Friday, April 22, 2011

Poetry in the Classroom - Concrete Poetry

What is a concrete poem? On his web site John Grandits says that "Concrete poems are poems that use fonts, and shape, and texture, and color, and sometimes motion."

In the last few years, many new concrete poetry books have been added to my list of favorites. I'm going to share a few here. Keep in mind that concrete poetry is about the marriage of words and form. Therefore, you need to SEE them to truly appreciate them. That means this post will have lots of links to sites where you can see the art in these poems.
A Curious Collection of Cats (2009) and its follow-up, A Dazzling Display of Dogs (2011), both written by Betsy Franco and illustrated by Michael Wertz, are collections that explore the peculiarities and absurdities of cats and dogs in wildly energetic ways. First, just look at those covers! If the use of animals in forming the letters of the titles doesn't immediately suck you in, then hopefully a few of these interior shots will. Michael Wertz has generously posted images from the books on his Flickr stream. Take a look at these images from CATS and these from DOGS.
Technically, It's Not My Fault (2004) and Blue Lipstick (2007), both written and designed by John Grandits, are two collections designed for older readers. The first book is written from the point of view of a young boy named Robert. The poems reveal Robert's concerns with all things adolescent. He is at turns smart then immature. Poems topics include his older sister, the school bus (dubbed TyrannosaurBus Rex), ordering pizza for dinner, mowing the lawn and more. The second book is written from the point of view of Robert's older sister, Jessie. Her concerns are those of a typical teen, but Jessie is anything but typical. She is funny, sarcastic, and totally her own person. Poem topics include a bad hair day, a pep rally, volleyball practice, Advanced English, her mother's birthday and more. Both books use graphic design in unusual and surprising ways. You can see a few of the poems from TECHNICALLY and LIPSTICK on Grandits' web site. You can see a few more images using Google Book Preview for both TECHNICALLY AND LIPSTICK. Finally, be sure to visit Grandits' concrete poetry page often, as a new concrete poem is posted each month. Right now the poem being shared is "My Stupid Day."
Two books written by Joan Bransfield Graham, Splish Splash (2001) illustrated by Steve Scott, and Flicker Flash (2003) illustrated by Nancy Davis, are collections of concrete poems about the physical world. SPLISH SPLASH is a collection of 21 poems about water in a myriad of forms, including crocodile tears, ice cube, popsicle, snow, hail, dew and more. FLICKER FLASH is a collection of 23 poems that explores natural and man-made light sources, including the sun, birthday candles, an incubator bulb, lightning, a firefly, and more. At Google Books you can see examples from both SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH.
Doodle Dandies, written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Lisa Desimini, uses wordplay and surprising "movement" to make the topics come alive. The 19 poems in this book cover a variety of subjects, including giraffe, weeping willow, skyscraper, baseball, basketball, the oyster family, and more. Synchronized Swim Team uses the legs of upside-down swimmers to make its point, while Creep and Slither appears in the shape of a snake, until midpoint when the bulging word bull frog announces what's been eaten. You can view some poems/images from the book at Lisa Desimini's web site.
A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems, selected by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka, includes a wide range of poems that are cleverly shaped and written. Eskimo Pie and Popsicle are both poems in the shape of ice cream. Swan and Shadow looks exactly like its title and is a lovely piece of work. You can view an inside spread from the book and download an activity page from the Candlewick web site. You can also get a brief preview from Google Books. Notice that the table of contents is in the form of a table!
Poetry Basics: Concrete Poetry, written by Valerie Bodden, is an analysis of the concrete poetry form, beginning with its origins and history while providing a range of examples through the present day. Here are some of the things Bodden says about this form.
The goal of the type of poetry known as concrete is to have the shape or appearance of a poem reflect what the words express (p.3).

While most traditional poems are meant to be read, concrete poems are meant to be seen. Looking at a concrete poem can be almost like looking at a painting. In fact, if you try to read a concrete poem out loud, much of its meaning may be lost (p.12).
The book ends with a section entitled "Think Like a Poet," which provides steps and encouragement for readers to write their own concrete poems. Also included are a list of books for further reading, a glossary, and bibliography.
Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Michelle Berg, is the story of a dog and cat trapped under a picnic table in a rainstorm. Since much of the verse forms the images on the page, readers will enjoy searching for the buried verses while reading the story. You can find a reader's guide at Joyce Sidman's site for MEOW RUFF.

Concrete poems are fun to write and challenge children to think in different ways about the objects and events they see in their world. For additional ideas on writing concrete poetry, here are some resources you may find useful.
Have I missed a favorite book of concrete poetry? If so, please let me know. I'd love to add it to the list.

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