Concrete poetry uses its form and visual structure to reflect its meaning or fulfill an artistic purpose. Concrete poems often arrange words in the shape of an image. They may also play with a poem’s physical appearance by altering capitalization and punctuation, breaking words and sentences in unexpected places, spreading words significantly across the page, and relying on white space to help convey meaning and beauty.
Concrete poetry is any poetry that uses its form and visual structure to reflect its meaning or fulfill an artistic purpose. Sometimes this means that the words of a poem create a specific shape, like the swan and its reflection in John Hollander’s poem “Swan and Shadow”. Other concrete poems may play with a poem’s physical appearance by using unusual capitalization and punctuation, breaking words and sentences in unexpected places, spreading words significantly across the page, and relying on whitespace to help convey meaning and beauty. Concrete poets care just as much, and often more, about the appearance of a poem as about the words of a poem. Consequently, concrete poems are not generally intended to be read aloud, as much of their meaning would be lost in a purely oral representation.
Although there is evidence that the ancient Greeks wrote poems shaped to represent objects, concrete poetry in the modern world is a relatively recent literary form. Modernist poets played with form and spacing in the early 20th century, as in the works of imagists like Ezra Pound. The experimental poetry of E. E. Cummings also embodied many concrete elements as it broke from the structural norms of traditional poetry and incorporated word breaks and spacing into the message of his poems. This fusion of physical format with thematic content persists in some poetry to this day. Many 20th and 21st century poets weave concrete elements throughout their poetry. Langston Hughes’s well-known “Mother to Son”, for example, includes short jagged lines to represent the rough, broken stair treads of the poem’s metaphorical staircase.
Following the 1950s, concrete poetry evolved into an even more image-based form. In a sense, the words became subservient to the artistic image. These later poets spaced words, syllables, letters, and punctuation marks in order to create pictorial images. This form of poetry encourages an artistic synthesis of verbal and visual elements. Creative poets today continue to play with this form by incorporating photographic and even sound elements into their poetic art.