Black Out Poetry: A Brief History

It’s fun, engaging, and aesthetically pleasing. And it has a surprisingly long history dating all the way back to the 1760s.


Black Out poetry is an excellent exercise for anyone struggling to find the right words to express themselves. It’s easy, all the words you need are already written, you just need to eliminate the ones you don’t want, and voila, you have yourself a poem. It’s fun, engaging, and aesthetically pleasing. And it has a surprisingly long history dating all the way back to the 1760s.

(Note: This history is pulled from the introduction to Austin Kleon’s book: Newspaper Blackout. See also: thehistoryofblackoutpoetry.org/)

History Of Black Out Poetry (1700 & 1800s)

1760 – A man named Caleb Whitefoord gets shut in his house due to bad weather. Spurred on by boredom, he begins to connect different lines in the newspaper for entertainment, such as:

‘This day his majesty will go in state to
sixteen notorious common prostitutes.’

He publishes them under the title ‘cross-readings.’

1819 – Thomas Jefferson takes a pair of scissors to the bible and snips away all the supernatural and miraculous elements from the text. They are compiled and later published under the title The Philosophy of Jesus, commonly referred to today as the Jefferson Bible.

1900s

1920 – A Romanian poet named Tristan Tzara outlines his Black Out Poetry method his Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love:

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length
you want to make your poem. Cut out the
article. Next carefully cut out each of the words
that make up this article and put them all in a
bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting
one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the
order in which they left the bag. The poem will
resemble you. And there you arean infinitely
original author of charming sensibility,
eventhough unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

1960s – Canadian artist Brion Gysin stumbles upon the cut-up technique for Black out poetry on accident and shares it with the writer William Burroughs. Burroughs becomes a big fan of the technique and uses it to compose many of the novels he wrote in the 60s.

The artist Tom Phillips discovers a 1965 interview with William Burroughs in The Paris Review. Inspired by the idea, he experimented with cut-up poems using old magazines he had on hand. Phillips Takes it a step further by blacking out words with pen and ink, leaving only a select few words, connected by rivers of blank space between the lines of text. His work has evolved into a work-in-progress spanning over forty years under the title A Humument. Phillips first published it as a book in 1983, and it quickly gained a cult following.

1977 – Poet Ronald Johnson begins erasing words and lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He publishes his own resulting text, under the title Radios.

1980 – Crispin Hellion Glover, the actor who played George McFly in the movie Back to the Future, adopts Phillips’s technique and treats old Victorian novels with drawings, photographs, and other collage materials. Glover continues with the technique with several books and goes on tour with the resulting work as a presentation.

2000s

Jochen Gerner creates TNT en Amrique out of the comic Tintin in America.

The artist Will Ashford creates Recycled Words from the pages of old books.

The poet Jen Bervin creates Nets from Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Graham Rawle publishes Womans World with clippings from 1960s women’s magazines.

Mary Ruefle creates A Little White Shadow with Wite-Out and an old book.

Janet Holmes creates The ms of my kin, an erasure of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

Austin Kleon creates Newspaper Blackout out of The New York Times.

And so on and so forth.

If there are any works of black out poetry you would like to see added to this list, let us know in the comments.

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Sam and Corey started Poetry is Pretentious to demystify poetry. More importantly, their 5th grade teacher told them they couldn’t go through life as a team. 18 years later they’re here to prove her wrong.

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