What is Concrete Poetry?
A concrete poem is a form of written poetry in which the words form a shape.
Although the term “concrete poetry” is a relatively modern creation, poetry formed into shapes on the page has been a trend for many centuries. Going back to the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC, we find many examples of these poems around Greece, notably Alexandria. Simmias of Rhodes has surviving poems from 300BC, written in the shapes of an egg, wings, and even a hatchet.
The modern trend of concrete poetry can be traced back to Kiedrich, Germany, where a poem was carved in a spiral around one of the pews in the pilgrimage church of St. Valenti. This poem was carved by Erhart Falckener in 1510, and can be interpreted as a call for religious integrity and social justice during the Reformation.
Much early-modern concrete poetry shares this religious origin, possible being related to the practice of micrography (the art of creating visual images from words, typically extracts from religious books). This began as a way for Jewish people to create art without being condemned for idolatry. Nowadays, this practice continues in the Middle East as a form of Arabic calligraphy.
Secular concrete poetry begins to become popular in the 1800s, with Rabelais and Charles-François Panard both creating poetry in the shape of wine flagons. Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Mouse’s Tale,’ published in Alice in Wonderland in 1865, might be the most famous example of concrete poetry in this era, being shaped like the tale of a mouse.
Movements such as Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism further spread the form, with being concerned not just with the content of art but also its presentation. The 1914 collection from Russian Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky, Tango With Cows: Ferro-Concrete Poems, first introduced the term “concrete poetry.”
Artists began to push poetry away from a path of overt meaning into more abstract, linguistic experimentation during the early 1900s, for example by exhibiting installations featuring the entire alphabet presented as an exploration of a topic, seen in the poem ‘Suicide’ (1926) by Louis Aragon.
During the Second World War, there was little room for experimentation and poetry became a more diary-like practice used to explore the horrors of war, though in the post-war period, poets resumed the exploration of abstraction. In Brazil, two artistic groups developed abstract and impersonal works, and joined by poets linked to the Noigandres magazine, they would exhibit the National Exhibition of Concrete Art in 1956, further solidifying the term.
A concrete poem has no prescribed form. Instead, the poet is free to use whatever metre, rhyme (or lack thereof) or stanza length they desire. There is no need to establish a fixed poetic form within the work. All that matters is the adherence to shape.
By creating lines of varying lengths and twisting spacing and letter size, the poet can turn writing into a more visual medium. This creates a constraint by limiting the number of characters in a given line, as each line must have its length dictated by its place in the whole.
With concrete poetry, as a visual practice, the goal is to create a shape that can be recognised from further away than the poem can be read. Simple, bold shapes are best to explore at first, though more graphically-minded poets can create works of sufficient length and complexity to form images, akin to ASCII art.
Once the poet is confident in their ability to write bound by shape, exploration can begin into coloured text or italics and bold text to create different textures.
The poet should be mindful of the relationship between shape and poem. It’s no good writing a poem about leaves and fixing it to an outline of a snowman. The two must be intrinsically bound, whether literally or symbolically.
Many poets consider this discipline to be cheap, as it relies on an aesthetic appreciation more than the craft of writing. Instead of creating the best possible poem, it is easy to simply wrap the work up in a pleasing package and allow that to suffice, though poets of great acclaim such as E. E. Cummings have used this form to great effect.
I believe concrete poetry has its place as an editorial practice. By writing in shape, the poet is forced to consider the words used in a different way than they might consider metre. What’s important to remember is that the poet should not sacrifice poetic quality in favour of a shape. It is better to abandon the concrete element and instead write a free verse poem than to compromise a good bit of writing.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.