Form in verse & verse in form

Updated - July 15, 2019 04:46 pm IST

Published - September 19, 2014 08:31 pm IST - COIMBATORE

An example of Concrete Poetry.

An example of Concrete Poetry.

It’s hard to sometimes say if poetry is about words or the images those words create for us. But what if the words created not just an image but an actual physical shape? This type of poetry was called emblematic poetry in the Victorian age and we now recognise it as concrete poetry or shape poetry. The other forms in this category are the calligram— where writing, fonts or calligraphy is shaped into a picture and micrography that uses tiny Hebrew letters to create images.

The term Concrete Poetry was created in the 1950s by Max Bill and Öyving Fahlström.

The European artists picked up from where the Noigandres – a Brazilan group – left off. The group actually came up with a manifesto on how Concrete Poetry works. The poets wanted words to be more than just objects with which they would communicate – they wanted the words themselves to sing.

Concrete Poetry is a visual delight. For instance, George Herbert’s 1633 poem, Easter Wings . The poem consists of two stanzas. In it, we encounter a man who is ‘decaying more and more’ and is ‘still with sicknesses and shame’. The poet urges that on this Easter day, may he rise as a lark, harmonious, and sing praises of the Lord. The theme of the poem is not surprising. Herbert was a member of the clergy and such a poem was typical of him.

When you read the poem, you notice immediately the disparity in the length of the lines.

The first and last lines of each stanza are long. Turn the page on its side and you’ll see the shape of a bird in flight. It seems almost as if the shape of the poem balances the serious topic being discussed.

For something less weighty, try the delightful Mouse’s Tail by Lewis Carroll. The poem, which appears in Alice in Wonderland , spins off from the tale/tail confusion, where the Mouse says, “Mine is a long and sad tale,” only to have Alice thinking about an actual mouse’s tail! What proceeds is a charming, fun poem in Carroll’s usual style, and written in the shape of a mouse’s tail – narrow and tapering. What a strange tale indeed.

I was taken aback by Silencio , a poem from 1954, by Eugen Gomringer, considered to be a classic in this form of poetry. Through just one word, repeated through the poem, the reader reads between the lines, moving beyond the words to the spaces between them. When you read it aloud, it sounds different. When you see the poem, you sense a wall of silence. I spent a while looking at these words; visual poetry demands a close reading.

You might also want to check out the genius of e.e.cummings and his poem about the grasshopper. The words leap and bounce off the pages and bring to mind the subject of the poem. It’s not an easy poem to read, but it is compelling!

The idea for this week’s column was suggested to me by a young student of English Literature, whom, I am thrilled to say, is a reader of this column. Thank you, Meenakshi Srihari — Concrete Poetry elates, astonishes and exhilarates.

Dr Srividya is a poet. Read her work at > www.rumwrapt.

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