Writing inventive poetry layout – e e cummings

e e Cummings famously wrote poetry with unusual page layouts, so it’s well worth looking at his work for options if you write poetry.  In this example, he uses brackets (or parentheses) to structure the poem.  There’s a good reading of the poem: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)” and then Nerdwriter shows us what’s going on in the structure.


Of course, in his day, the poet was using a typewriter, where there was a great deal of freedom with layout – as someone commented on this video, today’s word processors would try to correct idiosyncratic spellings, madeup words, and change lowercase “i” into “I” etc.

For any writers wanting to do something similar – and it is exciting to look at the structure on the page – it’s worth bearing in mind that it works because you look at the page as a reader.  On the other hand, if you only heard the poem, spoken, you would be unaware of the brackets on the page.  The general rule of thumb is that yes, you can play with the way the poem appears on the page, be innovative and creative – but it still has to work as a brilliant and interesting verbal expression, understandable if only heard.

e e Cummings decided as a child that he wanted to be a poet and wrote a poem every day between the ages of 8 and 22.  When he went to college (Harvard) he developed an interest in unusual forms and layouts.  But this was all growing from his 14 year apprenticeship of writing regularly.  In other words, solid grounding in the basics is excellent preparation for more unusual outcomes.

I’m intrigued, where can I find more

There’s a way of writing poetry which relies on inventive page layout, called concrete poetry.  In some cases, this crosses over into graphic design or typography – if you’d like to see more examples, then google concrete poetry, or look at one of its more famous exponents, the Scottish poet Edwin Muir.  Another Scottish poet famous for involving shape, layout and graphic meaning was Ian Hamilton Finlay.  He went to the extent of basing his large garden on poetry in stone lettering, ideas and words upon many surfaces.  (The poet suffered much of his life from a phobia of leaving his homespace.) You can read my previous blog posts about my poetry pilgrimage to his garden/house Little Sparta and see a video of an artist, Graham Rich, with whom he carried on a lifetime’s artistic friendly correspondence here.

More information on concrete poetry can be found online at: poetry.org, visual examples in the Guardian, and a very well known poem by George Herbert where if you turn the page through 90 degrees, you see a visual example of the shape of the lines reflecting the content of the poem.


Augusto de Campos
Open (Abre), 1969, by Augusto de Campos, Julio Plaza. From Poemobiles (São Paulo: ed de autor, 1974)

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