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Concrete poetry is a literary and visual medium where the arrangement of a poem’s text creates an image.

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What Is a Concrete Poem?

A concrete poem, or shape poem, is an arrangement of words on a page into shapes or patterns that reveal an image. Concrete poems, or visual poems, are an artistic blend of the literary and the visual arts. Readers experience a concrete poem via its words, typography, and the visual representation of the subject of the poem. In this type of visual poetry, what the words mean and how they look are often equally important.

Within the graphic space of their work, concrete poets also rely on color and typeface to further characterize the poem and image at hand. Sometimes only a handful of words—repeated throughout the poem—are needed to help illuminate an image.

Concrete Poetry vs. Pattern Poetry: What’s the Difference?

Pattern poetry and concrete poetry are both playful visual forms of poetry. Both rely on spacing words out in such a way that further communicates the ideas of the poem. The difference is that while concrete poems are often a string of words repeated to illustrate an image, pattern poetry maintains its meaning apart from its typography. Pattern poetry can be read aloud and hold its purpose, whereas concrete poetry is as much a visual medium as it is a literary one.

A Brief History of Concrete Poetry

Though visual poetry has evolved over thousands of years.

  • Early pattern poetry: The American poet E. E. Cummings and the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote pattern poems in the first half of the twentieth century, spacing out and styling words on the page for poetic expression. These poets rose to prominence before the concrete poetry movement formally entered the mainstream.
  • Mid-twentieth century: While the art form has a long history, concrete poetry has only been a widely shared term since the mid-twentieth century. Poetry as a form was evolving; Dada artists explored sound poetry, introducing new, aural ways to experience poems, primarily via performances that blended music and text.
  • Development as a visual art form: In 1950s Brazil, writers affiliated with the São Paulo magazine Noigandres experimented with visualizing words on a page. Members of the Noigandres group—including Brazilian writers Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos—showed their work at an art exhibit. These avant-garde artists carved a new path, blazing a trail for an art movement that was also a literary movement.
  • Anthology: This artistic medium flourished throughout the twentieth century. In 1968, Mary Ellen Solt published Concrete Poetry: A World View, a definitive collection of the concrete poetry movement.