Concrete poetry is a type of poetry that uses some sort of visual presentation to enhance the effect of the poem on the reader. The visual layout of the poem need not necessarily form a picture, although many concrete poems do.
Over the past century, many famous poets have written poems that attempt to depict visually the significance of the words in the poem, from Ezra Pound to E.E. Cummings. However, visual poetry has been around for even longer—the poet and famous children’s author Lewis Carroll wrote a short poem called The Mouse’s Tale, which was written in the shape of (you guessed it), a mouse’s tail. Following, you’ll find some famous, and other not-so-famous, examples of concrete poems.
Foundations of Concrete Poetry
Concrete poetry has its roots in works of literature coupled with, enhanced by, or written as a series of images.
- Many medieval authors sought to couple poetry with images (such as Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales), but the form was lost over time.
- Baroque “labyrinth poems” used words as the lines in a maze, and the mazes themselves would form intricate and often complex images.
- William Blake’s “illuminated” works sought to couple the words of poetry inextricably with the beautiful engraved images on a page.
When the Futurists began experimenting with poetic forms in the early 1900s, concrete poetry was established as a distinct form, obvious in works such as Tristan Tzara’s Calligramme.
Famous Concrete Poems
In a Station of the Metro
Ezra Pound was a poet involved in the imagist movement, which sought brevity, clarity, and image through short works. His poem In a Station of the Metro is considered by many to be a concrete poem due to its focus on visual spacing, which enhances the poem. This work is extremely short and contains no verbs whatsoever, which provides the reader with an immediate concrete image, like a photo snapshot. The entire text of the work reads, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Pound implicitly compares the image of faces walking through the railway station with a beautiful image of nature, underscoring the beauty of even this insignificant event.
Stephen Neville wrote a poem ostensibly called Star Light, which plays on the old children’s poem “Star light, star bright / first star I see tonight.” The poem, which is written in the shape of the star, is an appeal to the star that shined over Christ after his birth, the star that beckoned the wise men from afar to come see him. In order to maintain the shape of the star, the lines and words used become shorter and shorter to allow for the elongation of the “arms” and “legs” of the five-point star. The bottom two feet of the star are the last two letters of the word “night,” demonstrating that even keeping words together is not necessarily an important part of the form—at least, not nearly so important as coupling the words with vibrant imagery.
When concrete poetry first became popular, writers all over the world experimented with the form. The German poet Eugen Gomringer was a central figure in the German movement. Silence, one of his more famous works, depicts the concept of silence with a block made out of the word “silence,” which is repeated 14 times, with a void in the center. Silence in this case seems oppressive on the one hand, but the emptiness in the center of the poem might suggest the peace found in the absence of anything at all. Although this poem does not show an actual image, it uses imagery and words to attempt to depict that which is intangible.
The Mouse’s Tale
If the modern conception of concrete poetry is a poem in the form of a picture, then Lewis Carroll helped to shape this idea with his poem The Mouse’s Tale. In Wonderland, Alice begins talking to a mouse who wants to tell her a “long and sad tale.” Alice remarks that his tail (notice the difference in spelling) is rather long, and as he tells his poem, it takes shape on the page in the form of a mouse’s tail, long and curled. The original representation of the poem had the words at the end beginning to become smaller as the tail becomes narrower.