Often with pattern poetry, the shape the poem’s text makes is even more important, or at least as important, as what the text itself says. Pattern poems are also sometimes known as shape verse, carmen figuratum, or concrete poems. The shape of the lines in these poems could be arranged in any way. For example, a poem about easter might have lines arranged in the form of a cross, while a poem about love might have lines arranged in the shape of a wedding ring, etc.
Early in the 19th century, a French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, is noted as having used different type sizes in his Un Coup de dés (which translates to “A Throw of Dice.” There are also examples from poets around the rest of Europe and into the United States. E.E. Cummings in the US, for example.
Explore Pattern Poetry
Pattern Poetry Definition
Pattern poems are pieces that have lines arranged into a specific shape. These poems are uncommon in contemporary literature, but they are not entirely unknown.
The best examples date from the modernist period or are religious in nature. Most poets view these pieces as novelties rather than a genre of poetry all their own.
Today, readers are most likely to find examples of pattern poems when seeking out children’s poetry. It’s important that readers can see the text, though. Without looking at the page, the shape is impossible to interpret. These poems are 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.
Examples of Pattern Poetry
Easter Wings by George Herbert
‘Easter Wings’ is a great example by Herbert. It is one of the better-known poems that uses its text in a particular shape. When readers glance at the text, it soon becomes clear that the lines are arranged in the shape of wings. They are arranged vertically on the page, so it takes a bit of imagination to see them horizontally. When vertical, the wings look more like an hourglass.
This interesting poem was published in The Temple posthumously in 1633. The lines were initially arranged horizontally. This meant that readers had to physically turn the book in order to read the text. Today, it’s more common to see them the other way around. It has been suggested that this poem was quite influential on those poets interested in experimenting with pattern poetry. Here are a few lines from the first section of the piece:
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
The poem is fairly simple yet quite moving. It is a Christian poem that addresses the fall of man and the speaker’s desire to rise to Heaven. The speaker addresses the creation of humankind and describes Adam’s foolishness.
Read more George Herbert poems.
This crosstree here by Robert Herrick
‘This crosstree here’ is not one of Herrick’s better-known poems, but it also presents readers with a good example of a religious pattern poem. In this case, the lines are arranged in the shape of a cross. The subject matter is very direct, allowing the reader to enjoy the meaning easily. 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.
Herrick writes about the cross that Christ had to carry and pleads with him to “look down” on those who pray and weep for him.
Read more Robert Herrick poems.
The Mouse’s Tale by Lewis Carroll
‘The Mouse’s Tale’ is a wonderful poem that was initially published in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The poem takes the shape of a mouse’s tail. It is thicker at the top and then weaves towards the bottom of the page, becoming thinner and thinner. This means that the lines themselves get shorter.
Carroll creates a play on words with this shape, using it to tell a mouse’s “long and sad tale.” Here is a quote from the top and thickest part of the tail:
Fury said to
a mouse, That
Unfortunately, this excerpt does not convey the weaving shape. The full poem can be seen and read here.
Discover more poems by Lewis Carroll.
Why Do Poets Use Pattern Poetry?
Poets write concrete poems because they want to experiment with their creative impulses. They are not considered a high form of poetry, but they can be quite entertaining and a challenge to compose. This type of poetry forces writers to push their boundaries in new ways.
The most essential characteristic of a pattern 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 determine the shape of the poem.
Most pattern 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 pattern poem. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You may find good examples in which some instances of rhyme are used.
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.
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 is 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.
- Read: Concrete Poems
- Listen: Writing Concrete Poetry