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What Is Concrete Poetry?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Concrete poetry is an experimental form of verse in which the poem’s shape on the page conveys an important part of its meaning. Concrete poets may arrange words to form a shape or even to suggest an image. This shape often reinforces the poem’s theme in some way. A concrete poem about flight or freedom, for example, may be shaped like wings. Concrete poetry is part of a larger movement in art and literature intended to challenge an audience’s established notions about language and images.

Although earlier poets had experimented with form and shape, the term “concrete poetry” was not coined until the mid-20th century. During this time, changes in society were reflected in daring new artworks that re-examined the fundamental tools of art as well as the idea of art itself. Novelists like James Joyce and William Faulkner altered language to suit their own purposes, and poets like e.e. cummings arranged words on the page with equal disregard for earlier forms. Concrete poetry was the ultimate outgrowth of this movement in verse. The importance of the poem’s shape brought the form closer to visual arts, in which the image provides the meaning.

The period following World War II was a time of experimentation in many art forms, including poetry. The new form was employed by British and German poets alike. A 1956 exhibition in Sao Paulo, Brazil focused on concrete art, meaning both poetry and similar experiments in various art forms. By its nature, concrete poetry must be seen by the audience; it is sometimes called visual poetry. A variation, called phonetic poetry, depends on the sounds created by the verse and is meant to be read aloud.

A famous concrete poem is George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” with its words arranged to look like birds. In Herbert’s time, such constructions were known as pattern poems. One of the most famous concrete poets was Guilliame Appollinaire, a French champion of new experimental forms in the 1920s and ‘30s. In addition to his poetry, Appollinaire wrote about daring new visual artists such as Picasso. He was deeply involved in the Surrealist art movement; in fact, he is credited with inventing the word “surrealism.”

Concrete poetry is similar to the posters created by the Surrealist movement, in which words took unusual shapes on the page. It also preceded later trends in marketing and publishing, where the placement of words on a page or screen is carefully arranged for maximum impact. A company logo, for example, can convey important information to potential customers through the choice of font, color, and placement. In comics, artists like Chris Ware employ creative typography as part of their overall design, giving the words a role in the art that is similar to concrete poetry.

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Discussion Comments
By SumDude — On Mar 29, 2014

@Satharis, I think the latter type of poetry you are referring to may be what the article is referring to as phonetic poetry. I agree that it may be difficult at times to identify if a poem is purposely intended as a concrete poem. However, that may be a time when you need to look at a poet's whole body of work. My guess is that if a pattern of this occurs, it may be easier to identify a single poem by that author as concrete or not.

By Satharis — On Mar 28, 2014

Shape poetry, in which poems are purposely shaped to look like an object such as an urn, swan, or something else, seems to me to be a subset or common type of concrete poetry. I think this type of concrete poetry is easy to identify, but that other types are perhaps not so easy. I think it might be hard at times to know though if a poet was creating a concrete poem without reading more on the poet's background and purpose. Words can be spaced on a page in a specific fashion so that they are read out loud in a specific way, yet some might interpret this as concrete poetry if they aren't given some kind of "clue" by the author.

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