Article for Students

Winged Type

The poem is something to look at, as well as to read and recite.

The poem appeals to the eye. It has a shapely dimension and thus relates to the plastic arts, especially painting. The poem is something to look at as well as recite. Think, for example, of e.e. cummings’s typographical experiments or of John Hollander’s inventive poems of visual display in Types of Shape or of Marianne Moore’s symmetrical stanzas that look as if they were written on a typewriter. Moore’s poems are written in crystalline syllabics. It is hard to imagine them handwritten. The words look as if they were scoured and dipped in acid, broken down into particles, into constituent parts, and then reconstructed, cleansed and molded, on the page. The desire to bring together both literary and visual impulses in a shaped poem is apparently very ancient, as Dick Higgins demonstrates in his encyclopedic history and anthology Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. Higgins points to a bewildering variety of early sources: pattern poems in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and in most of the modern European literatures; Chinese pattern texts; Sanskrit citra kavyas and other Indic texts. There are six surviving pattern poems from Hellenistic Greece: two shaped as altars, and one each as an egg, a syrinx, an ax, and a pair of wings. (These may have served a magical or talismanic function since they were religious expressions.) These in turn became the model for the 110 pre-1750 British pattern poems that survive. It is this tradition, for example, that stands behind George Herbert’s two masterpieces from The Temple (1633), “The Altar” and “Easter Wings,” where the lines, of varying lengths, give the poems a visual shape suggesting an altar and Easter wings respectively. The lines fit the form exactly and the emotional curve of the poem matches the articulation of the shape on the page. I adore Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, a term he coined early in the century for the kind of shaped poem he believed he had invented for modernism (“Moi aussi je suis peintre,” he wrote), but in truth he was developing the latest avant-garde manifestation of what in Latin poetry was called carmen figuratum (figured poems).

Here is Apollinaire’s poem “Il Pleut,” first in the original and then in Roger Shattuck’s linear translation:

Il Pleut



It’s Raining

It’s raining women’s voices as if they had died even in memory
And it’s raining you as well marvellous encounters of my life O little
Those rearing clouds begin to neigh a whole universe of auricular cities
Listen if it rains while regret and disdain weep to an ancient music
Listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below

The slanting lines of Apollinaire’s poem create the sensation of rain running downward across a windowpane. Graphic form and verbal music come together as each long vertical line becomes a rhythmic unit of meaning. The sound of the unpunctuated lines in French creates an incantatory murmuring that evokes the sadness and melancholy of a rainy day in Paris. And yet, as Anne Hyde Greet and S. I. Lockerbie point out in their acute commentary on Calligrammes there is a rich ambiguity of feeling in this poem that goes beyond a simple Verlainean melancholy. Whereas the first line associates the rain with a vanished happiness, the second and third lines associate it with the wide encounters—the opening outward—of the modern world. “Trickling raindrops may be expressive of sadness,” they write, “but in the way they spread down and over the windowpane there is also a sense of adventure and exploration of space.” Apollinaire thus concretizes in the light undulating lines the sense of an old life that is sadly passing even as a fresh world is opening up.

What especially compels me about the pictorial lyric, the lyrical emblem, is how the poem displays itself as a metaphor. It says, I am something else. The viewer interacts with the shape; the reader experiences the precise relationship between the subject and the object, the content and the form. The writer puts the rain down on the page, the reader lets it fall.

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Originally Published: January 23rd, 2006

Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running  “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his...

  1. April 2, 2007
     Alex Permann

    I find that placing words so that a visual image is created is a difficult task. You not only have to seach for words with the right meaning, but also look for words that spacially fit. It is difficult for me to simply find a word that flows poetically. Guillaume Apollinaire’s Il Pleut is a great example because the purpose of the diagnal lines adds to the image in the poem.

  2. April 5, 2007
     Tate Cuka

    The idea of forming a visual image with poems creates a different viewing of the poem. It allows the author to connect to the reader before the audience even begins to read the poem. The poet must come up with a good variety of words and use his/her imagination when deciding on line breaks and stazas. Guillaume Apollinaire's Il Pleut shows the audience the visual image of rain, but it also makes the poem much harder to read since many people are not used to reading up and down.

  3. May 14, 2007

    what is this??

  4. August 29, 2007
     Charity Newman

    I have always loved visual poetry (also called shaped poetry). Recently, I was made aware of the most unique visual poet since George Herbert, Deborah Young (check out the site at I am saddened that her visual poetry is not in the forefront. For, Deborah Young's visual poetry is awe inspiring.

  5. November 18, 2008

    I love art and I love poetry, but not as one. In the fourth grade, writing shapely was fun, but now that I have matured I believe that a poem should be written normal so that the reader can concentrate on the actual words, not the image they create. Reading a poem as such would seem to annoy me as it would be distracting.

  6. November 18, 2008

    I agree with Emily that shaped forms are disctracting. In fact, I was trying to translate the original French "Il Pleut" but gave up in despair after the second line. The French wasn't distracting--the columns were. I find it odd that Hirsch writes so glowingly of shaped poetry. Based on previous articles, I would have thought that Hirsch would disapprove of what is so obviously a gimmick. While shaped poetry certainly adds a unique layer to a poem, perhaps reinforcing or even establishing symbolism or some other deeper meaning, the words are somehow lost.

  7. November 18, 2008
     Jordan Dodderer

    Oh la la, Apollinaire est magnifique - il est tres avant-garde avec sa poesie. "The writer puts the rain down on the page, the reader lets it fall." WHen I hear this I literally feel as though I am at a cafe in Paris, under the umbrella at a same cafe, watching hte day wash away. Shaped poetry, with its impressionistic nature, adds to the imagery of the poem. Standing alone, the poem is nice, but falling down with each raindrop, with each word, the reader is let into the environment and becomes a part of the poem. I feel myself let go as each word falls from the sky.

  8. November 18, 2008
     Jordan Dodderer

    "same cafe watching hte" must be french for "Small cafe watching the"

    Desole:Sorry = ]

  9. November 18, 2008

    "The words look as if they were scoured and dipped in acid, broken down into particles, into constituent parts, and then reconstructed, cleansed and molded, on the page." Poetry would be thoroughly enjoyable if today the poems were wrote with a dramatic effect such as the one Hirsch describes. For myself the vision of the poem would drive me to pick up the book and involve myself into the poets world. I agree with Jordan that the raindrops allows the reader to become a part of the poem and not just another person who reads it.

  10. November 18, 2008
     Candace :)

    Having shapely dimension may be appealing to the eye and may be interesting to look at, but the purpose of the poem is not to just stare at the words. It may even become confusing and difficult to read, especially if the words are in the form of a circle of spiral. The design the words are put into ultimately takes away from the meaning and the concentration of connecting with the writer's thoughts and feelings; instead, you are focused on making sure you are reading the words in the correct order or just focused on the interesting design on the paper. In the example above, I didn't even want to attempt to read the words; I was too busy looking at the design. There are different ways you can tweak the size of the font or make it bold to add dimension and affect to a poem, but placing the words in a shape or design of some sort is just too distracting.

  11. November 19, 2008

    Besides being in french, i love the linear translation in that if offers an abstract, artistic flow to the poetry. That being said, i would never use a design such as the one above because i agree that it takes away from the overall effect of the poetry. All poetry is unique so there is no need to do little things to make it even more so. To some art-haters, designs will probably make them avoid poetry if they do not so already.

  12. May 25, 2009

    Poetry seems to have almost hit rock bottom. There seems to be no clear definition of what is 'Shaped', 'Visual' or 'Concrete' poetry even within poetry communities. Like Post-Modernism it's a mess with no rules, reason or skills, weak verses dressed up to distract from their lack of depth. For every great Visual/Concrete poet there are a 100 that seem to have thought it was just an easier way to write poetry. Most of what I've seen in a search of the internet just hurts!

  13. August 21, 2011
     David St.-Lascaux

    A sketch of an essay that maybe gets away using only one example (albeit a fine one) in synecdoche. It should be amended to the correct "citra kavya" (not "citrak avya"), or "picture poetry" (one ought to get the word for poetry right in a poetry essay). And George Herbert's "Easter Wings" are hardly generic. Specifically, they are a) those of larks, b) the author's and c) G*d's. For a much more in-depth view of visual and concrete poetry, see Marvin and Ruth Sackner's site:, and of course Ken Goldstein's UbuWeb: