Shape poems, in their 195o’s heyday, were cool. Avant garde, stanza-busting, causing socialites to throw their hands up in dismay and scream Communism. (Not kidding.)
They are also time-tested. George Herbert’s shape poem, “Easter Wings,” was published in 1633.
And finally, today no other form of poetry holds a candle to the shape poem’s potential to link the graphic and the lexical. This is the dominant mode of modern advertising, multi-media art, and communication, all of which the literate citizen needs to be able to interpret (and often create) in spades.
Now, take all this and place it next to your typical seventh grader. Yearning for independence, but still loving stickers and crayons. One foot in high school, one in elementary. Growing their first tendrils of thought beyond the concrete level of operations.
It’s significant, then, that the litero-jargon name for shape poems is concrete poetry: a format which not only can be used to honor where middle school kids are, but stretch their thinking towards the place where we want them to be. In short, a match made in heaven. And whenever I assign a free-choice writing piece to my kids, the match is made obvious by the dozens of kids who come up and ask, “Can I do a shape poem?”
Until you see what their idea of a “shape poem” is, that is.
And worst of all? It’s not their fault. It’s ours.
Prime example? The centerpiece interactive lesson on shape poetry to be found at ReadWriteThink.org, usually a warehouse of reliable lessons, administered by none other than the National Council of Teachers of English. Get one slide in, and you find this definition:
A shape poem describes an object and is written in the shape of that object.
Really? I mean, I know this is for elementary kids. But really?
Compare this to The Encyclopedia Brittanica:
Poetry in which the poet’s intent is conveyed by graphic patterns of letters, words, or symbols rather than by the meaning of words in conventional arrangement.
The problem is clear. Much the way the teaching of academic analysis has been reduced to the formulaic, one dimensional five paragraph essay, the shape poem has been bastardized, becoming simply the use of a shape to house weak writing, resulting in nothing more elevated than “something cute that can be hung up at Open House.”
We have to teach our kids better than this.
Here, you’ll find– also at ReadWriteThink, reassuringly– a much better lesson on concrete poetry, which can be adapted for middle school kids. Below is my go-to list of exemplary books.
The central guiding premise for a successful concrete poetry approach in middle school, one that is absent from most of the pedagogy on shape poetry I have seen, is that shape guides sense. We “make sense” of the object, theme, or experience using the words, images, and figurative language that the shape suggests to us.
A simple two-dimensional drawing of a baseball, for example…
.. has two types of lines with which to work: the circle, or long, curving arc; and the stitches, or short dashes. What actions in the game of baseball mimic these lines, or suggests them? What feelings, desires, or thoughts in baseball can be long and curving, or short and fast?
These types of questions inevitably make my kids make the face that I look for in class: their little eyebrows knot together, they purse their lips, and fall silent. They begin to scribble. Best of all is to hear the words fall from their lips: “This is hard, Ms. S.”
I love it.
Differentiate upwards by inviting kids to take the inverse approach, using words to create meaningful shapes. (Check out this awesome re-interpretation of Humpty Dumpty.)
Encourage non-artsy kids by inviting them to play with tracing paper as means of gathering possible shapes to work with. (This was one of my great joys as a middle school kid without a drop of artistic talent. I liked tracing elves.)
I have not yet gone the extra and obvious step of formally incorporating technology for graphic design into this project, but welcome any suggestions for this in the comments. Seems to me this is one of the limited ways technology actually adds inherent value to the English classroom.
Shape poetry can challenge middle school kids in exactly the ways they need to be challenged in our modern world: to experiment with technological tools; to think critically; create effectively; and to take that next step away from the literal to the metaphor, from the surface to the deeper meanings that run beneath.
It’s a beautiful form, and a useful one. Let’s take it back.
On concrete poetry, with background, definitions, and examples:
Wikipedia: Concrete Poetry
The Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry
National Poetry Month: Day 10
BBC Arts: Visual Poetry
Non-babyish concrete poetry books that middle school kids love:
Technically, It’s Not My Fault
A Poke in the I