Jennifer Liston: The poetry and poetics of the 'Rescued Poem'

[Jennifer Liston grew up in Co Galway, Ireland and now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. Her procedural poetry, as presented here, adds significantly to the line of such poetry in modern and postmodern writing — in both her poems and poetics. The idea of the “rescued poem” is indubitably her own, and a further collection of  poems as examples will shortly be gathered as a book. (J.R.)]


What Is a ‘Rescued Poem’?

In The Writing Experiment, Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing, Hazel Smith discusses recycling text in chapter four, ‘Writing as Recycling.’ ‘Collage encourages you to approach creative writing through other means than personal experience,’ she says. ‘Your creativity is expressed through your choice of texts, the way you structure their relationship and the degree to which you transform them.’


Reminiscent of ‘Language’ poetry, the concept of recreating texts from existing texts intrigued me and captured my imagination. I love the ‘lego-ness’ of language and its functions. Also, I like replicable processes, probably thanks to my engineering background.


One does not usually associate processes with creative writing endeavours. I believe, however, that occupying the mind with a process that does not demand too much conscious attention switches the mind into a creative state; at least this is what I experienced when I immersed myself in the process of rescuing poems. I had a limited number of words from which to choose and my creative self was happy to dip into this limited vocabulary and construct images. One could argue that the creative process is impeded somewhat in this way, but sometimes choices can overwhelm and paralyse the mind causing it to be unable (or unwilling) to create at all. Limiting options may create a doorway through which the mind is more ready to leap.


I formalised the rescue process and I call the resulting poems ‘rescued’ rather than ‘collage’ because it seems to me that ideas are latent within texts. Using this process I could find them and sculpt them into poetic relief using this special recovery mechanism. Sometimes the ideas are closely associated with the subject of the source texts themselves; other times the ideas had very little or nothing to do with the source texts.


Here is a summary of the process I created. 

    • I select two books. I may pick two with similar themes; two that are very different; two by the same writer; sometimes I just choose at random.
    • I select the number of one page in each book using the RANDBETWEEN function in Excel.
    • I transcribe the text of each page into a Word document and columnise the text so that one word is on each line.
    • I copy this column of text into the online word scrambler here and use the online scrambler’s ‘Random’ function to jumble the words.
    • I copy the scrambled column of words back into the original Word document and change the column back into a block of text.
    • I print out the pages of randomised words and underline words that catch my eye.
    • I write those words out in a jumble on another blank page.
    • From these words I write the rescued poem.

An important point to note is that I sort words (rather than phrases) individually so there is no danger of reproducing slabs of original text in a rescued poem. This means they are not like ‘found’ poems and also there are no copyright issues to consider.

[Two rescued poems follow.]

… a poem is a river …


how it hears us, feet on stone

how it gives skin colour

how it curls the lonely moon

through night-time by-ways

and the faithful sun

through morning blue.

How it has us waiting and following

delaying and crossing

and leaves us clutching our hands

exposed and desolate.

How it says

see, there is beauty in the old and wrinkled face

in the cold and the bare face.

How it says

that silver wolves wake ancient lives in us.

A poem is a river

drowned in time,

first, leaving us





f l y i n g, 

f  l  y  i  n  g!


Rescued from The Celtic Twilight (p. 22) by W B Yeats and Ireland Under Elizabeth (p. 67) by Philip O’Sullivan Bear


… queer as a copper shilling …


The spirit standing in the doorway

had an infinite, heavy sadness to it;

a weight of troubles from another world.

Is you dead, I says.

What thinks you, he replied.

When I was living my enemies took power,

destroyed my castle, my kingdom.

What I feared more than anything else came to pass:

terrible misfortune on the land,

winds of damage turned families and visionaries to peasants,

pleasure of music and poems a memory,

a place whose masters have no heart

an earth whose heavens are foregoing …

He seemed kind, strong.

They are so distant from me, said he, neither day nor night,

time nor words, make me feel that ...

If you would talk to ... if you would ...

His voice began to fail.

They see me as half-mad, I says, queer as a copper shilling.

Talking to you, about you, is no wise things for me.


So I has written this down

I is no mystical person, I is already damaged,

lodging in this place

longing to trim my own winged mind.


Rescued from The Celtic Twilight (p. 9) by W B Yeats and The History of the Town and the County of the Town of Galway (p. 65) by James Hardiman