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2.3 Concrete poetry

We looked at ‘The Mouse's Tale’ in the first section of this course. Concrete poetry (also called ‘pattern poetry’) – where the lines are arranged in a specific shape on the page in a meaningful way – has been around for centuries. Mosaics are amongst the earliest examples of it (see Danet, 2001, pp. 197–202, for some of the history, and examples of poems). The cummings poem could be considered concrete, as the spatial layout is significant. The term ‘concrete poetry’ is usually used, however, for poems where the visual shape is paramount, ‘so that they visually reinforce, or act as a counterpoint to, the verbal meaning’ (Crystal, 1987, p. 75). The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) is probably the most widely known producer of these artforms, which he entitled Calligrammes. The English poet George Herbert (1593–1633) also wrote concrete poetry, the best known of which is ‘Easter Wings’, published posthumously in 1633.

Concrete poetry is still very much alive as a literary artform. Figure 5 shows a poem from a more recent source, the NASA website. Start reading at the bottom left of the poem, as the aeroplane is taking off:

Figure 5
Figure 5 Untitled poem (NASA Quest 2005).

The verses of this poem follow that of the aeroplane, upwards and rightwards as it lifts into the sky. As well as the iconic shape of the four text-aeroplanes, the semiotic mode of movement, following the left-to-right reading path of the English language, is implied.

The NASA poem is fairly traditional in its form, and works just as well on paper as it does on a computer screen. The advent of computers, however, has revitalised the form by adding new modes, particularly sound, colour and movement. An example using movement is shown in Figure 6, in the series of stills from a visual poetry website. Dan Waber's ‘argument’ shows a rope moving from side to side forming the words yes and no, using movement to realise the visual metaphor of a tug-of-war. At the time of writing, this poem is available on the internet (at http://www.vispo.com/guests/DanWaber/argument.html), or you may be able to find it via a search engine.

There are many virtual art galleries displaying poems that make use of sound, image and text: an internet search of ‘concrete poetry’ should produce many examples of multimodal artwork on the web.

We have seen in this section how letterforms, punctuation, and their playful spatial arrangement can be seen as artful. The semiotic concepts introduced so far will be revisited, as I now turn to some multimodal works of fiction which employ these features and more.

Figure 6
Figure 6 ‘argument’ (Dan Waber, 1999).
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