Concrete Haiku: featuring poems by
Carlos Colon and Anita Virgil

Concrete haiku in a haiga journal? Why not? Poems with texts lineated in patterns or shapes survive from the ancient Greek period, but the term "concrete poem" dates from the 1950s. It's a poetry that depends on the playful use of language, interplayed with a visual layout created through the arrangement of words for shape, pattern or typographical effect. Developments in graphic design, abstract and minimalist art contributed to its popularity in the 1960s. With shorter texts, a leap to haiku was inevitable. Cor Van Den Heuvel’s "tundra", one evocative word set in the expanse of a white page, was published in 1963 (The Window Washer's Pail). Anita Virgil included graphically innovative haiku in A 2nd Flake (1974 rpt. 2013), and Marlene Mountain began her “unaloud haiku” in the early 1970s.

Today, with the availability of software featuring text manipulation tools, the capability to create concrete haiku is widely available. I noticed a few in the recent issue of Frogpond (37:2); Under the Basho specifically includes them in their submissions guidelines, and a number of poets have uploaded theirs on blogs. At the 2011 Haiku North America, Carlos gave a presentation on the historical connection between concrete poetry and haiku, examining poems by E.E. Cummings, bpNichol, Nick Avis, LeRoy Gorman, Marshall Hryciuk, Raffael de Gruttola, Marlene Mountain, and his own (though it is unpublished, Melissa Allen has posted one of his slides in her blog from the conference on Red Dragonfly).

I've gleaned a few phrases from online resources that are useful for understanding how this kind of poetry works as it does Fundamental is that it emphasizes “nonlinguistic elements" in the poem's meaning (Poetry Foundation) and "allows the words themselves to become part of the poetry, rather than just unseen vehicles for ideas” (Wikipedia). “Works of concrete poetry are as much pieces of visual art made with words as they are poems. Were one to hear a piece of concrete poetry read aloud, a substantial amount of its effect would be lost” (Poets.org).

Sometimes, the evocative quality that turns a single word or minimalist phrase into poetry resides almost wholly in the typographic treatment, but quite often, the text is readily recognizable as a haiku, given a graphic treatment that creates what Richard Gilbert has termed "concrete disjunction". Effects include creative spelling, echo words, choice of font, size or color, indentation or line breaks, tilted or curved baselines, shaped text block, and placement on the page. For example, this one by Anita Virgil:

speeding along the awning’s edge
raiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin

in an interview in Prune Juice (7, winter 2012 p. 62), she explained that the the formatting came from having pressed too long on a computer key while she was typing "rain", and the result was a perfect depiction of a string of raindrops along the awning. Notice also how the staccato repetition of 'i's" brings an auditory dimension in the sound of rain on an awning. Less obvious is that the choice font matters; our normal Geneva font spaces its letters so the second line is far narrower than the first, so I've used Verdana to maintain the vertical margins that give it the look of an awning.

Another example is this shape poem by Carlos Colon:

u
nder
thepo
intedhat
apuddleofwitch

At Under the Basho's Submissions page it's set in the journal's style sheet Helvetica font, with a #33333 color tag, though in the actual 2013 issue the font is Times New Roman, in black. Compare the two versions and see how the choice of font affects reading! Now that I'm sensitized, I see a small pointed witch hat atop each "t" and as I read it aloud, I enunciate more sharply.

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