"poem printed to form the physical shape
(Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier -
Although not exactly a single word, we've often been
asked what one calls a poem whose words are printed
in such a manner as to create or form a picture of its
subject. Now you know, they are called Carmen
Figuraturums, or "shape poetry."
Examples run the gambit from roses, to butterflies,
to bullets. Some form a natural picture, others use
spaces and breaks to create their image. To insure
the printer accurately reproduces the image as
intended, the poet uses mise-en-page; instructions
to the printer to reproduce the poem "exactly" as
it appears and not in standard layout.
Sometimes images are subtle, sometimes quite
dramtic. The most common are those that use spaces
and line breaks to create the image, using words and
letters like a pointillist painter uses dots of color.
"The shape poem dates from classical antiquity, but
its more recent history begins with George Herbert's
poems The Altar (O1.1167/N329) and Easter Wings
(O1.1168/N330-1), from The Temple (1633). What
Herbert does with these poems is effectively to take his
own metaphors visually and literally. He was a very
religious man, and his poems are all in one sense prayers,
offered up to God in The Temple, his book itself
becoming a material metaphor for the building in which
he prays; and within the temple/The Temple the reader
will also find (a poem shaped as) an altear, and (a poem
shaped as) wings which can carry prayers to heaven.
The visual perception of drawing and painting is mixed
with the visual perception of reading, and the poem
becomes a picture as well as a text.
Shape poetry is now often thought of as comic,
probably because the best known examples, Lewis
Carroll's Fury Said to a Mouse and the mirror-stanza
from Jabberwocky, first appeard in children's books;
but Easter Wings is as serious as Herbert's hope for
the salvation of his immortal soul.
The finest living writer of shape poetry, John
Hollander (N1664), is more like Herbert than Carroll;
and the poets (such as Eliot) who, without quite going
as far as shape poetry, have nevertheless used the
mise-en-page inventively and intensely, also tend to
be perfectly serious about what they are doing.
Shape poetry may be a sort of game, and it is fun --
but not necessarily funny."
(John Lennard, The Poetry Handbook, Oxford Press.)
All of this is of course lost when reading the poem
out loud, so the poem should stand on its own merit,
not on the clever use of form alone. In other words,
the image should "add" to the impression, but not be
critical to appreciating the poem.
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