How short can a poem be, if it is to remain a poem? There are poems with no content, only titles, such as Don Paterson’s ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’, and James Wright’s ‘In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems’. But often the combination of brevity / levity falls far short of the mark set by the best comedians: Woody Allen’s ‘Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it’, or Groucho Marx’s delightfully surreal: ‘Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.’
Jokes and postmodern gestures aside, essentially very short poems are not that different from other kinds; they work or fail for much the same reasons longer poems do. So a short poem, like any other, isn’t a poem when it is only a set-up for a punch line or statement that would be better served in prose. But what should one make of the following?
Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.
Note that line-break followed by a large indentation, an elegant way of altering the rhythm. Some would dispute that T.E. Hulme’s couplet is a poem. According to James Fenton, it ‘is vulnerable to the objection that it is a good line for a poem, not a good poem in itself.’ I think it is a poem (and so did Larkin apparently, who included it in his Oxford anthology). For me, it manages a kind of cinematic, reverse-time-lapse effect, running history backwards, undressing all those gaunt, respectable old houses we’ve seen and wondered about, leaving civilisation without its facade but with a cocky, human note.
Deliberately or not, a couplet by Yvonne Cullen offers a contemporary riff:
One bird flies through a scaffolding quickly
Where am I? Who am I really?
When very short poems work they can trigger, to borrow Tobias Wolff ’s phrase, ‘synaptic lightning’, allowing the reader to enter a space as startlingly expansive as the interior of Dr. Who’s Tardis. Pound has some fine examples, such as ‘And the days are not full enough’:
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass
The kind of short poems that interest me are usually those with strikingly effective imagery, though there are exceptions, such as George Oppen’s ‘Semantic’:
There is that one word
Which one must
Define for oneself,
the word Us.
D.H. Lawrence wrote some remarkable short lyrics. The first paragraph of his introduction to his 1929 book, Pansies, is worth quoting from:
These poems are called ‘Pansies’ because they are rather ‘Pensées’ than anything else. Pascal or La Bruyère wrote their ‘Pensées’ in prose, but it has always seemed to me that a real thought, a single thought, not an argument, can only exist easily in verse, or in some poetic form. There is a didactic element about prose thoughts which makes them repellent, slightly bullying…
The weaker poems in Pansies (and in Lawrence’s Complete Poems) are probably true enough to their time, though hardly less didactic or bullying than equivalent prose thoughts. But the best of Lawrence’s short poems, just a couple of handfuls, are more than casual thoughts; these are perpetually fresh, classics of the genre. Here are two examples:
The White Horse
The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.
Sea-weed sways and sways and swirls
as if swaying were its form of stillness;
and if it flushes against fierce rock
it slips over it as shadows do, without hurting itself.
Michael Longley is well known for having written some powerful micro-lyrics, such as the following:
No room has ever been as silent as the room
Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.
… to which another poet, Anthony Glavin, responded with this quatrain (from his unfinished sequence ‘Living In Hiroshima’):
More silent than all those hanging violins
Strung-out like a frozen bow-arm.
Amongst Seamus Heaney’s shorter lyrics are, to my mind, some of his most memorable poems, such as his take on Stephen Dedalus’s ‘walking into eternity’ in ‘The Strand’:
The dotted line my father’s ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away.
Longley once told Paul Muldoon that he wanted to write ‘wee poems that move people.’ ‘Believe it or not,’ Muldoon responded, ‘I do too.’ ‘Cradle Song For Asher’ (Muldoon’s son) certainly achieves this:
When they cut your birth cord yesterday
it was I who drifted away.
Now I hear your name (in Hebrew, ‘blest’)
as yet another release of ballast
and see, beyond your wicker
gondola, camp-fires, cities, whole continents flicker.
I have not yet mentioned the haiku, which deserves an essay to itself. It’s a form at least as popular as the sonnet and has been reinvigorated by Michael Hartnett, Paddy Bushe, Gabriel Rosenstock and countless other contemporary poets who continue to be obsessed with making less more. The ‘traditional’ syllabic 5/7/5 haiku may be rejected by many practitioners now but it’s an interesting shape to work with, a little signpost-shaped box with a gear-shift or ‘cutting word’ similar to the sonnet’s ‘turn’ or volta. George Szirtes has written (and tweeted) many haiku and other short poems. Twitter is another interestingly-shaped box which Conor O’Callaghan has also made use of, writing one tweet-sized poem a week for a year and publishing the sequence, as ‘The Pearl Works’, in his last collection, The Sun King.
To finish, here are two of my own micro-poems, the first from my 2010 collection Fade Street and the second from my forthcoming, Haunt:
Night, Wind, Dead Leaves
rattle and hiss, the sound so high
it is almost a whistle,
their bodying sigh
the air of something more palpable
than passing by.
The Rice Lady
While The Rice Lady can write
your name on a grain of rice,
has Everyone’s name on it.