What is a concrete essay?

Intrigued by unconventional storytelling structures? The concrete essay is an example of what can happen in the space between creative nonfiction and visual art. A subgenre of the visual essay, the concrete essay has its roots in concrete poetry (which evolved out of shape poetry). As it turns out, shape or pattern poems go back a very long way. It’s thought that pattern poetry may originate as far back as ancient Greek pictographs. Concrete poems got their name from Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky’s 1914 “ferro-concrete” poetry collection, Tango with Cows. The effect of Kamensky’s spatial arrangement of words in poems like “Constantinople” add structural weight to the poems — like the concrete molds his poems are named for.

Early concrete poems

The concrete essay evolved from concrete poetry

“Easter Wings” by George Herbert, 1633.

Some of the earliest dated pattern poems are attributed to 17th century Welsh poet, George Herbert. Herbert published his book of devotional pattern poems called The Temple in 1633. Typographic formalists like Herbert recognized that a poem isn’t limited to communicating with a reader by the words alone. Rather, a poem can also communicate structurally, by its form. As demonstrated in Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, a poem’s shape can powerfully reinforce the poem’s message. Likewise, the concrete essay’s power is amplified when the author communicates to the reader in two ways: textually and visually.

Concrete essay examples

Concrete essays pack the same one-two punch as pattern poetry. Memorable examples of the form include Jennifer Wortman’s “Worst Case Scenario“, “Vide” by Sarah Minor, and Amaris Ketcham’s “Recorded Lightning”. “Worst Case Scenario” both shows and tells about the day the author’s husband plunged into a gap while rock climbing. The text is formatted in two side by side hills that portray the rocks Wortman’s partner survived falling through. In Ketcham’s prize-winning essay, “Recorded Lightning”, the text forms a single lightning strike down the page. This sample of Ketcham’s essay clearly shows the powerful impact a beautifully constructed concrete essay can make. In 2016 Ketcham’s stunning piece won Creative Nonfiction magazine’s “The Weather” contest.

Learn more about CNF’s visual forms

If you’d like to learn more about the concrete essay, be sure to download my free concrete essay mini-lesson.

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