1. A short piece on the short poem

    Written by Karen McCarthy Woolf at 9:03 am

    I am going to start this article with a statistic. No poem under 10 lines has won the National Poetry Competition since (online) records began in 1978! The website shows winning poems only prior to 2000, but between 2001-2010 you can see all the shortlisted poems and only a handful of them were under 14 lines and none under 10 lines. The shortest is Frank Ortega’s eleven line poem Searching for An Affordable Crossbow which was commended in 2009.

    I use the National as an example, as they keep very comprehensive records online, but this trend bears out. Mslexia shows the last seven years with no short poem winners, while the Cardiff International Poetry Competition offers the exception in 2001-2 with Joan Newmann’s commended Carrageen Mousse and the Boy from Nepal which surely must have been a contender for the title alone.

    So, the short poem has been overlooked – although of course these figures don’t necessarily mean we’re not writing short poems; I expect, rather, they indicate just how fiendishly hard it is to write a good one. The short poem must achieve all the resonance and reach of a longer poem, but do so with more concision. All its strengths and faults are the more visible in brevity.

    I’m delighted therefore that Magma’s new poetry competition will include a special editors’ category for short poemsof up to 10 lines. It will be interesting to see how the short form fares when competing within its own parameters.

    The 10-line limit separates the short poem from even the most curtailed sonnet, although to my mind it’s less a question of if the poem turns, as to when the turn takes place.

    Poets interested in innovating with form would do well to read Roddy Lumsden’s 8-line ‘ripple’ poems in his latest collection, Terrific Melancholy (Bloodaxe,2011) which are divided into four-line stanzas, some with enjambed verse breaks that make for a subtle and sinuous shift at the halfway mark. He says of them:  ‘They are by nature very distilled, curious little poems – the rules lead you places and you have to struggle to take control and keep them on subject.’

    Personally, I’m always pleased to see short poems as they occur in a collection. The white space around the poem gives it a presence and self-containment, and interleaved between longer pieces they offer a breathing space. This is certainly the case in Leontia Flynn’s  excellent Profit and Loss (Cape, 2011), which has a number of 10-line poems, split in half, with the ‘turn’ occurring at the midway point.

    I also found them to be intense, enigmatic and cinematic, as in The Dodgy Porch Light, where the ending bristles with a slightly sinister energy:

    ‘The porch light flicks and fizzes when you pass.

    A shadow stiffens when you turn your head.’

    Intensity is a factor that characterizes the short poem. Think of Selima Hill, whose thematically linked collections are often comprised of short, image-rich poems that collectively contain a complex cast of characters and relationships. Geese, ducks, brown bears and poodles populate a world of lilac scented lawns, louche aunts, battling siblings and hospital corridors, all held together by a  syntax that is taut as a well-pegged tent.

    Moniza Alvi, has also consistently included short poems in her collections which succeed in their ability to effortlessly balance the miniscule with the profound. Charles Simic exemplifies these qualities in his potent two-liner Evening Chess:

    ‘The Black Queen raised high

    In my father’s angry hand.’

    I realise in writing this that I come to the short poem with an unconscious expectation of gravitas. Simon Armitage captures this in his introduction to the 1999 Faber anthology Short and Sweet: 101 Short Poems, where he says:

    ‘When reading through I was surprised by the very short pieces whose subject was death, and have come to wonder if this is because of the short poem’s relationship with the epitaph. Presumably more care is taken when words are to be inscribed by a chisel, when the author has less space to work in…’

    Short and Sweet is well worth a look as it offers a stylistic and historical overview of the short poem from John Donne’s A Burnt Ship through to Don Paterson’s minimalist masterstroke, On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him, where the title, fittingly, is the poem.  Wit and pathos find a good home in the short line poem, where single focus allows the punchline to do its work unencumbered by sub-plots and meanderings.

    Big themes and elemental motifs also lend themselves well to the small vessel, as in Paul Muldoon’s Ireland, Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice and Edward Thomas’ Snow. While the fleeting moment can be  captured and preserved within the tight frame of, say, a well cast haiku, I tend towards the idea that the haiku demands a separate category to itself as the short poem of short poems.

    In researching  this piece I turned to the spiritual home of all things short: Twitter. The poet John McCullough responded with two excellent two-liners:  Ezra Pound’s haiku-esque classic In a Station of the Metro: ‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;/Petals on a wet black bough.’ and Thom Gunn’s wry ‘Jamesian’: ‘Their relationship consisted/In discussing if it existed.’.

    Jo Shapcott was recently asked about the demise of the long poem on Radio  4’s Start the  Week and she said that far from having abandoned the long poem, contemporary poets were actually wri ting longer narratives in shorter forms via thematically linked sequences and collections. So the short poem can also be a free standing yet  integral part of a longer narrative.

    Inevitably, this piece cannot be exhaustive, but I hope it provides a brief introduction to some of the factors that drive the form and some starting points for further reading.

    Amongst my favourites is Douglas Dunn’s On Roofs of Terry Street, where a brief moment of illumination is brought to our attention via a builder’s trowel  which ‘catches the light and becomes precious’. It is this moment of transformation from the seemingly mundane to the extraordinary that I believe all poems, long or short, should seek to achieve.

    Karen McCarthy Woolf (Twitter@kmccarthywoolf)