Blackout Poetry Enters Classroom

Vida Weisblum, Arts Editor

If you like poetry and you like Pinterest, chances are you might have caught a glimpse of blackout poetry floating around on the internet. Blackout poetry refers to a form of poetry supposedly created by Newspaper Blackout creator Austin Kleon, in which poets black out words on a pre-existing page of literature — newspaper or otherwise — with marker or Sharpie, leaving only select words intact to create new meaning.

Kleon, who is a New York Times bestselling author of three books including Newspaper Blackout, has spoken at organizations such as TEDx, Google and Pixar and considers himself both an artist and a poet.

This trendy new poetic form is perhaps more of a visual art form than a literary one, though it also resembles concrete poetry because it relies heavily on spacing and overall aesthetics. Regardless of how one might categorize blackout poetry as an art form, its accessibility is breathing new life into poetry and visual art.

Kleon’s genius isn’t necessarily in his choice of words but rather in how easy and simple his idea is. Anyone can make a blackout poem as long as they have a printed page of words and a black Sharpie. Many people are creating their own blackout poems. Even The New York Times has set up a platform for creative minds to try out this new technique of producing poetry and art.

Although Kleon might be making blackout poetry viral on the internet, he is definitely not its true originator. His book came out just five years ago, long after artist Tom Phillips first developed the idea.

Phillips is the author of A Humument, a painted copy of a Victorian novel titled A Human Document, which is similar to blackout poetry in style, though certainly not in all black.

Phillips has served as a curator, installation artist and even committee chairman for the Royal Academy of Arts. He has created a multitude of paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures, artists books and collages. However, A Humument, published in 1970, is Phillips’ most notable accomplishment and is a landmark within the contemporary art and poetry landscape at large. It has also made its way into Oberlin’s curriculum, namely in an English class taught by Jeffrey Pence.

What differentiates Phillips’ work from Kleon’s is aesthetic. Blackout poetry is built for the internet, built to be viral — and I might go so far as to call it kitschy, maybe even intentionally kitschy. After all, Kleon maintains a firm presence on Tumblr and Instagram.

Philip’s work, while conceptually similar, is unarguably gorgeous. The intricacy of his art serves to compliment the simplicity of the poems he creates from just a few words. Each page is unique and stunning to look at.

These two individuals aren’t the only two to make poetry out of prose, but I think they demonstrate the range of possibilities that exist in doing so. That two ways of making poetry can be so similar at the core yet serve completely different functions is what makes the crossroads between language and art such a fascinating place.