Burrough’s Cut-Up Method: Spontaneous Poetry and Writing

I can’t tell you how much I LOVE doing this! You can do it by cutting up paper or on the computer. I show you both methods here. This first part is the original version (in other words, not by me!). After that, I tell you MY version and how to do it on the computer. Enjoy! And I’d love to see what you come up with!

William Burroughs, “The Cut Up Method” from Leroi Jones, ed., The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America (NY: Corinth Books, 1963).
THE CUT UP METHOD

At a surrealist rally in the 1920’s Tristan Tzara the man from nowhere proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat. A riot ensued wrecked the theatre. Andre Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement and grounded the cut ups on the Freudian couch.

In the summer of 1959 Brion Gysin painter and writer cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged the sections at random. Minutes To Go resulted from this initial cut up experiment. Minutes To Go contains unedited unchanged cut ups emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose.

The cut up method brings to writers the collage which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut up method was made explicit– (all writing is in fact cut ups. I will return to this point)–had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.

The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different–(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise)–in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. Take any poet or writer you fancy. Heresay, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like. As many Shakespeare Rimbaud poems as you like. Tristan Tzara said: “Poetry for everyone.” And Andre Breton called him a cop and expelled him from the movement. Say it again: “Poetry is for everyone.” Poetry is a place and it is free to all cut up Rimbaud and you are in Rimbaud’s place.

My try at the Cut-Up Method (also called the Fold-in)

This one page piece came from three pages of journal entries. I printed the pages, cut them up the middle vertically, then across horizontally. I then laid out the pieces on the table and randomly moved them around. I then taped the pieces together so that I would not be tempted to interrupt the spontaneity of their random placement. I then typed the resulting document verbatim. I then edited that complete text by removing words, some whole sentences, and adding a word here or there for coherence. The paragraph arrangement I did not change other than to add paragraph indentation.

Meditative Tesserae

Went to bed at 8 or so. We watched a movie with supporting people – all more treacherous than the last. I live my own strange life. Sometimes I read back through this stuff thinking as I watch that it is very hard to think. Trying to read, record anything of value. I write about this house, it has too many people in it. I should have been one of those not afraid to share her every thought. Talking, talking, talking. I can’t think straight, I know it so well that I feel like it won’t come out and everyone wants to know my most private thoughts. Little old lady who holes up in her room and realizes how I don’t fit in. What is she up to? Every wall covered with books. I could stay in here all day and I have. So I live books and books and books.

My topic for the day is “Make a list of…”. In one section there is the night as I fall asleep. I thought it funny, I was thinking about this topic in one place and I would want to go to another. We’re all alone. There’s nothing. I don’t want to go anywhere. My immediate thought was this crushing knowledge. We repress. I doubt I would have the energy to show how well you think you know me. I close myself off to everyone. Some people do it better than others. No one notices anyway. I have mourned the issue by filling myself with sleep. Other people just muddle me up and I realize what crap it is. At some bizarre time, all my defenses will crumble and I will have been reading too much Neitscze.

How quickly I rush in to cover myself. The book, scarcely pausing to explain meaning in life…why bother? If you live you can see that people have always believed. But I don’t think it will be a good choice of books for covering the point. But that is our topic. To live here we call this Higher Power God out by writing on loose-leaf paper. This just sent me reeling further down into the inadequacies of organized religion. The Native Americans had no organized Great Spirit. I am sick to death of trying to help.

Messenger turned off – it is just me. Where is your favorite place to hide? Is it possible for us to be alone? In a little place always gravitating towards dark corners – to my books and my writing. I know that I need to recreate my life and start over. But I don’t think that will do a damn thing. Characters say “You don’t know how to read to me”. How do we deal with our minds these days…we disguise, we bury, we exclude. Some can’t think straight anymore. So, I wonder, is this my problem?

Silly for me to even make a list. I cannot repress as well as others do. Existential stuff…there is no mind watching it. They didn’t care. You die and there is nothing else. Too intense. I don’t think so at all. I keep studying ancient mythology over and over again – and then just wait. Which leads me to realize in a Higher Power. In this society no one would understand. To be left naked and vulnerable to the world. I spent two days reading basic pieces of knowledge that have turned people off to God. Cover up, cover up. They all believed in the building backup of fallen walls. It is shared by the people who surround me. Abyss.

And literature, you have no interest in me. I just flounder around without tapping the major crux of the matter. Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. How can we undo all the damage? Some live as the primitives and trust in the morning when everyone is asleep I have just forgotten what I am doing here. Which just goes to show that in the next life we are somehow always alone. I don’t understand myself.

You can also try the method on your computer:

I took the first page of a short story that I was working on and divided it into two columns in MS Word. I then noted that the text on the page covered 9 vertical inches on the page so I highlighted 4 ½ inches of the text in the first column and then copied and pasted it to a new document. I then did the same with the remaining 4 ½ inches of the first column and so forth with the second column. I ended up with with four separate squares of text. I moved the #4 to first postion and #1 to fourth position. I then swapped #2 and #3 with one another. Then I formatted the result into one column of text. I did delete about ten words in all from here and there, added no more than three words, and arranged the paragraph indents but did no other editing.

Here it is (the working title is “Mei-Mei”:

The nurse went away and she was left alone, drifting in between gray clouds of soft gauze. She knew she was alone then and it was comforting, a familiar feeling in an alien place. Just before the bubble in her brain burst, pushing her brain violently against her brain stem and ending her life, she wondered silently to the cotton ceiling, “What happened to my story?”

The wall was a myriad of things – objects, photos, cut out magazine pictures, headlines, random words, scraps of fabric, and pieces of stone and glass. This was her storyboard. In some forgotten time and place she had lost herself. Did it begin after marriage? Did it begin in childhood? Or had it taken place at birth? She was misplaced, a character out of mythical time that didn’t quite fit anymore, a fairy child stolen away from the mists of the willow tree branches and that was fitting too.

Them praying to their God and her in that hospital bed alone. They wouldn’t understand how fitting it was. The nurse came to tell her that she had a heart attack and they had to do surgery to unclog the artery and her family was all there – where, she wondered – and that it would all be okay. Okay. Then the nurse went away and she was left alone, drifting in between gray clouds of soft gauze.

She was forced to live in a humans made up world. Every morning she took her cup of coffee and tiptoed to the storyboard. She silently walked it from one end to the other and then from center to periphery. It was the only way she had to remind herself of who she was. She died alone. Which is how she always felt so it seemed fitting at the time. Her family was right outside the door, holding vigil, praying to a God she had never quite been able to believe in.

Read more about the Cut Up Method here: Cut Up Theory and Method

About Karen Y. Hamilton

Karen leads workshops in Creative Writing, Poetry and Journal Therapy, and Memoir Writing. She has studied genealogy and personal histories since 1987, lecturing and leading workshops on Memoir Writing and Journaling to the community since 1998. Karen holds a BA in English and has studied Literature, Business, and Education at the graduate level. She is a former college instructor of English Composition and Reading. In the past, Karen has worked as a high school & middle school teacher. She currently works as a Curriculum Specialist and is an MFA Creative Writing student at Florida Atlantic University.
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