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Visual Poetry: In The Eye Of The Beholder

Happy Poetry Month! To celebrate, we’re talking visual poems. Rather than offer you a definition of visual poetry, we thought we would give you an example:



Christmas Tree

Oh, Christmas Tree

How piney are those branches.

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree

How tree-like is your beauty! Dah dah

Dah dah

Dah dum.

Brilliant. We know. And glaringly original.

Many poets tackle visual poetry. While some poetry editors at literary journals LOVE visual poems, others are, shall we say, suspicious of them. Visual poems run the risk of being corny and trite. (Exhibit A: See poem above.) Great for Hallmark, maybe—but for a lit mag? Not so much.

Visual poems are REALLY hard to do well. Just like a poem that rhymes is hard to do well. Some poets tackling visual poems will find themselves sacrificing the music of a line for the shape of it or sacrificing the depth of an idea so that the tree has a trunk. There’s a very strong risk of a visual poem being cuter than an editor can handle.

That said, visual poems that are done well can be clever and playful, beautiful and moving. But how can a poet tell the difference?

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Here are our visual poetry tips.

  1. After you write your visual poem, try taking it apart. If it is an incredible poem even when it loses its shape, you’re in the running for penning a profound visual poem.
  2. Is your visual poem unique? Confession: We’re not exactly the first people on the planet to think of writing a poem that looks like a tree. The shape you choose must be recognizable but also unique.
  3. Is your formatting viable? In other words, if your visual poem includes more lines that can fit on one page at a literary journal, or if your poem ends up having more characters than can fit on the width of a page at a lit mag, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot.
  4. Is your visual poem annoying? Ask around. Take your visual poem to your creative writing group and get an honest opinion or five. If after your readers have read your poem they still have that look of happy surprise and enthusiasm on their faces, then you may have a winner. If they’re underwhelmed and begin referring to you as “Captain Obvious,” it may be time to revise. You want to make editors notice your poems for a good reason!
  5. greeting card poetryWould this poem look good on a greeting card? If yes, see this article: How To Submit Poems To Greeting Cards. If the answer is no, proceed to submit to lit mags.
  6. Be sure your format is going to translate. If you create a visual poem in a certain program, but then the editor who reads it opens it in a different program, it’s likely that the shape of the poem will be lost in translation. If an editor requires that you submit your visual poem pasted into the body of an email, you may want to write to the editor and ask to be an exception to the rule (ask to send an attachment, maybe a PDF) because, again, it’s likely that you’ll lose your formatting once you hit send.

So there you have it! Visual poems can be sooo much fun. Let your imagination go wild! Why not try a visual poem that looks like a mug, a music note, a knife?

Just be sure that you’re targeting your visual poem to the best suited literary journals for your particular poem…and if you’re not sure what that means, Writer’s Relief can help! We’ve been managing the submission process for our clients (creative writers) since 1994.

Writer Questions Visual poems: Love ’em or hate ’em? Have you ever tried writing a visual poem? Seen a really great visual poem? Tell us about your experience. 

6 Responses to Visual Poetry: In The Eye Of The Beholder

  1. As a poet, writer and studio/visual artist, I experimented with ways to blend those elements in a transcendental space that was evocative and carried a message. I added music (with permission) and introduced my new medium at a local coffee house event. I told the audience I had foudn a new medium: “visual poetry.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house:

  2. Dear Nina, thanks for the great question! A standard to go by is that usually 30-35 lines of 12-point Times New Roman text (after your contact info and title) can fit on an 8.5×11 page. However, literary magazines come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s difficult to suggest a specific line count before you decide to create a page break. Using Times New Roman font is an acceptable standard. Unless the guidelines state otherwise, we don’t think you should worry about it too much at the submitting stage. If you’re accepted for publication and have to work with a journal’s specific parameters, then we recommend that you be sure the editors send you galleys before it gets posted online or goes to print.

  3. I’m a little late to the convo here, but…
    I wrote a tongue-in-cheek shape poem but am uncertain just how many lines should be the maximum before printing would split the shape? At 12 font, how many lines does a lit mag prefer on a page? They don’t include that info. in submission guidelines.

  4. Personally, I think poems that rhyme or are visual tend to be corny; that’s not to say that some poet out there can’t write one that might change my mind.

  5. Not a fan! Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen one that didn’t look cheesy. Where’s the visual poem that looks like a knife?!?

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