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In typography, rivers, or rivers of white, are gaps in typesetting, which appear to run through a paragraph of text, due to a coincidental alignment of spaces. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_(typography))

I was looking for examples of poetry that took advantage of this kind of phenomenon in typography. But in general, one could argue that any poem with unusual text alignment or disposition plays with typography, so to narrow it down I'd specify that the text:

  • every line must be aligned left or justified
  • must preserve its layout in (or be designed specifically for) monospaced typefaces

Is there a general category for this kind of work? I'm struggling to find a single example of such text, so it would help me to narrow down my search.

  • No one seriously uses monospaced typefaces for anything — except for a small blip in say the 60s or 80s, after good (hot-metal) typography went away, and before digital typography started to take its place. – ShreevatsaR Aug 16 '18 at 6:57
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John Hollander describes poems of this type as pattern poems or shaped verse in his book Types of Shape. Here's a useful quote from the backcover of the book:

This book is a collection of pattern poems - poems whose printed format presents a picture of some familiar object that is also the subject of the text. Patterned poems, also called shaped verse, are part of a long tradition that extends from Alexandrian Greek poets to Lewis Carroll and beyond. The poems in this book, written by the poet John Hollander, are on subjects ranging from a beach umbrella and a popsicle to time, love and idea. First published in 1969, the book has now been expanded to include ten recent poems in addition to the original 25, plus an introduction in which Hollander reflects on what a shaped poem is and how and why he wrote them. There are also explanatory comments for each poem.

However, note that in creating his pattern poems Hollander only occasionally holds his shapes to your first requirement of 'left alignment.'

In other work, Hollander deprecatingly describes 'left aligned' poetry as jagged edge.

  • Technopaignia is the word Hollander uses to describe his poems, discussed and reviewed here... Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.61 Christine Luz, Technopaignia, Formspiele in der griechischen Dichtung. Mnemosyne supplements 324. Leiden/Boston:... – DJohnson Aug 19 '18 at 11:58
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The best-known type of poetry that plays with text alignment is concrete poetry. The term was coined in the 1950s (Meid: 468) and should not be confused with visual poetry (Knörrich: 121).

The Swiss poet Eugen Gomrigner was probably the first to write some sort of theory of concrete poetry, although he used the term "Konstellation" (in 1953, and in his 1954 Manifest Vom Vers zur Konstellation. The Swedish poet Öyvind Fahlström possibly coined the term "concrete poetry" in 1953 in his work Hätila ragulpr på fåtskliaben, which wasn't published until 1968 (Meid: 468).

Before I started researching my answer, the oldest examples of concrete poetry I knew of were Easter Wings and The Altar by George Herbert. However, several sources, e.g. "Concrete Poetry" on the Zemni Book Design site mention examples from Greek antiquity: several examples by Simnias of Rhodes and Pan Pipes by Theocritus.

Offline sources:

  • Knörrich, Otto: Lexikon lyrischer Formen. Second edition. Stuttgart: Kröner, 2005.
  • Meid, Volker (ed.): Sachlexikon Literatur. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992/1993.
  • von Wilpert, Gero: Sachwörterbuch der Literatur. Eighth edition. Stuttgart: Kröner, 2001.

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