Poetry That Finds The Beauty in Ordinary Words

Found poetry has always fascinated me. The first poem I published was “Three Pages Found in a Bureau for Auction,” sourced from three pages of stationery I discovered in a bureau I didn’t buy — but I did take the pages, which made me feel guilty, although not enough to keep me from writing the poem. 

Two of the pages were typewritten lists: “Daily Schedule” and “Weekly Schedule.” These were daunting instructions to a maid, which included, “Wednesday, Your day off, Straighten up house before you Leave.” 

The last page was a heartrending note written in pencil. It began, “Dear Sir, I’m really very sorry but you see that I’m not the right person for the job …” and ended with, “I could not wait until you got home because you are very sweet people and this is really hard for me. I hope you will fine someone real soon. P.S. I also forgot to tell you a very important problem. I sleep walk.”

A few years ago, while scrolling Twitter, I came across “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum; or Instantaneous Letter Writer,” a book of 8,466 numbered telegrams. It was published in 1853 by A. C. Baldwin, a pioneering consumer advocate who sought to save travelers time and expense at the telegraph office by numbering sentences so that a message could be sent by simply telegraphing a number, instead of having to pay by the word. 

Baldwin tried to number everything — every single thing — that 19th-century travelers might want to say. Urgent questions like, “Do you know of a person going West soon, who would take a lady under his protection?” (8328). 

Or, news: “A Sad Accident Has Happened” (461). Or simple assurance that one is alive: “We abound in good cheer.” (1508). 

If both sender and receiver owned Baldwin’s compendium, “I am on board a steamer ship bound for Paris” could be abbreviated to “45-Paris.” And “4205” would be all it would take to ruin someone’s Grand Tour with, “Your house is at the present moment on fire.”

As soon as I saw the book, I was smitten. My first instinct was to make a found poem out of some of the telegrams myself. My poem didn’t work. It bore nothing of the richness and range contained in the original document and I realized that what was missing was a complexity of language and syntax that could only be achieved through a multiplicity of voices.

I began reaching out to poets via technologies Baldwin never dreamed of, asking them to write a poem using as title a telegram I’d chosen for them. I created an anthology, “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum,” published by Red Hen Press in 2016. It got the attention of New York Times poetry editor Matthew Zapruder, who published one of the poems, by Julie Suarez. Its telegram title is relevant today.


There Was
a Great Want
of Civility

All night in the trees,

the whispering,

a great disorder, not the way


leaves talk among themselves

during the day, not the rustle

of squirrels and birds among them,


but a tossing, shiftless shadow

weight of darkness,

leaf to leaf.


I dared not close my eyes

for fear it would have

its way with me.



could anyone sleep?

 — Julie Suarez


Helen Klein Ross is a poet and novelist who lives in Lakeville, Conn., in a house that was built the same year A. C. Baldwin published his compendium.

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