Concrete poetry, also known as shape poetry, is a type of poetry that uses some sort of visual presentation to enhance the effect of the poem on the reader. While the words, writing style, and literary devices all impact the meaning of the poem, the physical shape the poem takes is also of significance.
From Ezra Pound to E.E. Cummings, many famous poets have written poems that depict the significance of the words in a visual way. Visual poetry has been around for quite some time. The famed children's author Lewis Carroll wrote a short poem called "The Mouse's Tale," which was written in the shape of (you guessed it), a mouse's tail.
Following, you'll find some famous, and other not-so-famous, examples of concrete poems.
Concrete poetry has its roots in works of literature that are enhanced by a series of images. Many medieval authors sought to couple poetry with images (such as Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales), but the form was lost over time.
Baroque "labyrinth poems" also used words as the lines in a maze, and the mazes themselves would form intricate and often complex images. And, of course, William Blake's "illuminated" works sought to couple the words of poetry inextricably with the beautiful engraved images on a page.
Below, you'll find excellent examples of concrete poems. Will they make you feel like you're soaring on wings or moving like flowers?
"Easter Wings," by 17th-century poet George Herbert, was originally printed sideways on two side-by-side pages. When held at this angle, you can see the wings take shape. This poem is a reflection on redemption. The poem begins with a somber tone but notice that, in the curve of the wing, things take a brighter turn with the line, "O let me rise." This is a lovely example of how the shape of a poem can work well with the overall content and theme.
Mary Ellen Solt produced stunningly visual concrete poems in her collection Flowers in Concrete (1966). Each poem focuses on the qualities of the flowers and reproduces the shape in words, letters, or whimsical designs, as opposed to the standard structure of describing the flower. They're quite beautiful. In "Forsythia," for example, Solt paints a picture that conveys the freedom of flowers gently moving in a breeze. The stems bloom from the letters of the word forsythia, repeating the letters of the base word again in long fronds.
Ezra Pound was a poet involved in the imagist movement, which sought brevity, clarity, and imagery through short works. "In a Station of the Metro" is considered by many to be a concrete poem due to its focus on visual spacing, which enhances the poem. This work is extremely short and contains no verbs whatsoever, which provides the reader with an immediate concrete image, like a photo snapshot of a train going by.
The entire text of the poem reads,
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The poem was originally printed with large spaces within the two lines intended to give the impression of train tracks and reinforce the poem's rhythm. Pound implicitly compares the image of faces walking through the station with a beautiful image of nature, underscoring the beauty of even this insignificant event.
Writers all over the world have experimented with the concrete poem form. Swiss-Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer was a central figure in the mid-20th-century concrete poetry movement. "Silence," (which you'll also see as "Schweigen" and "Silencio") one of his more famous works, depicts the concept of silence with a block made out of the word "silence," repeated 14 times with a void in the center.
Silence, in this case, seems oppressive, but the emptiness in the center of the poem might indicate the peace found in the absence of anything at all. Although this poem doesn't depict an actual image, it uses imagery and words to depict that which is intangible.
If the modern idea of concrete poetry is a poem in the form of a picture, then Lewis Carroll helped to shape this idea with his poem "The Mouse's Tale."
In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice begins talking to a mouse who wants to tell her a "long and sad tale." Alice remarks that his tail (notice the difference in spelling) is rather long, and as he tells his poem, it takes shape on the page in the form of a mouse's tail, long and curled. The original representation of the poem had the words at the end getting smaller as the tail becomes narrower.
As you've probably guessed, concrete poems can be created about practically any subject matter, and they have been created about a wide variety of objects. Some other concrete poems to read, examine and analyze include:
"Idea: Old Mazda Lamp, 50-100-150 W" by John Hollander
"Vision and Prayer" by Dylan Thomas
"O sweet spontaneous" by E.E. Cummings
"Uplifting" by Robert Yehling
In some concrete poems, it's easy to see why the author chose a specific image. Perhaps it aligns with the words, adding to the creativity and free spirit behind the movement. Other times, the reader must look deep into the text to reveal the image. That's where an appreciation for this art form starts to take shape.
If you'd like to try your hand at a concrete poem, it's important not to try to force the image. Write down some words and play with them. Remember, it might take a while before those words can truly come to life in a shape.
Also, don't feel constricted by others' perceptions of reality. For example, if you were writing about a box, you could add vertical lines throughout the length of the box to represent a prison and how "thinking inside the box" essentially keeps a person's mind trapped. For a little more guidance, enjoy these tips on writing poems.