appeal to it.

In one sense, blackout poetry could almost be considered the literary equivalent of graffiti.

By “vandalizing” an existing piece of literature, something new and refreshing is created. This may be a commentary on the original piece or a new piece entirely.

Surprisingly, blackout poetry can trace its roots back to at least the 18th century, when Benjamin Franklin’s neighbor experimented with butchering Franklin’s words to create poems.

But it was not until Dadaism, inspired by the tense atmosphere of World War I, that found poetry started to grow into its own entity.

aggressively anti-art

Dadaism was a movement that rebelled against everything from nationalism to industrialism with a nihilistic tint by arguing that artists shouldn’t bother with art in a meaningless world.

The intent of Dadaism was to create projects that were aggressively anti-art as an insult to elitists.

These works were not meant to be art so much as social commentary.

Ironically, this came to be known as an art movement nonetheless as people argued that the feelings behind the purposely meaningless and absurd works validated the works as art.

The impact of Dadaism ended up creating a ripple effect in the art world, ultimately bringing found poetry into the mainstream as a byproduct.

How to Write Blackout Poetry

Young woman with smiling face, writes on her notebook.

Start by identifying the text you want to work with.

It’s best to choose a text that has a wide range of words that appeal to you.

Political speeches are likely to have many words relating to broad ideals and patriotism, while magazine articles are more likely to have a lot of common words and phrases.

Generally speaking, longer works will allow for more creativity within the poem.

If you have a full page of content to work with, then you have many more options for where to choose your words from than if you only have a paragraph to work with.

It’s generally not advised to go any longer than one page though, since blackout poetry is expected to be something the reader can absorb quickly.

Next, draw boxes or circles around keywords and phrases that stand out.

As you box them out, keep an eye out for bits and pieces that go especially well together.

You may need to borrow a few verbs and connect words from somewhere in between phrases to connect them, so keep an eye out for those opportunities as well.

As you go through your options, gradually eliminate pieces that don’t work for the message you’re going for.

A smiling young girl reading a book on the grass outdoors.

The goal is to create some combination of sentences or phrases out of the words on the page that has at least some semblance of unity.

Remember that you’re going to be coating the unwanted words in black ink anyway, so don’t be afraid to cross things out here and there or take notes on the page.

You may want to consider drawing an arrow from box to box that helps you to stay on track.

While the poem doesn’t need to represent perfect grammar and syntax, it would be preferable for everything to be readable in order and add up to a logical message.

Also remember that, while this is sort of cheating, you can black out part of a word to only take some of the letters.

You should do this sparingly, but it can be useful when you want to remove the ‘s’ from a plural word or knock off a prefix or suffix.

It may help you to create meanings that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

Example of a Blackout Poem

blue and brown notebooks, markers with green eucalyptus plants on turquoise rustic desk background

Blackout Poem

Herein we find a chance to explore blackout poetry. Is it creative or is it derivative? That is for the individual to decide. Nonetheless, it can be meaningful. It is, after all, still poetry, even if it is found rather than written. What greater joy could there be than to find some combination of words that speak to you as though they were your own? Do not be afraid to experiment. That is, after all, the duty of a poet.

Original text

Herein we find a chance to explore blackout poetry. Is it creative or is it derivative? That is for the individual to decide. Nonetheless, it can be meaningful. It is, after all, still poetry, even if it is found rather than written. What greater joy could there be than to find some combination of words that speak to you as though they were your own? Do not be afraid to experiment. That is, after all, the duty of a poet.

The above example is relatively tame since it keeps roughly the same connotations as the unmarked text.

Note that while the syntax of the poem isn’t perfect, the intentions are still fairly clear.

A blackout poem can be grammatically correct, with enough material and attention to detail, but it doesn’t need to be.

flowery original text

In this case, the rather flowery original text is cut down to a much more concise message that simply tells us to explore blackout poetry, with some words and phrases meant to comment on the strong points of the genre.

Longer works offer much more potential for range and for distancing a poem from the original text, so be sure to experiment with different pages and get a feel for what works you like to pull from.

As a final note, please remember that it’s best to think of blackout poetry as a hobby or aside, generally speaking.

The niche is a bit too narrow to seek commercial success in only this style of poetry, especially since it has mixed reception among poetry lovers, but it’s still a fun genre to tinker with from time to time.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

I would have loved to share a famous blackout poem but dealing with a copyrighted poem that’s formed on top of a second copyrighted work doesn’t sound super tempting.

Also, I don’t recall there ever being any famous blackout poems.

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