William Burroughs’ cut-up technique has directly influenced so much of contemporary culture that it’s hard imagine that there was long a history of literary cut-ups before him. (It reminds me of Brian Eno’s line: “Naming something is the same as inventing it.”) Here’s how Burroughs explained it:
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.
I remember reading Burroughs’ (amazing) Paris Review interview, and discovering that he actually found out about the technique from his pal Brion Gysin. It sent me on a search for other precursors, which I detailed in the history section of Newspaper Blackout. Here’s the excerpt on Tristan Tzara, who was making cut-ups 30 years before Gysin:
I kept digging, and upon reading Paul Collins’ 2004 Believer piece “The Lost Symphony,” I found out about Caleb Whitefoord, a neighbor and best friend of Benjamin Franklin, who was doing a form of cut-ups in the late eighteenth century:
It was Whitefoord’s genius to notice that when you took a broadsheet newspaper of tightly set columns, and started reading across the paper’s columns—rather than reading down to the column’s next line—you could achieve what he described as “coupled persons and things most heterogeneous, things so opposite in the nature and qualities, that no man alive would ever have thought of joining them together.” Whitefoord called this cross-reading, and he was so amused by it that he would publish sheets of his favorite specimens and hand them out to friends in Fleet Street coffeehouses:
Dr. Salamander will, by her Majesty’s command, undertake a voyage round—
The head-dress of the present month.
Wanted to take care of an elderly gentlewoman—
An active young man just come from the country.
Yesterday the new Lord Mayor was sworn in,
and afterwards toss’d and gored several Persons.
Removed to Marylebone, for the benefit of the air—
The City and Liberties of Westminster.
Notice is hereby given—
And no notice taken.
It seems like I keep filling in little bits here and there over time. Just this week I learned about Lewis Carroll’s “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” (a reversal of the Latin adage, poeta nascitur non fit, or, “a poet is born, not made”) which answered the question of “How do I be a poet?” in 1883:
For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.