By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Concrete poetry is a curious phenomenon. Rather than simply using words to suggest a particular visual concept or image, the words of the poem are arranged on the page in such a way that they resemble the shape of the thing they describe.
Although the term ‘concrete poetry’ is relatively new, the idea is not. The ancient Greek poet Simmias of Rhodes, who lived some time before the third century BC, composed poems in the shape of an egg, a pair of wings, and an axe, among other things.
In English poetry, George Herbert (writing in the early seventeenth century) penned a number of poems whose shapes resemble a cross, or a pair of birds’ wings, or an altar, and many other well-known poets have written what might be termed ‘concrete poems’.
But what are the best concrete poems ever written? Choosing just ten of the best is a challenging task, but we hope that the following list is representative of the range of concrete poems to be found among the ‘canon’ of English literature – and, indeed, literature in other languages (there is, for instance, a fascinating French example included in the list below).
1. Stephen Hawes, ‘A Pair of Wings’.
My paine (in minde
My swete bloode
On the Roode (my brother
Dide thee good
My face right redde …
Before George Herbert (to whom we’ll come in a moment), there was Stephen Hawes, who, in around 1500, gave us ‘A Pair of Wings’.
Note how the lines become longer and longer, only to become shorter and shorter again, so they form the shape of wings. The reference to ‘My swete bloode / On the Roode’ is an allusion to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross (‘Roode’ is an Old English word for cross, as in the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’).
2. George Herbert, ‘Easter Wings’.
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me …
It’s lucky we have the wonderful poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633) at all. It remained in manuscript form during his lifetime, but as he lay dying of tuberculosis, he sent a sheaf of poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, to be published after his death if Ferrar thought them any good.
Thankfully, Ferrar did thing they were good, and The Temple appeared later in 1633, the year of Herbert’s death. The volume contains a number of religious poems which are arranged in innovative ways. Here, his poem ‘Easter Wings’ resembles the shape of birds’ wings.
It’s thought that Herbert may have been aware of Simmias of Rhodes’ poem arranged to suggest the shape of wings, since a Greek anthology containing Simmias’ poems was in circulation during the Renaissance.
3. Robert Herrick, ‘This Crosstree Here’.
This crosstree here
Doth Jesus bear,
Who sweet’ned first,
The death accurs’d …
This poem is arranged in the form of a cross: yes, this is another religious example of the concrete poem. Herrick (1591-1674) was poet and Anglican priest whose Hesperides (1648) contains over 1,200 poems (yes, really!), many of them very short lyrics and epigrams.
4. Lewis Carroll, ‘The Mouse’s Tale’.
This poem is one of the most playful on this list: it’s arranged in the shape of a mouse’s tail (hence the pun on the title of the poem, or the title by which the poem is usually known, in any case).
It appears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Carroll’s hugely popular work of nonsense literature which originated as a story he told Alice Liddell and her siblings during a boat ride in 1862. The Mouse, who tells Alice his ‘tale’, describes it as ‘a long and a sad tale!’
5. Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Il Pleut’.
The Calligrammes (1918) of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died after he contracted Spanish flu, are among the most notable early twentieth-century examples of concrete poetry. Here we find poems in the shape of a necktie, a fountain and raindrops running down a window, among others.
Here, we’ve opted for the raindrops poem. A ‘calligram’ is a poem in which the calligraphy or the font chosen for the text represents an aspect of the poem’s subject. Here, the poem resembles rainfall as the lines fall down the page, in imitation of the rain falling to the ground.
6. E. E. Cummings, ‘Grasshopper’.
The poet Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) is known for his unconventional attitude to punctuation and typography: he famously styled himself as ‘e. e. cummings’, all in lower case, and a number of his short poems can be considered examples of shaped or concrete poems.
This one is one of his most accomplished contributions to the form. As the name suggests, grasshoppers are known for their hopping and leaping, and here, the word ‘grasshopper’ itself jumps about the page until it finally settles down (onto the grass?) in the final line.
7. Edwin Morgan, ‘Manifesto’.
Here’s a curious poem with a political angle, from the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010). Morgan was fond of using spacing and typography in suggestive ways: see his ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’ for a particularly witty example.
‘Manifesto’ is formed from the Russian for ‘Workers of the World, unite!’, the famous closing words of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. Is Morgan implying that Russia ‘muddled’ up or distorted the original aims of Communism? Or is a Marxist revolution always about shaking things up, and so the poem can be read as an endorsement of revolution?
8. Mary Ellen Solt, ‘Forsythia’.
This is perhaps the most beautiful of the concrete poems on this list. The letters of the word ‘forsythia’, the flowering plant, each spell out a new word: ‘springs’, ‘yellow’, ‘telegram’, and so on, but the letters of these words spring up to suggest the individual leaves of the plant.
Solt (1920-2007) was an American poet who composed a number of concrete poems based on the shape of flowers: ‘lilac’ and ‘geranium’ are two more examples.
9. Ian Hamilton Finlay, ‘Star/Steer’.
Finlay (1925-2006) was another Scottish poet who really led the way, along with Morgan, in concrete poetry during the second half of the twentieth century.
In ‘Star/Steer’ (1966), we have the pointed zigzags of the word ‘star’ arranged at different points on the page (suggesting the sharp edges of the star?), but the last line has morphed into ‘steer’. Is this a sailor steering his ship by the stars? Or can we interpret this cryptic, taciturn poem in another way?
10. John Hollander, ‘Swan and Shadow’.
If Solt’s ‘Forsythia’ didn’t quite convince you of the beauty of concrete poetry, here’s one last example which might do the trick. Hollander (1929-2013) was an American poet and literary critic whose poetry often does innovative and interesting things with form.
In this 1966 poem, the shape of the words on the page brilliantly evoke a swan on the water, with its form mirrored underneath as if the water is reflecting the bird.