Concrete poems are usually shaped or patterned in some way. The way the words are arranged on the page depicts the subject matter. This kind of poetry dates all the way back to the 2nd century BCE and a few examples from Greek authors.
Explore Concrete Poetry
Definition of Concrete Poetry
Concrete poetry is a kind of writing that focuses on the shape words make on the page. Often, the visual impact of the poem is more important than the text itself.
This means that formal choices, like meter and the length of lines, are made in regard to the desired shape of the poem rather than the effect they’re going to have on the reader or the way they influence the content. Depending on the author, they may spend more or less time focused on the content. This could mean that there are some examples in which the poet didn’t only focus on the shape and truly did spend as much time as they could on the subject matter.
Examples of Concrete Poetry
Easter Wings by George Herbert
‘Easter Wings’ is a well-known example of a concrete poem. It’s religious in nature and in the shape of two wings when viewed horizontally. When seen vertically, the two stanzas appear as stacked hourglasses.
The piece was published after Herbert’s death in The Temple. In the original publication, the lines were formatted so that the wings appeared horizontally, not requiring the reader to mentally flip the poem to see the intended image. His piece may have inspired other writers to engage with concrete poetry and even poems in the same shape. Here are a few lines from Herbert’s poem:
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Read more George Herbert poems.
The Mouse’s Tale by Lewis Carroll
‘The Mouse’s Tale’ is a famous example from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The poems in the shape of a mouse’s tail, a humorous play on words. The subject matter is also about a mouse’s “long and sad tale.”
This is a classic element of Carroll’s writing that many readers, young and old, have enjoyed in his work. Depending on the versions of the text, the “tail” may be longer or shorter. In all versions though, the lines swirl down the page. The lines are longer at the top and far shorter at the bottom, ending in a point.
Discover more poems by Lewis Carroll.
This crosstree here by Robert Herrick
‘This crosstree here’ is another religious example of a concrete poem. The lines of the poem are arranged in the shape of a cross.
The text is not hard to interpret, nor is the reason that Herrick sought to format the poem in the shape of a cross. The subject matter is about the cross that Jesus had to bear and includes a plea to Christ to “look down” on those who pray and weep for him. Here are a few lines that are included in the body of the cross:
Look down, and see
Us weep for Thee.
And tho’, love knows,
Thy dreadful woes
We cannot ease,
Yet do Thou please,
Who mercy art,
T’ accept each heart
That gladly would
Help if it could.
Meanwhile let me,
Beneath this tree,
This honour have,
To make my grave.
Read more Robert Herrick poems.
Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree by George Starbuck
This contemporary example of a concrete poem comes from George Starbuck, an American poet whose peers included Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The poem is a prime example of a concrete poem because, as the title suggests, it’s in the shape of a potted Christmas tree.
This is a very specific choice. The author might’ve chosen to shape the text in the form of a Christmas tree but without the pot. This is a reminder to readers that the shape the poem is in is going to play a huge role in what they should consider while reading the text. The poem includes religious allusions and a call to celebrate the “son / born / now / now.”
The effect of the lines, cut short through the poet’s effort to make the tree-shape, means that this passage in particular is emphasized. Here are the first few lines that create the top of the tree, including the star:
Let the wild wind erect
bonbonbonanzas; junipers affect
Why do Poets Write Concrete Poems?
Poets write concrete poems when they want to explore and push their creativity in a new direction. These poems force authors to work within a new set of boundaries, but they are boundaries that they themselves create. An author might set themselves the challenge of writing a poem about an animal in that animal’s shape or a poem about emotion and then have to find a shape that would represent it. This is suggestive of the fact that concrete poems may vary in the challenge they present.
Often, concrete poems are written for and read by young readers. They’re sometimes used in the classroom as a way to inspire children to write their own poetry. The shape element of the task may make the writing more interesting for a child.
The term “concrete” was used after a group of artists exhibited their poetry alongside artists in the National Exhibition of Concrete Art, lasting from 1956 to 1957. Despite the term’s modern origin, concrete poems date back thousands of years.
The most important characteristic of a concrete poem is that its shape has something to do with the content. In some of these poems, the shape is even more important than the content. Writers use enjambment to cut their lines off. The length and position of the lines/words on the page determines the shape of the poem.
Most concrete poems are free verse. This means that the poems do not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. These two parts of poetry are incredibly hard to use when writing a concrete poem. But, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You may find good examples in which some instances of rhyme are used.
Concrete poems are important because they use elements of literature as well as visual arts. They depend on a certain visual in a way that most other types of poems do not. The author is completely aware, while they’re writing and formatting their work, of the shape they want their lines to make.
No, concrete poems do not have to rhyme. In fact, you may find it quite challenging to create a perfectly rhymed concrete poem. This is due to the fact that most of one’s lines are going to be cut off in unusual places. These examples of enjambment mean that the lines are going to end unexpectedly.
Related Literary Terms
- Acrostic: a piece of writing in which letters form words or messages. The “acrostic” is most commonly associated with poetry.
- Blank Verse: a kind of poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.
- Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it normally much longer.
- Diamante Poetry: a popular poetic form that is made up of seven lines. They are formatted into the shape of a diamond and used to compare two opposites
- Found Poetry: a type of poem that’s created using someone else’s words, phrases, or structure.
- Limerick: a humorous poem that follows a fixed structure of five lines and a rhyme scheme of AABBA.