Weekly Prompt: Poems that Play with Shape

During the past week or so, we’ve been looking at poems and aspects of presenting poems on the page which take into account (2-D) visual space and make room for illustration and elements of painting, drawing, collage, etc.  This Friday, our prompt asks you to reexamine a form which many of us may remember being introduced to in grade school: the concrete poem.

Examples of Calligrams by Guillaume Apollinaire
Examples of Calligrams by Guillaume Apollinaire

Concrete poetry,” according the Poetry Foundation’s glossary, is “Verse that emphasizes nonlinguistic elements in its meaning, such as a typeface that creates a visual image of the topic.”  Far from being limited to poems whose words take on the outline of the object they are describing, concrete poetry can encompass everything from a playing with the sizes and spacing of text on the page to certain kinds of full-on “visual poetry,” which are more akin to collage or painting in their methods of arrangement words. The challenge, of course, is how to integrate the visual into a poem in a way that is satisfyingly beautiful (or jarring, depending on the desired effect) and yet feels organic and further enhances the complexity of the reader’s interaction with it.

Prompt: Write a  poem takes into account shape and visual space on the flat plane of the page.

Some suggestions:

1) Compose a calligram, or poem in which the shape of the words enacts or take on the visual form of some object as a kind of complex illustration.  (See examples of Guillaume Apollinare’s famous calligrams at the top of this post).

2) Create a poem that experiments with unusual typographical arrangements to emphasize its meaning.   The Poetry Foundation also has a couple of neat visual poems that play with the shapes of letters: here, and here.

3) Write a poem on a piece of paper (or other flat surface) that is not a standard vertical letter-sized or notebook-sized sheet, using the shape of the surface to guide your form.  For example, a long piece of ribbon, or the back of a circular coaster.  I’ve found that this exercise (which I’ve borrowed from a former teacher of mine, Bruce Snider) becomes especially interesting if one uses a writing surface that already has words on it and allows those words to seamlessly flow into the resulting poem.  (Examples of poets who’ve used a similar technique include A.R. Ammons, who wrote “Sphere” on ticker tape, and D.A. Powell, who wrote one of his books with his notebook turned sideways).

4) Write a poem that engages with the use of negative space in an existing piece of text or image (for example, a poem written in the margins of a newspaper, between the lines of a letter, or in the background spaces of a photograph or advertisement).

We realize that this week’s prompt is a little different, in that your response may or may not be easy to share in comment form.  In light of this, we’ve created a Flickr pool where you can upload photos of your responses to our prompts if you’d like to share them [if you don’t feel comfortable uploading photos of whole poems, feel free to crop creatively or blur out portions of the text].  Here’s how to do it:

1) Follow this link to get to our pool.

2) Click “Join this Group.” (Sign into Yahoo/Flickr if you need to do so, or create an account).

3) Confirm that you want to “Join this Group.”

4) Upload the image or video you want to your stream.  In the description, mention the prompt you’re responding to (if you like you can include the text, too, but that’s not necessary). We suggest that you tag your poem for ease of navigation as the pool grows (for example, I’ve tagged the concrete poem I uploaded with “concrete poem”), but that’s also optional.

5) Choose “Groups >> Your Groups”

6) Select the group “Lantern Review — Weekly Prompt Responses”

7) Click “Add something.”  Follow the instructions to add your photo to the pool.  That’s it!

We hope that you’ll share some of what you’ve written with us; we’d love to see how your experiments turn out.  If we get enough responses, we may even feature some of them on the blog in upcoming weeks.

The Page Transformed: Part II – The Page as Canvas

Lewis Carroll's "The Mouse's Tale"

In this second installment of our March 2010 theme, “The Page Transformed: Intersections of Poetry & the Visual Arts,” we’ll be thinking about poetry which makes use of the visual elements of its form to create and enhance meaning.  Although the term “concrete poetry” was not coined until the 1950’s, poets were using elements of design and typography long before then. George Herbert’s shaped poems (like “Easter Wings”) and Lewis Carroll’s “A Mouse’s Tail” are two particularly classic examples, while a more contemporary example might be the typographical experiments of e.e. cummings (as in his poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r“).  Thinking of the page as a space by which to convey both verbal and visual meaning paved the way for surrealist experiments with exercises like cut-up technique, which employs elements of collage to create new poems by disassembling and rearranging existing words on the page (The Academy of American Poets’ Website has an interesting article on Futurism, Dada, and Concrete Poetry).  Today, visual poetry is now a field unto itself (The Poetry Foundation has a wonderful article about the subject if you’re interested in exploring more).

George Herbert's "Easter Wings"

As we think about The Page as Canvas, we’ll be looking not only at writers who employ strategic visual elements to put forth their poetics,  but also at the importance of elements like book design, cover art, illustration, and print formats like broadsides, which really do turn text into pieces of visual art.  As we move forward into the technical elements of producing the physical page, our explorations will turn us towards the third phase of our series, in which we’ll  examine The Book as Object.