Concrete is poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on.
It is sometimes referred to as visual poetry, a term that has evolved to have distinct meaning of its own, but which shares the distinction of being poetry in which the visual elements are as important as the text.
The term was coined in the 1950s. In 1956 an international exhibition of concrete poetry was shown in São Paulo, Brazil, by the group Noigandres (Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari and Ronaldo Azeredo) with the poets Ferreira Gullar and Wlademir Dias Pino. Two years later, a Brazilian concrete poetry manifesto was published. One of the earliest Brazilian pioneers, Augusto de Campos, has assembled a Web site of old and new work (see external links below), including the manifesto. Its principal tenet is that using words as part of a specifically visual work allows for the words themselves to become part of the poetry, rather than just unseen vehicles for ideas. The original manifesto says:
Concrete poetry begins by assuming a total responsibility before language: accepting the premise of the historical idiom as the indispensable nucleus of communication, it refuses to absorb words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality without history — taboo-tombs in which convention insists on burying the idea.
Although the term is modern, the idea of using letter arrangements to enhance the meaning of a poem is an old one. This style of poetry originated in Greek Alexandria during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Some were designed as decoration for religious art-works, including wing-, axe- and altar-shaped poems. Only a handful of examples survive, which are collected together in the Greek Anthology. They include poems by Simias and Theocritus. Early examples of typographically based concrete poetry include the following poem by George Herbert (1593–1633) (here in a scan of the 1633 edition of Herbert's The Temple), in which the poem is merely a comment on the title, which presents the poem's principal meaning typographically.
Another early precursor from Herbert is "Easter Wings", in which the overall typography of the poem is in the shape of its subject. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll contains a similar effect in the form of the mouse's "Tale", which is in the shape of a tail. In the early 20th century, artists and poets comprising the Futurism movement used concrete poetry as a dynamic expression of their anarchistic philosophies. F. T. Marinetti was the most prolific poet among them, and created several works that destroyed all typographic conventions. More recent poets sometimes cited as influences by concrete poets include Guillaume Apollinaire, E. E. Cummings, for his various typographical innovations, and Ezra Pound, for his use of Chinese ideograms, as well as various dadaists. Concrete poetry, however, is a more self-conscious form than these predecessors, using typography in part to comment on the fundamental instability of language. Among the better known concrete poets in the English language are Ian Hamilton Finlay, Dom Sylvester Houédard and Edwin Morgan. A few well-known concrete poets outside the English language are András Petöcz in the Hungarian language and Joan Brossa in the Catalan language. Several important concrete poets have also been significant sound poets, among them Henri Chopin, Ernst Jandl, and Bob Cobbing.
Another precursor to concrete poetry is Micrography, a technique for creating visual images by Hebrew-speaking artists who create pictures using tiny arrangements of Biblical texts organized usually on paper in images which illustrate the text used. As noted in the entry, micrography allows the creation of images of natural objects by observant Jews without directly breaking the prohibition of creating "graven images" that might be interpreted as idolatry. The technique is now used by both religious and secular artists and reportedly is also used by Arabic writer-artists.