In a shape poem, a poet uses the lines of his text to form the silhouette of an identifiable visual image—generally, an image that represents or comments upon the subject of the poem.
The shape poem goes back to Greek Alexandria of the third century B.C., when poems were written to be presented on objects such as an ax handle, a statue’s wings, an altar—even an egg. English poet George Herbert (1593-1633) led an Elizabethan movement using shape poems strictly for the page: two examples are “Easter Wings” and “The Altar,” written in the shape of, yes, wings and an altar. Lewis Carroll toyed with the notion in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, presenting “The Mouse’s Tale” in the shape of a mouse’s tail. The form continued into the 20th century through the typographical experiments of F.T. Marinetti and his anarchistic Futurism movement, Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1918 Calligrammes collection, the playful tinkering of e.e. cummings, the Chinese ideograms used by Ezra Pound, and various works by members of the Dadaist movement.
In the 1950s, a group of Brazilian poets led by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Augusto de Campos sought to fully integrate the dual role of words as carriers of language and visual art. Using a phrase coined by European artists Max Bill and Öyvind Fahlström, the Brazilian group declared themselves the “concrete poetry” movement. In 1958, they issued a fiery manifesto lamenting the use of “words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality, without history—taboo-tombs in which convention insists on burying the idea.”
Concrete poetry was originally aimed at using words in an abstract manner, without an allusion to identifiable shapes. But as the movement reached the height of its popularity in the 1960s, it became less abstract and was adopted by conventional poets as a specific poetic form rather than a full visual/literary fusion. Many of them returned to the shape-based forms popular in the third century B.C.
Among the best of the ’60s shape poets was John Hollander, who created his works with a typewriter. As a scholar, editor and accomplished poet—working in many different forms—Hollander also provided a thorough explication of the process in his 1969 collection Types of Shape. Hollander described his process in a 2003 interview with the St. John’s University Humanities Review:
“I would think of the representation of some object in silhouette—a silhouette which wouldn’t have any holes in it—and then draw the outlines, fill in the outlines with typewriter type … and then contemplate the resulting image for anywhere from an hour to several months. The number of characters per line of typing would then give me a metrical form for the lines of verse, not syllabic but graphematic (as a linguist might put it). These numbers, plus the number of indents from flush left, determined the form of each line of the poem.”
In Hollander’s 1969 “Swan and Shadow,” he uses the text to create the silhouette of a swan, the surface of a lake and the swan’s upside-down shadow. Hollander relates the words of the poem to their physical location within the image. (The swan’s head, for example, describes “Dusk / Above the / water … ”).
“One certainly needs no artistic talent in order to draw a good bit, and certainly not to rough out a silhouette,” Hollander says. “It’s not a lack of talent, but an absolutely dreadful educational system that prevents everyone from being able to draw a little.”
Through laborious trial-and-error experiments, I’ve devised a process for creating a shape poem, with two inherent biases. First, my process gives precedence to preserving the integrity of the original poem, applying the visual image afterward. Second, my process takes advantage of two modern advances: the image reduction/enlargement capabilities of today’s copiers, and the conveniences offered by computer word-processing programs.
1. Write a poem. Try free verse or prose forms. For this article, I used “Papageno’s Complaint,” a free-verse poem I recently wrote. It was inspired by the bird catcher in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
2. Imagine a shape. It doesn’t have to reflect the primary subject of the poem. Sometimes it’s more effective to choose a shape that reflects a small detail or provides a subtle comment on the discourse. I chose the object of my character’s occupation: a bird. Because Papageno is a catcher of exotic birds, I settled on a toucan.
3. Find an image. In addition to the Internet, you might try magazines, photo books, children’s coloring books or craft stores. In my case, I found a photo of a toucan at a zoo’s website.
4. Get the right size. Run the lines of your poem together, inserting punctuation as needed, and print it out as a single prose paragraph. Compare the area taken up by your poem and that provided by your image. Use a copy machine to reduce or enlarge the image accordingly.
5. Cut and paste. Cut your poem into one-line strips and paste them over your image with a glue stick, beginning each line at the left margin of the image, and ending it at or slightly past the right margin. If you run out of words before you run out of image—or vice versa—return to the copier, adjust your image size and cut and past again. This is the most arduous step, but it’ll make the final two steps much easier.
6. Head to your computer. Identify your most leftward line. Beginning at flush left, type the entire line; then work your way upward and downward, using your space bar to position each line’s first letter according to its relationship to adjoining letters. For the tip of the beak, “down,” for instance, the letter “d” is directly beneath the “n” in “and.”
7. Edit. Once you’ve typed out the poem, you may want to adjust or change words to polish the silhouette.