At its best, poetry should both delight and teach. For decades, teachers have used shape poems, now often called theme poems, to introduce students to reading and writing poetry. While theme or shape poems are generally taught at the elementary and secondary levels, examples from canonical English poetry also exist.
A theme poem, also called a shape poem, concrete poem or visual poem, is defined by its content and its physical shape. The poem focuses on one concrete object, and the outline of the written poem looks like that object. Theme poems can also deal with an abstract idea, such as love, and form the outline of a physical object associated with that idea, such as a heart. Perhaps the best-known creator of these poems is the English poet George Herbert, who wrote “Easter Wings” and “The Altar” in the mid-17th century.
To create a theme or shape poem, writers generally begin by selecting a primary object or idea as the poem’s focus. They then trace an outline of that object, or an object related to the main idea, on paper. As they compose their poem on the topic, they divide the poem into lines that fit inside the shape’s borders. These poems may take several revisions before they approximate the shape of the object, pushing writers to think carefully about each word choice.
One variation on the theme poem is the perimeter poem, in which the text of the poem forms the shape of the object that the poem describes. For example, a poem about the moon might be written around the outside of a crescent, or a poem about writing might snake around an outline of the writer’s hand. These poems force writers to think about precise punctuation as well as word choice, since line breaks aren’t an option.
Teaching Theme Poems
Theme or shape poems can be valuable tools for teaching revision techniques as well as an appreciation for the constraints of poetic form, since the first drafts of theme poems won’t always fit nicely within the outlined shape. Students might also enjoy looking for “found” theme poems, paying attention to how words are formatted on everything from signs to advertisements. This exercise emphasizes the decision-making that underlies all written artifacts in a society.