The four levels of poetry are the typographical, having to do with the appearance of the poem on the page; the sonic – having to do with the various elements of sound; the sensory – imagery, and the ideational – theme and meaning. A prosody or “system of composition of poetry” based on the typographical level is called “spatial prosody”; synonyms would be Carmen figuratum, typewriter poem, hieroglyphic verse, concrete poetry, calligramme, and shaped stanza.
Spatial poems are relatively popular in our own age. An extreme form of spatials is the sub-genre called “concrete poetry” which takes the poem further toward graphic art than does shaped stanza. Concrete verse is ideographic spatials. For instance, in Japanese the character for “rain” (an ideograph looks like the thing it is meant to represent; the Japanese have characters rather than the letters of an alphabet, and the characters are ideographic) might be arranged on the page so that it will look like rain falling. At the bottom of the page there might be the character for “house”; thus, the characters for rain are falling pictorially on the character for house. Concrete poetry is really more picture than poem, as in “Leo’s Casino,” a print by D. A. Levy that uses the letters of the alphabet simply as elements in a picture:
A “typewriter poem” can be a picture of something made with the letters of the alphabet or words, as in “Town Square “ below:
Spatials can be quite elaborate. A “sampler” was originally an exercise primarily for schoolgirls who would design a piece of embroidery that illustrated their ability to sew various stitches. It would be comprised of the alphabet, mottoes (q.v. mote, above) and, often, illustrations of various kinds, but the colonial American poet Edward Taylor wrote a poem that was a sampler:
The opening motto of this poem is,
This Dove and Olive Branch to you
is both a Post and Emblem too.
These words appear written within a crude drawing of a dove holding an olive branch with which the American Colonial poet Edward Taylor decorated or “illuminated” this page of his manuscript.
Besides being a sampler and an acrostic (the alphabet is spelled out down the left-hand margin), this extremely complicated poem is also a concrete poem, and an epistle (a “post”) addressed to Taylor’s first wife, Elizabeth Fitch, whom he married on November 5, 1674:
These for my Dove
Tender and only Love
Mrs. Elizabeth Fitch
At her father’s house in Norwich.
The design of this sampler is of a circle within a triangle that reads,
The ring of love my pleasant heart must be
Truly confined within the Trinity.
The second line doubles as the base of the triangle and
as the line illustrating the letter “T”; it is therefore a refrain.
The circle reads,
Love’s ring I send
That hath no end.
At the center of the circle is a drawn heart.
Here is a modern rendering of the acrostic portion of
ACROSTIC LOVE POEM TO ELIZABETH FITCH
Aspiring Love, that scorns to hatch a wish
Beneath itself, the fullest, chiefest Bliss
Contained within Heaven’s crystal pale and shine,
Doth wish its object always; so doth mine.
Elect no more presented in desire:
For Heaven’s roof, aye, lets not a wish soar higher.
Got though too dim, none can get to sign
Hear you, (my friend), is strengthened wish of mine.
In drossy silver should, I should by this,
[J is included in the representation of I, above]
Keep dull my post, and stain my serious wish,
Lest which polluted be, or the fearful Dove
My post-out foiled, I run a ring of Love
New polished, where my centered heart doth reek
Out highest streams of Love, which here do meet.
Presented thus your heart, Love’s Ring you’ll find
Quest I unless, always best befits the mind.
Reserve mine that. Yet let our secret breast
Set Love the tune which tunes this Ring the best.
The Ring of Love my pleasant heart must be
[Truly confined within the Trinity. — refrain]
Upon your heart (I pray you) put Love’s Ring
V[=U]nerringly; Love’s Swelt(ering) heart herein
Wearing a True-love’s-knot at center’s set.
Wherewith I send to you an alphabet
Xenodict1 whence all syllables complete
[e]Xtracted are to spell what love can speak.
Yea, see, then, what I send. Yet I design
Zion my Ring shall license with her Trine.2
1Xeno” means strange or foreign, and “dict” (spelled “dick” in the original) means spoken; perhaps what this neologism means is “strangely spoken,” which would be an accurate description of this poem.
2The last line of this metaphysical (extended metaphor) poem may mean something like, the license of marriage, or even of poetic license, is allowed within the strictures laid down by the Trinity.
However, spatial poems need not be so elaborate. This one, “Nymphomania” by Richard Kostelanetz, is quite straightforward:
Sometimes spatial verse requires just a bit of art besides the shape of the poem, as in this poem I wrote in college after a game. It has baskets at each end of the basketball court:
According to the author of “The View from Khufu’s Tongue,” there are two kinds of spatial poem, “positive” and “negative.” “Positive shaping utilizes the words and negative shaping, the spaces.” His poem is an example of negative shaping.”
Suggested writing assignment:
Write a spatial poem of some type on an original theme.