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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Poetry XV -- Art Chirography or Concrete Poetry

I'm not sold on the name "Art Chirography" (check the pieces yourself) as it seems generally to indicate a single word or short phrase written in such a way as to indicate an image.  Of course, this might be splitting hairs, but the idea here is that the poetry--the poem in its entirety--is shaped in such a way as to indicate visually something significant to the subject at hand.  At it's most basic, the form of the words are meant to graphically emphasize an element of the poem; at it's most abstruse (some might so obtuse -- (let's combine!: obstruse)), the picture itself (like a hieroglyph or even a "droodle") is a poetic representation of an idea.  The artistic/literary value of this particular branch of poetry is generally as critically derided as genre fiction.  So judge for yourself.  I will attempt to provide a wide variety of material for your perusal.

Swan and Shadow
by John Hollander

                              Above the
                       water hang the
                                     O so
                                 What                                A pale signal will appear
                                When                   Soon before its shadow fades
                               Where              Here in this pool of opened eye
                                 In us           No upon us As at the very edges
                                  of where we take shape in the dark air
                                    this object bares its image awakening
                                     ripples of recognition that will
                                       brush darkness up into light
even after this bird this hour both drift by atop the perfect sad instant now
                                       already passing out of sight
                                      toward yet-untroubled reflection
                                     this image bears its object darkening
                                    into memorial shades Scattered bits of
                                  light           No of water Or something across
                                 water               Breaking up No Being regathered
                                  soon                    Yet by then a swan will have
                                    gone                              Yes out of mind into what
                                          of a
                           sudden dark as
                                      if a swan

Concrete Cat
by Dorthi Charles


by E.E. Cummings

       a)s w(e loo)k
     S                                                         a
       rIvInG                         .gRrEaPsPhOs)

frog . pond
bt Geof Huth

The Mouse's Tale
by Lewis Carroll

            Fury said to a mouse,
                 That he met in the
                        house, 'Let us
                           both go to law:
                            I will prosecute
                          you.-- Come, I'll
                         take no denial;
                       We must have
                     a trial: For
                   really this
                 morning I've
               nothing to do.'
                   Said the mouse
                         to the cur,
                           'Such a trial,
                              dear Sir, With
                                  no jury or
                                judge, would
                               be wasting
                           our breath.'
                        'I'll be
                   judge, I'll
                 be jury,'
               Said cunning
             old Fury:
                'I'll try
                  the whole
                    cause, and

If you want more like the video game controller above (and many more besides -- good and bad) just do a Google image search for "concrete poetry" (or click it).

So what do you think?  Gimmick, kitsch, or poetry?


  1. The swan and the mouse's tail I think are poetry because there are actually strings of words that have meaning without the picture. I think the other ones are cool, and maybe I could consider them art, in a kind of low form, but not poetry.

  2. Interesting: the swan, the cat, the mouse's tale (obviously -- I mean, it's Lewis Carroll), and the grasshopper all show up in poetry anthologies; E.E. Cummings, in fact (grasshopper) is one of the most famous American poets ever, and has books and books of stuff.

  3. I've seen a number of "poems" very similar in visual and approach, not to mention subject, to "frog.pond." I like it; it seems a little like a hyper-visual haiku.

  4. I love "The Grasshopper" (which, you're right, was in the poetry anthology my class used last year) and "The Mouse's Tale". I'm, "Meh," on "The Swan", and I don't think that the other 3 are actually poetry, but I'm willing to be convinced, so go ahead! :)

  5. What I like best about the swan in the sort of visual palindrome of it. The content is, yes, meh! My favorite part of "Concrete Cat" is the dead mouse. Mostly I think this poem is just playful like so much Shel Sylverstein, and it's a great way to help kids start experimenting with form as part of their expression. There's a particular visual appeal for me with the simplicity and design of "frog.pond," but it's not my favorite, nor does it blow me away. It does make me wonder what someone like Pound or Hulme would do with concrete poetry, though. William Carlos Williams messed around with the form, but only ever as a joke, as far as I can tell. The last is just a gimmick.

  6. The more I think about "The Mouse's Tail", the more I'm convinced that this is actually a pretty serious commentary cloaked in absurdity. I think that part of it is some sort of reflection on what happens when people use anger, no matter how "righteous," to pursue justice instead of dispassionately deciding something.

  7. Which supports to a T the whole child/adult dichotomy (ugh, I just used "dichotomy"! --the miserable catch-word of every pretentious undergrad I attended class with) of the book. It's just like an adult with a child to act exactly like "Fury." What makes it all the more brilliant is the double use of cur and fury, the first of which is a mongrel dog, and the second which would work just as well with an extra R. That and its deceptive simplicity.

  8. Uh oh, I use the word, "dichotomy," all the time, but to be fair, I could definitely qualify as a pretentious undergrad. When you get to the elite level, you know when to use, "Manichean," to good effect.

    Love the pun on, "fury." Somehow I didn't catch that one, so thanks again!

  9. O, brother....

    You remember the "Pun Club"?

  10. I do. Unfortunately no one else wanted to keep it alive. People would rather socialize than discuss witty and horrible puns. Go figure.


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