I always have a little fear and trepidation introducing concrete poetry to a class of creative writers, as I did today. On the one hand, I’m afraid I may get a lot of texts written in a shape that don’t have much poetry to them; on the other hand, I am convinced that the visual side of poetry is at least worth considering. Concrete poetry can lead to abuse or innovation, in other words, so it helps to show some examples.
What I like about concrete poems is that they can develop their own, visual sense of grammar. There is a syntax to the spatial arrangement of words on the page that works counter to sentence syntax. Indeed, often there is no sentence and the ‘words’ may not even be pronounceable. I like getting students to think outside the box and to think of poems as something other than prose. But I don’t like to give the idea that concrete poetry is static.
Far from it. The best concrete poetry challenges our linguistic norms, including challenging our habit of making language sense from left to right and top to bottom. So I show them a poem written in different lines that curve and bend in different directions, even one circular line. There is no logical place to begin the poem. If you start with one sentence and end with another, you might get a completely different sense of the poem than if you did it the other way around, or another way. There are multiple readings of the same text, depending on your entry point.
Writing a poem like this may take more technical prowess with typography than your average undergraduate can muster, but being exposed to the poem (and to other concrete poems) might allow them to think of poetry as not being (completely) linear. If they begin to look for connections around and within a poem, and not just in the straight line of prose, then they may pay more attention to other ways of creating meaning in a poem. Some of those may be more visual than auditory.