Concrete Poetry as a Mode of Research-Creation

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a series on Arts-Based Research in the Anthropocene edited by Amrita DasGupta 

Author’s note: As a visual artist, environmentalist, and animal advocate, I find that a picture – once thought worth a thousand words – sometimes needs some words to hit home. Concrete Poetry, first conceived in the 1950s, is an artform that combines the power of language with visual representation. It is particularly useful in drawing analogies that aid understanding the world. I use concrete poetry to explore the materiality of nature: the altered landscape, the loss of species, and the overarching politics of climate change. I have recently started using concrete poetry, an artform that combines the power of language with visual representation, to explore the complexities of the Anthropocene.

Since 2011, working in and out of academia, my hybrid artistic practice has combined interdisciplinary research and art creation. I get an idea for a project in response to an issue that disturbs or intrigues me. I do some preliminary research and consider possible art interventions within my range of media and capability. If I want to proceed, I scope out the project so I am ready to start when time and resources permit. Once in progress, the project evolves and new creative ideas emerge. As the project draws to a close, I time completion with an exhibition or, at minimum, a blog post on one of my websites.1  Over the years, I have exhibited my work in a number of exhibitions, written essays, and given talks at conferences explaining my art-science projects.

I first encountered “concrete poetry” at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference on the climate emergency in 2021. I understood it to be poetry in which the visual form augments or sometimes supplants the linguistic meaning.2  

On doing further research I learned that concrete poetry is usually associated with the international Concrete Poetry Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The movement emerged from the work of Eugen Gomringer of Switzerland and the Brazilian Noigandres group, and quickly spread around the world.3

Although the Concrete Poetry Movement lost its momentum by the 1970s, its legacy and influence continue. A number of authors have written about the Concrete Poetry Movement, including Jamie Hilder, Stephen Scobie, and Greg Thomas.4 Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe in The New Concrete: Poetry in the 21st Century provide a survey of concrete poetry in the digital age. They illustrate how access to digital text, image, video, and self-publishing technologies, as well as the “cut-and-paste culture of the Web” have invigorated contemporary artists and poets working at the intersection of visual art and literature.5

Typically, concrete poets work with the visual power of the page that results from the shape and placement of typographical elements vis-à-vis the whitespace. Applying the notion of concrete to any artform acknowledges its materiality and how that materiality informs its function and meaning. Although I personally find some concrete poetry/art limited to novel graphics, I believe that a focus on the material can be extended to analogies that aid in understanding the materiality of the altered landscape, the loss of species, and the overarching politics of climate change.

My first foray into concrete poetry was a work of structured text called “Horizon is…,” which comprises 140 lines of verse of varying length, each starting with the words “horizon is” (Figure 1a). When turned on its side, the text mimics the cross-section of a river. When read with a computer-generated voice, it became the soundtrack for my 2021 video Horizon Lost and Found.6 Horizon Lost and Found is a time-lapse video made with fifteen months of daily photographs of the Ottawa River shoreline across Britannia Bay, taken as part of my “pandemic ritual” in 2020 and 2021. Together, the visuals and soundtrack convey growing awareness and concern for climate change as an event horizon – a point of no return. I also used the shaped text in creating the poster frame for the video (Figure 1b).

Figure 1a: “Horizon is…” as structured text. Image created by Author
Figure 1b: “Horizon is…” as a poster frame for the video Horizons Lost and Found. Image Created by author.

In 2022, I was researching the extirpation of the American Eel in the Ottawa River Watershed. I created a number of artworks, but I discovered that most people knew nothing about eels and did not see the environmental issue. That frustration drew me to write “Elegy for the Silver Eel,” which recounts an eel’s lifecycle and the existential threat posed by hydroelectric dams and generating stations. This year I “sculpted” the verse into its current form when I hand-typeset and printed the poem at the Carleton University Book Arts Lab (Figures 2a and 2b).

Figure 2a: The printed concrete poem “Elegy for the Silver Eel”. Image created by  author.
Figure 2b: The typeset concrete poem “Elegy for the Silver Eel.” Image created by author.

In my most recent poem I wanted to write about the Ordovician limestone that underlies Ottawa and is exposed along the course of the Ottawa River. In “Ode to Ordovician Limestone,” I intertwine perceptions of deep geologic time with my present day experience of place. While versification was challenging, it was easy to use word-processing techniques to mimic the layers of limestone to make the piece more visually interesting and representative of the geologic layering of the bedrock (Figure 3).

Figure 3: “Ode to Ordovician Limestone” using shading to signify the layers of grey limestone. Image created by the author.

On reflection, I see concrete poetry following the arc of the Anthropocene. The Concrete Poetry Movement evolved at the outset of the Anthropocene in the mid 20th century – the heady days of communications innovation, globalization, and the promise of economic prosperity for all.

Today we are at the other end of the arc with the once-promising economic and technological advancements now the very forces driving climate change and ecosystem collapse. Even the word “concrete” is ironic. Concrete constitutes the single biggest category of anthropogenic material on Earth. 7 But less than 75 years ago, concrete “carried within it the potential for new forms and possibilities, especially in the discourse surrounding modern architecture.” 8 This audacity of form is typified in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and completed in 1959. And it is with this same audacious hope that I turn to concrete poetry in my art practice to open a space for sharing and imagining new possibilities for life in the Anthropocene.


1 I maintain two public websites: my Artist website which holds content related to art, art history, urban ecology, and climate change, including my recent work on eels and concrete poetry; and Art That Makes A Difference which contains work on animals in art, industrial animal agriculture, and my current work on regenerative agriculture.

2 Michael Hewson, “A picture paints a policy change,” presented at ASLE Emergence/Y Conference July 26 to August 6, 2021 (my notes and personal correspondence). 

3 J. Bray, “Concrete Poetry and Prose,” in The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, eds. J Bray, A Gibbons & B McHale (Routledge, 2012), 1-2.

4 Jamie Hilder, Designed Words for a Designed World: The International Concrete Poetry Movement, 1955-1971 (Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016); Stephen Scobie, Earthquakes and Exploration: Language and Painting from Cubism to Concrete Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); and Greg Thomas, Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019).

5 Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe (eds), The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (London: Hayward Publishing, 2015), 15.

6 Beth Shepherd, “Shoreline Lost and Found,” YouTube video, 2021,

7 Richard Fisher and Javier Hirschfeld, “Concrete: The material that’s ‘too vast to imagine’”, BBC Future, June 28, 2021.

8 Hilder, Designed Words for a Designed World, 107.

Feature Image: Concrete Poetry as a Mode of Research-Creation. Image is created by the author
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Beth Shepherd is a white settler living and learning in Ottawa on traditional Anishinaabe territory where she is a visual artist, environmentalist, and animal advocate. After a career in business and technology, she reinvented herself as an artist, taking studio art courses and studying art history at Carleton University, which culminated in a master’s degree in 2020. Also holding degrees in psychology and biology, she undertakes interdisciplinary art-research projects that are provocations to industrialized and consumerist systems. These projects address industrialized animal agriculture, the urban water system, environmental degradation and diversity loss, climate change, and currently, regenerative agriculture.

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