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What Is Visual Poetry?

By Anna B. Smith
Updated May 23, 2024
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Visual poetry is literary verse written on the page with intentional form to add meaning to the poem. The form may take on a recognizable shape, or may use a free formed pattern to create a new rhythm when reading the poem out loud. These shapes and rhythms are typically tied to the central ideas and themes contained within the poems, and often serve to reinforce those concepts.

The physical shape of a poem can be used by the poet to reinforce its meanings and themes. This type of visual poetry may also be called altar poetry. The shape or pattern of these types of poems is typically that of a common and easily recognized object that is referenced in some way by the words of the poem. For example, George Herbert's poem Easter Wings talks of the sinful fall of man from God's favor, and asks that he be allowed to fly like a bird and sing of God's victories. The first half of both stanzas of the poem narrows with each line, and lengthens again in the second half so that the overall shape of the verses resembles a pair of wings.

Geometric and pattern poems are also forms of visual poetry. Unlike altar poems, however, these verses are not always intended to represent a recognizable shape. Lines and stanzas may end, contain gaps on the page, or feature words that are spaced unusually to enhance the meaning of the poem and create a specific cadence when reading the poem aloud. For example, e. e. cummings in Just- features the words "far and wee" three times in the course of the work to represent a song whistled by a "balloonman" who calls children to himself. Each time, the words are written differently, sometimes with wide spacing, and sometimes as one word, forcing the reader to pronounce them differently and recreate the musical variances of the whistle that can attract many different children.

The poet may also employ alliteration, rhyme, and invent new words to add depth to his visual poetry. These literary devices may force the reader to speed up, slow down, or pause when speaking the poem aloud. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote Constantly risking absurdity to compare the act of a poet writing a poem to a circus trapeze artist performing high above an audience. Each line of the poem is spaced and indented in a way that mimics a performer tumbling through the air from one high perch to the next. A series of alliterated lines towards the end causes the reader to slow his pace and pause momentarily just as the poet trapeze artist being described in these words stops and prepares to take a final leap into the air to grab hold of Beauty.

Concrete visual poetry allows for a more free form of verse than altar or pattern. Poems in this category may consist of one word or string of repeated words patterned to resemble a recognizable shape. Alliteration is another popular practice in concrete poems in which the first letter of each line spells out the title or a central idea of the poem.

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Discussion Comments
By RoyalSpyder — On Feb 23, 2014

@Chmander - Hey, thanks for the advice. The next time I write some poetry, I will speak from my heart.

By Chmander — On Feb 22, 2014

@RoyalSpyder - I'm not saying that you should just slap anything down on a piece of paper, but honestly, poetry comes from the bottom of the heart, and that's what matters the most. In the realm of writing, there's sometimes not a "right" or "wrong" way to go about your work. It's about what you feel is right, and how it should be incorporated.

By RoyalSpyder — On Feb 21, 2014

Poetry is both fascinating and confusing to me. It's intriguing in a sense that it's a form of linguistic beauty. Not to mention the way the words are incorporated to flow so seamlessly. However, it's always confused me in a sense that I've never "gotten" it, if that makes sense. In several of my college courses, I've tried writing poems, but it never really clicked. Does anyone have some advice on how poetry works?

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