The Poetics of Design, part 2: FORM

Part 2 in a serialized discussion.

As I mentioned when this discussion began, the FORM of a poem is, in its basest sense, the space a poem occupies. Because, like film, poetry is a time-elapsed art and a visual art, the space a poem takes is mutable. We most often conceive of poetic form in its visual sense: the way a poem looks on the page, the length of its lines as perceived as a collective whole, whether or not lines begin with capital letters, where stanza breaks fall or do not fall, etc.

The visual form of the poem has visual weight and is only perceptable because it is the opposite of the space it occupies: it is not white space. Therefore, a poem has to forms: a positive form (in which the text appears as an occupant of space) and a negative space (all areas of a given page which are NOT text, which surround the text).

Obviously, the privileging of visual form over all other elements of the poem is taken to the extreme by concrete poetry, poetry which creates significant meaning through its form, meaning which complicates, illustrates, or expands on the meaning of the text. Poets signify an understanding of form when they play with the space a poem’s text occupies on the page and inextricably links the way a poem looks to the principles of design.

A poem when read also occupies space. The sound a poem makes disrupts the “blank page” on which it appears: it disrupts silence. The spoken sounds of words, elapsing over time as they must in order to create meaning, fill silence. And, like visual form, aural forms of poetry involve a sort of negative space. From the smallest perspective, the pauses between words occupy a negative poetic space—it is actually only by virtue of that negative space existing that any spoken meaning can occur. Like the visual negative space that surrounds, or creates, the readable text, the tension between silence and speech is the cornerstone to its aural form.


  1. Regarding the sound-form of a poem: I would also add that tone has just as much to do with the form of the poem. The same poem can be read by two separate people and sound like two different poems. I saw this as a major point of contention coming from a performance (slam) poetry background into an academic (MFA) poetic space. I think there's a lot more to say about this topic--thanks for beginning it!

  2. Funny, Charles, I just posted something on my blog about oral (viz. aural) vs. visual in poetry as different "media" ... broaching the topic from a slightly different perspective. If you haven't done so yet, check out the Factory School Digital Archive. Recordings of many well-known poets. Link is on my blog. Ciao for now. Enjoyed your post. Back to blank page silence...

  3. Sue: I think you're totally right! There are so many different ways to read a poem aloud—thanks for offering that perspective. :)

    Brian: I'll definitely check out the link: thanks! :)