How to Create Calligram Poetry: Surrealism Art Interdisciplinary Lesson Plan

What is a Calligram poem?

A calligram is a word or piece of text in which the design and layout of the letters creates a visual image related to the meaning of the words themselves.

Simias Son of Acmon Greek patter poetry
Simias, “Son of Acmon”

Some of the earliest known examples of calligrams date back to the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece. From the very beginning, calligrams had a playful connotation, as they were called technopaegnia, quite literally translated to “art games”. 

Calligram is a kind of poetry that is meant to be both read and admired. For this reason, it falls within the modern practices of  Visual poetry, Concrete Poetry, and Experimental Poetry.

Guillaume Apollinaire Calligram Concrete poetry
Guillaume Apollinaire

By the 20th, calligrams had become even more free in their forms. This is partly due to new achievements in typewriting and printing, which allowed for more extravagant compositions.

Poet Guillaume Apollinaire famously played with calligrams: his anthology, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916, is one of the most famous examples of the style and deeply influenced Futurist, Cubist, and Surrealist poetry.

Calligrams were particularly popular in Hispanic Literature: poets Guillermo de Torre, Gerardo Diego, Juan José Tablada, Oliverio GGirondo, Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, Joan Brossa among others, all produced poems in this style.

Lewis Carroll’s The Mouse’s Tale, Alice in Wonderland


Calligrams in other cultures: Islamic Calligraphy

Calligraphic composition in the form of a lion – Ahmed Hilmi – Ink and watercolour on paper – Ottoman Turkey 1913Calligraphic composition in the form of a lion – Ahmed Hilmi – Ink and watercolour on paper – Ottoman Turkey 1913
Calligraphic composition in the form of a lion – Ahmed Hilmi – Ink and watercolor on paper – Ottoman Turkey 1913 via Brewminate

In Islamic culture (which includes Arabs, Ottomans, and Persian culture), calligraphy evolved from writing style to a representative medium in itself.

There are multiple reasons why calligraphy became so important in Islamic culture. Is a well-known fact that Islamic art is traditionally aniconic (meaning that it refrains from representing sentient beings, as the creation of life is believed to be prerogative of God),  instead favoring abstract and symbolic representation. However, the other important reason behind the popularity of calligraphy is the importance of the written text and the notion of writing in Islamic culture.

This two factors combined, favored the stylization of the written word as a decorative motif in itself: words didn’t just have an expressive function, but became aesthetic elements as well.

Ayet El-Korsy (The Throne Verse) from the holy Quran drawn with Arabic Calligraphy in a horse shape
Ayet El-Korsy (The Throne Verse) from the holy Quran drawn with Arabic Calligraphy in a horse shape – photo courtesy of flickr via Egypttoday

Most Islamic calligrams are Quran’s verses and used as motifs to decorate architecture, coins, or waved to embellish precious silks.

These Muslim silks were so precious, that even European crusaders would bring them back to Europe as prized possessions and exhibit them in religious settings.

Roof_of_Frere_Hall
Roof of Frere Hall, Haruffiyya Art

In the post-colonial era, calligraphy became a mean for Islamic artists to find their own identity and voice within the international art scene. Art movements such as the Hurufiyya movementand Calligraffiti art, have become one of the most important media for local artists to reclaim their regions while preserving their culture and traditions.

Perception Egypt Elseed calligraffiti work
“Perception” Egypt, eLseed

Calligrams in the modern sense: Logo Design

Calligrams are still used today in graphic design, to embed layers of meaning into brand logos.

Here are a few examples:

Le Tour de france
Le Tour de France

Can you find the cyclist?

LG logo
LG

What do you recognize in this logo?

TOYOTA
TOYOTA

Can you identify the TOYOTA letters in the logo? Check here

Code fish logo
CodeFish

How does the image relate to the brand?

London Symphony Orchestra logo
London Symphony Orchestra

Can you read it? Do you see the director holding the baton?

Can you think of other contemporary examples of calligrams?


How to adapt this lesson to different age groups:

Throughout the years, I have adapted this lesson to students as little as pre-k, all the way to high schoolers.

Depending on the age and the level of literacy, the focus can be switched between art and design, or creative writing and poetry.

  • Lower grade students can create calligrams by arranging letters into forms, or by practicing their writing along pre-drawn lines and shapes.
  • Older students can create their own poem visual arrangements, which can be even further developed into original artworks in calligraffiti or Hurufiyya style.
  • In design class, students can develop creative calligrams logos. See some examples here.

How to Create Calligram Poetry: Surrealism Art Interdisciplinary Lesson Plan


“I am” Identity Calligram

Oliverio Girondo Espantapajaros


“Letterscape” Calligram Art

Biggest Calligram in the World, part of the permanent exhibition of the Valencian Museum of Ethnology.


Concrete Poetry Art Exploration

Guillaume_Apollinaire_-_Calligramme_-_La_Colombe_poignardée_et_le_Jet_d’eau
Guillaume_Apollinaire_-_Calligramme_-_La_Colombe_poignardée_et_le_Jet_d’eau

Creative Writing Calligram Project and Art Collage

Futurist poetry Marinetti Calligram
via Didatticarte  

Digital Calligram Art 

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