Erasure (artform)

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Erasure is a form of found poetry or found object art created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem.[1] The results can be allowed to stand in situ or they can be arranged into lines and/or stanzas. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.

Here is a nonce example using text from the November 2003 version of the English Wikipedia's Main Page:

and free
we started
and are
you can
right now

Several contemporary writers/artists have adopted this form to achieve a range of cognitive or symbolic effects.


  • Doris Cross appears to have been among the earliest to utilize this technique, beginning in 1965 with her "Dictionary Columns" book art. d.a. levy also worked in this mode at about the same time.
  • Radi OsRonald Johnson's Radi Os is a long poem deconstructed from the text of Milton's Paradise Lost.[2]
  • A HumumentTom Phillips' A Humument is a major work of book art and found poetry deconstructed from a Victorian novel.
  • Mans WowsJesse Glass' Mans Wows (1981), is a series of poems and performance pieces mined from John George Hohman's book of charms and healings Pow Wows, or The Long Lost Friend.
  • NetsJen Bervin's Nets is an erasure of Shakespeare's sonnets.[3]
  • Hope Tree – Frank Montesonti's Hope Tree is a book of erasure poems based on R. Sanford Martin's How to Prune Fruit Trees.
  • The O Mission Repo – Travis Macdonald's The O Mission Repo treats each chapter of The 9/11 Commission Report with a different method of poetic erasure.
  • Erasing Infinite – Jenni B. Baker creates erasure poetry from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, one page at a time.
  • The ms of my kinJanet Holmes's The ms of my kin (2009) erases the poems of Emily Dickinson written in 1861–62, the first few years of the Civil War, to discuss the more contemporary Iraq War.
  • Seven Testimonies (redacted)Nick Flynn's "Seven Testimonies (redacted)" in The Captain Asks a Show of Hands, is an erasure of the testimonies from prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
  • Of LambMatthea Harvey's Of Lamb is a book-length erasure of a biography of Charles Lamb.
  • A Little White ShadowMary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow is a book-length erasure (done by painting over select words of a 19th-century book).
  • VoyagerSrikanth Reddy's Voyager is another book-length erasure, of Kurt Waldheim's autobiography.
  • Tree of CodesJonathan Safran Foer did a book-length erasure of The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz which he entitled Tree of Codes.
  • Poet Yedda Morrison's 2012 book Darkness erases Joseph Conrad's novella, "whiting out" his text so that only images of the natural world remain.[4]
  • A Place of Scraps (2013) is a book of erasure poetry by Nisga'a writer Jordan Abel.

Use in representations of the Holocaust[edit]

Jonathan Safran Foer did a book-length erasure of The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz which he entitled Tree of Codes. Schulz was killed by an officer of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of his hometown Drohobycz, after distributing the bulk of his life's work to gentile friends immediately prior to the occupation. All of these manuscripts have been lost. Safran-Foer writes: "All that we have of his fiction are two slim collections, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under The Sign of the Hourglass. On the basis of these, Schulz is considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Their long shadow—the work lost to history—is, in many ways, the story of the century." The Tree of Codes is Safran-Foer's attempt to represent the unrepresentable loss which occurred in the Holocaust by deleting text, rather than by writing another book about the Holocaust as a historical subject or context for a work of fiction.[5] Safran-Foer's approach to the Holocaust as an "unrepresentable subject" recalls the use of negative space in the poetry of Dan Pagis.[6][7]

Representing government secrecy[edit]

Jenny Holzer's Redaction Paintings may be considered a work of erasure.

The work consists of enlarged, colorized silkscreen "paintings" of declassified and often heavily censored American military and intelligence documents that have recently been made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. Beautiful in their own right, the works are also haunting reminders of what really goes on behind the scenes in the American military/political power system. Documents address counter-terrorism, prisoner abuse, and even the threat of Osama Bin Laden. Some of the documents are almost completely inked out, like Colin Powell's memo on Defense Intelligence Agency reorganization.[8]

Anthropologist Michael Powell writes: "While the literal act of redaction attempts to extract information and eradicate meaning, the black marker actually transforms the way we read these documents, sparking curiosity and often stirring skeptical, critical, and even cynical readings. As redacted government documents make their way from government bureaus into the hands of citizens, a peculiar transformation seems to take place, one that seems to create a paranoia within reason."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jeannie Vanasco (January 2012). "Absent Things as if They Are Present". The Believer – via Longform Reprint. 
  2. ^ Johnson, Ronald (1977). Radi Os. Flood Editions. ISBN 978-0974690247. 
  3. ^ Bervis, Jen (2003). Nets. Ugly Duckling Press. ISBN 978-0972768436. 
  4. ^ Morrison, Yedda. "Yedda Morrison". Retrieved 17 June 2015. 
  5. ^ Safran-Foer, Jonathan (2010). Tree of Codes. Visual Editions. ISBN 9780956569219. 
  6. ^ Pagis, Dan. "WRITTEN IN PENCIL IN THE SEALED RAILWAY-CAR". Retrieved 12 December 2013. 
  7. ^ Pagis, Dan (October 22, 1996). The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520205390. 
  8. ^ Smith, Roberta (June 9, 2006). "Art in Review, Jenny Holzer". New York Times. Retrieved 12 December 2013. 
  9. ^ Powell, Michael (June 2010). "Blacked Out:Our cultural romance with redacted documents". The Believer.