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What Is Shape Poetry?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Shape poetry is a poem or other written piece of literature where the words are written to end up creating a physical shape. Shape poetry can be as basic as a collection of words typed up in the form of a triangle, or as elaborate as a host of letters and symbols typed intricately to compose the figure of a gift-wrapped box, a snowflake, or a maze. Considering the use of this type of verse is part of understanding how poetic improvisation has developed over centuries.

In general, shape poetry seeks to combine literary content with the display of an image. It’s part of a multi-sensory concept where visuals are combined with text. Shaped poetry has many different uses, and might be used more frequently in certain kinds of web or print publications, though it is hardly a new concept.

One of the common uses of shape poetry is in traditional arts magazines. Some of the less formal magazines use colored paper and shaped poetry to appeal to the reader’s eye. Some of these print magazines are called “zines” – the zine is generally a low-budget publication created by hand, and distributed at a low price, or for free, at public gatherings rather than published through a conventional publisher and sold in bookstores.

In the overall context of multi-sensory art, shaped poetry is not the only form of media that combines letters and images. In fact, a more modern digital type of art combines these two elements in much the same way. This computer-based visual art is called ASCII art.

ASCII art relies on the range of characters developed for the personal computer in the time when the most basic computers were hitting the public market place. Like shaped poetry, this art form uses letters and words, as well as punctuation and other symbols. Also like shaped poetry, ASCII art produces detailed images, with the addition of color, which is usually not part of the shape poetry text.

Shape poetry represents one of the traditional uses of printed language that may not always translate very well to the Internet. Although web pages may display shape poetry, one problem with this kind of literature is that without complicated browser resizing, the shape poetry may not be represented in the way that it was intended. With some creative web programming, shape poems can be presented effectively over the web, but along with the gradually diminished role of poetry as a literary art form, shape poems are also less prominent in today’s literature than in their heyday, when poetry underwent significant form and style changes before losing popularity as an alternative to prose.

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Discussion Comments
By Jolecter — On Mar 08, 2014

Hymnomove, I agree that shape poetry can be a fun way to expose children to creative writing. Shape poetry doesn't have to just be silly though, as you noted. In the hands of a good poet, it could be as powerful as other forms of poetry, like narrative poems or other concrete poems.

By Hymnomove — On Mar 07, 2014

Shape poetry can be fun for kids. My parents still have a collection of the first creative writing I did in school as a child, and among the first poems I ever wrote are several shaped ones, such as one shaped like the Earth. These were very simplistic examples of shape poetry, but more talented authors can create more complex ones with deeper meaning.

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