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What Is Abstract Poetry?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

Abstract poetry, as the name suggests, is poetry that does not lend itself to a literal, or concrete, interpretation. Often the words are chosen more for their sounds than for their meanings, in the same way that abstract visual art is often more about color and shape than about creating representational images. This kind of abstract poetry is also known as sound poetry. In a broader sense, abstract poetry is poetry that employs random images, stream-of-consciousness, and other abstract art techniques. Although not for all tastes, this kind of poetry can create memorable aesthetic experiences.

Poetry is one of the oldest forms of literary art. In pre-literate times, bards and poets used rhyming verse to make oral histories and legends easier to remember. Over the centuries, poetry, like other art forms, developed many representational forms, the better to tell a story or create a character or mood. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that artists began experimenting with forms that did not represent real-world people or objects, but still created surprising and pleasing shapes. In both written and visual media, this was the beginning of abstract art.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The 20th century saw the work of many influential poets, including T.S. Eliot and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. In 1949, British poet Edith Sitwell coined the term abstract poetry to describe her own work, in which words were chosen for sounds rather than meanings. For example, her poem Hornpipe begins with the line, “Sky rhinoceros-glum.” These seemingly random words have no obvious connection, but the reader looks for one, almost involuntarily. More importantly, in Sitwell’s regard, the three words together create a unique and memorable sound.

The term abstract poetry did not gain wide use outside the circle of literary criticism. The concept, however, influenced later generations of poets and became part of the wider trend of abstract art. The performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s created their own forms of abstract poetry, as did the spoken-word performers and slam poets of the 1980s and 1990s. Avant-garde musicians such as Philip Glass created musical works out of random sounds, much as Sitwell created poetry out of random words.

The verse of e.e. cummings, one of the 20th century’s leading poets, could be considered abstract poetry. Although cummings did write about recognizable people, events, and concepts, his choice of words was often abstract. An example is the 1940 poem anyone lived in a pretty how town, whose title is also its first line. The poem is about life in the suburbs, with “pretty how town” chosen not to describe the suburb, but simply to create an unusual and memorable phrase. In naming his anonymous subject, cummings deliberately chooses the word “anyone,” which does not suggest a mental image, reinforcing the character’s anonymity.

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