While most poets and readers of poetry divide poems into free verse and traditional forms and meters, there is a type of poetry that falls into neither camp; this column will focus on unconventional forms. To begin with, there is a type of verse called shaped poetry, which is in many ways the marriage of typography and verse: the poem is written to resemble a particular object, whether a simple as a geometric shape (circle, square, triangle) or as complex as a swan on a lake looking at its reflection in the water.
Most people call this type of verse "concrete poetry," which is generally not the case. Concrete poetry is another variant of visual-based text, which is similar to shaped poetry in that text is often used to create a picture; it differs from shaped poetry in that it cannot be read aloud. Therefore, you could have two text-objects resembling a circle and comprised of exactly the same number of letters, one of which resembles a bullseye and is comprised of concentric rings of repeated individual letters, the other being a series of sentences that read from left to right. The first would be a concrete poem, the latter a shaped poem, both in the shape of a circle.
Concrete poetry might also involve overlapping text, among many other variations. As a basic rule, shaped poetry can be defined as those poems whose typography makes them resemble some other object, which can be read aloud in a conventional left to right fashion (or whichever direction the language you're writing in naturally reads). John Hollander is considered the granddaddy of shaped poetry, and his book, Types of Shape, is an invaluable reference and inspiration for anyone interested in writing shaped poems, and also of interest to general readers of poetry. It includes poems in a wide variety of fantastical shapes, including the aforementioned swan, in two versions, both with and without the reflection in the lake.
The easiest way to write a shaped poem is to take a piece of graph paper and plot out the shape of the object you want. Keep in mind that, as in most crossword puzzles, you generally want to avoid long, narrow shapes that require words of one or two letters; antennae on an alien, for instance, would likely be difficult to accomplish. Often I'll block out a poem first with solid squares until I'm happy with the shape, and then use a different sheet to try writing a poem that fits the form I've created. When you go to type up your poem, you'll most likely want to use a proportional font (where every letter, whether skinny like "i" or fat like "w", takes up an equal amount of space) in order to maintain the shape that you've created on the grid. The following poem of mine, for instance, when published in Asimov's, was printed so as to resemble a sickle, and thereby lost the moon-face:
by Lawrence SchimelThe moon is shy. You can find her peeking out at the world from the edge of my fingernails. When I cut them the moon slips out, no bigger than a nail clipping as she hangs up there in the sky.
Why write a shaped poem?
Like writing in any other form, there is a tension between the form and the thought or idea of your poem, which is often likened to the way a rigid windowframe highlights the billowy curtains, and vice versa, or the way a white trellis not merely supports a rose bush but provides the rigid contrast to both the color and curved branches. Also, for many people, the challenge is both fun and an inspiration.
Another way of writing a poem which has shape or form, while not relying on meter or rhyme, is to subvert some other form of writing, whether this is a shopping list or instructions or whatever. A recipe, for instance, is an excellent source of a narrative, and as an example here is a piece I wrote for a collection of adult fairy tales, Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling:
by Lawrence Schimel"Even in the electric kitchen there was
the smell of a journey."
--Anne Sexton, "Little Red Riding Hood"
1. In a tupperware wood, mix child and hood. Stir slowly. Add wolf.
2. Turn out onto a lightly floured path, and begin the walk home from school.
3. Sweeten the journey with candied petals: velvet tongues of violet, a posy of roses. Soon you will crave more.
4. Knead the flowers through the dough as wolf and child converse, tasting of each others flesh, a mingling of scents.
5. Now crack the wolf and separate the whites -- the large eyes, the long teeth -- from the yolks.
6. Fold in the yeasty souls, fermented while none were watching. You are too young to hang out in bars.
7. Cover, and, warm and moist, let the bloated belly rise nine months.
8. Shape into a pudgy child, a dough boy, lumpy but sweet. Bake half an hour.
9. Just before the time is up -- the end in sight, the water broken -- split the top with a hunting knife, bone-handled and sharp.
10. Serve swaddled in a wolfskin throw, cradled in a basket and left on a grandmother's doorstep.
11. Go to your room. You have homework to be done. You are too young to be in the kitchen, cooking.
Again, there is a tension by using something so ordinary in an unconventional context, and there is also some rigidity of form to use and work against in terms of the content of the poem. A recipe is ideal for telling a story because of the way it works towards making something.
Now, some might argue that this last example is hardly poetry at all, but is instead experimental forms of narrative and therefore falls in fiction's camp, since fiction is generally considered to hold sway over narrative. While I can't argue that "Journeybread Recipe" is indeed an experimental narrative, narrative also plays a tremendously important role in poetry, and many of our first narrative epics were originally recited and written in poetry, not prose. The boundaries become blurred as experimental fictions move towards poetry and poetry's techniques of text constructions; there is even a whole subgenre of hybrid prose poems. I guess the deciding factor in this argument might be that, even in the case where an editor was uncertain what to call something, all of these "hybrids" were purchased and published as poems.
Meanwhile, whatever you want to call them, have fun playing with these sorts of non-metered and non-rhyming forms, which will help focus your language and learn to create narrative out of surprising and unlikely sources.
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