Recently I discovered poetry in a science book.

I’m always on the lookout for creative challenges for myself and my kids. So I was intrigued when Sparkler and I read about “Found Poems.” I’m no poet, but I liked the idea of concept of taking straightforward prose and remolding it into something more intuitive and poetic.

To write a “Found Poem,” we were to choose a short passage in a novel, newspaper, or even a textbook. After marking breaks in the ideas or flow of the sentences, we would edit out superfluous words to leave the essential ideas and interesting words. Finally, we would arrange our pared-down, distilled passage into stanza form. We then—allegedly—would have a poem.

I couldn’t possibly resist this! I chose one of the least poetic sources I could think of—an Earth Science textbook. Opening it at random, I landed on the following passage:

Stress from the movement of the plates can cause the Earth’s crust to move up, down, and sideways. Stress can even change the shape and volume of a mass of rock. All of this movement causes three types of stress: tensional, compressional, and shearing. (Christian Schools International Earth Science)

I noticed two things about this paragraph. Firstly, the word stress is repeated three times. Secondly, it contained the directional words up, down, and sideways. I thought I could do something with that.

I marked breaks after most clauses, such as:

Stress / from the movement of the plates /can cause the Earth’s crust to move / up, down, and sideways.

It was easy to decide that my theme was stress, and the fact that I had three directional words, plus three types of stress, gave me a structure for the poem. I cut out as many words and clauses as I could, and began building my poem.

The crust moves

The rocks change


All this movement
All this change

I don’t pretend it’s good poetry. Still, I was delighted as it took shape. I never suspected that a poem was buried in a dry textbook description of plate tectonics.

Inspired by my success (my standards are comfortably low here), I sat down with Sparkler to see what a 12-year-old could “find.”

We decided on a Step 4 of a painting tutorial in her Nature Friends magazine. The original paragraph read like this:

With chalk, softly swab in a green-black mix of background haze. Then color the leaves and stems. Use dark green and black, especially in shadow areas. Burnish hard over the green areas with yellow. With underhand grip, again on your soft foam sheet, add some indistinct background leaves. I also added a bit of green-black-yellow paint mixture with a foam fingertip cap to “do something” with the stem ends. Or you could dab paint with nearly-empty bristles (dry brush technique). Dab scrap paper to dry bristles. This brings closure to stems. (“You Can Draw Daffodils,” by Judy KauffmanNature Friend, March 2019.)

I showed Sparkler how to mark breaks in thoughts or flow. Then it was time to make a poem out of it. She couldn’t figure out where to start, so I wrote the first few lines:

With chalk
Softly swab in a green-black mix
Of background haze.

She still found the whole idea daunting. But she dictated the next lines based on the divisions she’d made in the paragraph. As the poem took shape, she got more excited. She cut out filler words and kept ones she found interesting. At the end, she was as surprised as I was to have uncovered a poem.

With chalk,
Softly swab in a green-black mix
Of background haze.

Color the leaves
Use dark green and black
In shadow areas.

Burnish over green with yellow.
With underhand grip add
Indistinct background leaves.

Do something.

Dab paint with
Nearly-empty bristles.

This brings closure
To stems.

Again, not Poet Laureate caliber. But this “found poem” takes prosaic instructions and infuses them with an almost dreamlike feeling. Not bad for Step Four of a tutorial.

So next time you’re in search of a quick creative challenge, try a Found Poem. Once you “find” a couple, you can’t help wondering what’s lurking in even the driest block of prose.


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