Messages from the past take many forms: ancient structures, buildings, and artefacts; burial sites; rituals and symbolism; stories, poems and songs shared through generations; sculptures, paintings, works of art.
As a child I used to love exploring the old fortifications in the south and east of Zimbabwe, as well as the rock art that is dotted around the country. The rock paintings, by semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, are difficult to date but are believed to be at least a thousand years old. Many may be much, much older, dating back several millennia. They are found in caves and rock shelters, or underneath massive overhanging boulders.
These extraordinary works of visual poetry use the surfaces and materials that were available to their creators at the time: natural earth pigments, mixed perhaps with animal fat, painted on smooth, weathered granite. Large slabs of rock allowed the artists to paint freely and expressively; splits, curvature and irregularities in the rock face are integrated into the compositions. The photograph below shows a rock painting from Dombashava, Zimbabwe.
When thinking about poetic constraint, we tend not to consider surface. It’s interesting to contemplate how poetry has been shaped by the surface on which it is written – rock, stone, clay, wax, parchment, fabric, paper, electronic screen – and how this has evolved over time.
Poetry originated as a spoken art form long before it came to be written down. It was only after the transition from the oral tradition to written poetry that attention started being given to the shape and appearance of the written poem. Dating from around 300 BC are three magnificent pattern poems, composed by the Hellenistic poet and grammarian Simias of Rhodes. Each of the poems matches its shape to its subject. The Axe may have been inscribed or placed on a votive axe, The Wings on a winged statue, and The Egg, wonderfully, perhaps on an actual egg. If so, it must have been a large egg! The poem has 20 lines, to be read in ascending order of length (i.e. alternately from the top and bottom of the egg, towards the middle), with an intricate metrical patterning. We can only speculate how Simias went about the process of creating these masterpieces of concrete poetry.
Nearly two millennia after Simias, the English poet George Herbert composed a poem that is also shaped like a pair of wings. Easter Wings was published in 1633 in Herbert’s posthumous collection The Temple. Originally it was printed sideways across two facing pages. This works well visually, but can be a little confusing when it comes to reading: do we start with the left wing (stanza) or the right wing? Does it matter? The two stanzas are structurally similar, but self-contained. Nowadays the poem is most commonly presented in a vertical layout, beginning with the line ‘Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store’.
Most poets writing today will give thought to a poem’s layout and appearance, to the relationship between the arrangement of lines and the ‘white space’ on the page. Sometimes our poems bump against the page’s geometry. How do we deal with lines that are too long to fit within the margins? What happens if our poem spills over on to the next page by one or two lines? Do we edit the poem to suit these physical constraints? This is especially tricky with concrete poems. We would lose the visual potency of ‘Easter Wings’, for example, if we had to turn over the page to read the last few lines.
Perhaps this is one of the (many) attractive features of the sonnet; that it fits so neatly on to almost any page. From its origins in 13th century Sicily, the sonnet has spread around the world. “As poetry moved slowly off the tongue and onto the page,” Don Paterson notes in his Introduction to 101 Sonnets, “the visual appeal of an approximately square field of black text on a sheet of white paper must have been impossible to resist.”
There are alternatives to paper. Poems can be displayed on gallery walls; buildings, buses, and trains; boulders and pebbles; embroidered on samplers and cushion covers; written in sand, on wood, or mowed in a field. Alexis Fedorjaczenko hand prints delicately beautiful poems on cotton fabric, while Susan Gerofsky and Nevena Tadic have created an exquisite ceramic mobile of a combinatoric poem.
Poetry is frequently posted on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Online poetry journals abound. The dimensions of a computer screen offer creative possibilities that cannot be readily applied on a normal page. Consider, for example, Tyson West’s two poems in The Fib Review #39, Summer 2021 and how they spread across the screen in layouts that would not be practical in a standard book or print journal.
All the written examples considered so far are linear poems, in that they consist of lines (that may be of varying length) and usually read in a given sequence. What happens if we abandon this concept of linear sequencing and instead adopt the word rather than the line as our unit of poetry? As an illustration, consider the statement:
MYSTERIES LIE HIDDEN DEEP
This starts with the word mysteries, but we could use another starting point and it would still make sense:
LIE HIDDEN, DEEP MYSTERIES HIDDEN DEEP, MYSTERIES LIE
DEEP MYSTERIES LIE HIDDEN
We could write this on one side of a strip of paper, then tape the ends together so that we have a circular poem on a cylindrical shape.
Here’s another circular poem:
ROCKS HOLD STORIES, STILL HOLD STORIES STILL, ROCKS STORIES STILL, ROCKS HOLD STILL ROCKS HOLD STORIES
Suppose we take a strip of paper and write the first poem on one side and the second on the other side, upside-down.
Now glue or sticky-tape the two short sides together, with a half twist in the paper strip so that the direction of the writing matches. We have created a Möbius strip poem, which can be read in a continuous loop, starting from any word.
MYSTERIES LIE HIDDEN DEEP ROCKS HOLD STORIES STILL
The charm of constructing poems in three dimensions, on cylinders or Möbius strips, is that reading becomes a tactile experience. Part of the poem will always be concealed from our view, so we must turn the object in our hands to reveal the connections between words and the shifts in meaning.
Origami lends itself to poetic exploration of surface and shape. For the manually dexterous, there are many interesting structures we can use to create an origami poem, including a zoo of flexagons. Flexagons are polygons made from folded paper, with the property that flexing the shape will reveal hidden faces. South African writer Michael Cope has written a delightful hexaflexagon poem, Porcupine descending a staircase, which has both a 3-D and a 2-D version. He provides templates and construction methods for the two versions on his blog. More flexagon templates are available here.
Paper fortune-tellers, which I loved playing with as a child, are simple to construct, using a square sheet of paper and a sequence of triangular folds. It’s fun to write a fortune-teller poem, with a choice of flaps that can be opened to reveal hidden mini-poems. You can find my fortune-teller origami poem Seasons and Landscapes here: print out the PDF version, fold it and enjoy playing with it. Even better, create your own!
Sarah E. Bond, Using Graphic Language: A Short History of Figure Poems (2016). Available online at https://sarahemilybond.com/2016/02/04/using-graphic-language-a-short-history-of-figure-poems/
Ken Cockburn, Writing Circle Poems, Scottish Poetry Library (2022). Available online at https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/National-Poetry-Day-2022-Teachers-Resource.pdf
Elena L. Ermolaeva, The Figure Poem Egg by Simias of Rhodes (Ap 15, 27) and Metrical Terminology, Philologia Classica 2017, 12(2), 122–129. (2017). Available online at https://dspace.spbu.ru/handle/11701/9017
Don Paterson (ed), 101 Sonnets. Faber (1999)