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About Patchwork Poems & Shaped Poetics

Patchwork Poems:

     A patchwork poem is just what its name says it is--something patched together.  It is also called a cento, from the Latin for patchwork, and by some, a mosiac poem.  It is a verse composed entirely of lines or phrases from the work of other authors.  A patchwork poem can be rhymed or unrhymed; it can be assembled with emphasis on lines, or the lines might be chosen because they contain a focused concordance of a specific word. 

     It's not enough to simply choose random lines; the patchwork poem itself should make some kind of sense.  Only if some humor centers on the use of truly familiar lines can a mere nonsensical patchwork work--as in the best-known cento in the English language, the poem titled "Familiar Lines."

     The cento evidently originated in ancient Greece; examples are found in Aristophanes's plays where lines have been usurped from Aeschylus and Homer.  Roman poets, as early as the late second century, lifted lines from Virgil, as did the fourth century Latin poet Proba Falconia, ninth century Waldram, and seventeenth century Scottish poet Alexander Ross, writing in Latin. 

     The earliest extant patchwork poem in English was published in 1775, written to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday.  It was comprised of lines from Shakespeare's plays, though the author took liberal poetic license in changing the lines to suit his purpose.  The purist refuses to change even the tense of a verb--the trick--the challenge--is to create a new verse, while staying true to the original lines as they are placed into their new mosaic.

Shaped Poetics or Concrete Poems:

     As far back as 324 B.C., such visual wordplay was practiced by ancient Romans, Greeks, and Persians. George Herbert, English seventeenth century religious poet, is credited with calling his creations Shaped Poems. In the early 1900s, the French Guilliame Apollinaire called his versions Calligrams; the Swiss Eugen Gomringer called his Constellations; the German-Swiss Diter Rot named his Ideograms. The term Concrete Poetry was coined simultaneously in Switzerland, Sweden, and Brazil and an interchange among poets in 1956 established a universal adoption of that terminology. The movement grew to encompass a broad interpretation of what was meant by the name. Though initially begun as a "reduced-language" form, soon "non-language" became the norm for most of the proponents of Concrete Poetry. 

     Much of Concrete Poetry constructed from the 1950s on consists of enigmatic designs that resemble modernistic paintings more than they do any understandable assemblage of words. Many of the creations utilize a random arrangement of words or letters or no indication of language or alphabet at all, being primarily spatial manipulation, symbolic graphics, or typography. They are essentially graphics or posters, with little relation to the traditional world of poetry. For this reason, many word-oriented practitioners prefer to focus on the sub-classification that pairs communicative words with a related shape. Even the terms Visual Poems, Picture Poems, and Pictorial Poetry are more the language of the Concrete Poetry enthusiast.  Other contemporary descriptions include Pattern Verse, Shaped Whimsies, and Shaped Poetics. Though most books about poetry forms still tend to refer to either Concrete Poetry or Shaped Poems, the broader Shaped Poetics most clearly encompasses the concept that the creations be either poems or lucid statements.

     To purists, even the word poem is thought dubious usage applied to some renditions. In the broadest sense, however, the designation Shaped Poetics is acceptable, as long as the works do use words to present a meaningful idea along with a recognizable shape.

     The clearest definition:  "Shaped Poetics are poems or statements wherein the arrangement or concept of the text itself forms a visible picture of the subject or theme." It should be remembered that these creations are not meant to be read aloud; they are intended as visual constructions. An artful combination of words and shape can spark the imagination, delight the eye, or nudge a sense of humor.

              Ie: Shaped Poetic: Up and Down the Stairs 

                                             and
                         stairs         I 
                      the                     went 
                 up                                   down
       went                                                   the 
   I                                                                    stairs.
 

Patchwork Poems

Shaped Poetics

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