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Concrete Canticles: A New Taxonomy of Iconicity in Poetry


This article is about poems in which some aspect of the overall shape is representational, pictorial, or expressive. One of the earliest practitioners of this kind of poetry in English was the religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633), whose book The Temple contains well-known examples such as ‘The Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’. In the latter, as illustrated, the two stanzas are formed into the shape of an angel’s wings, as conventionally represented in religious paintings - this poem is further discussed below. Until around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries poems like this were occasional oddities, but since then a considerable tradition has grown up of poems which have to be looked at for meaning as well as read for meaning. I will try to map out this tradition in what follows, identifying different ways in which the ‘looked-at’ and the ‘read’ elements are balanced or blended. I will suggest three basic categories of poems of this type: firstly, the Verbal/Visual type, in which the verbal element is dominant, and the visual element secondary (as in the case of ‘Easter Wings’); secondly, the Visual/Verbal kind, in which the visual is dominant and the verbal secondary; and finally, the Visual/Verbalist kind, in which the visual element again dominates, and the verbal is merely a residual trace, in the sense that the poem actually has no words at all, but traces of some aspect of the reading process are present, as will be illustrated. The article will consider three examples of each of these three types.


Keywords: poetry and iconicity; Edwin Morgan; Bob Cobbing; concrete poetry; Ana Maria Uribe; Mary Ellen Solt; David Miller; lvaro de S; poemic poetry; asemic poetry


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