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A short piece on the short poem

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)






This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. I write many short poems, but usually only submit them as part of a collection.
    Individually, the entry fee generally incites me to submit longer work, to justify the expense!

  2. Great article, Karen, and I agree that there is space (of course!) for the short poem. I often find that a short poem is the mark of a confident poet who knew when to stop. Perhaps we tend to think ‘goodness, that can’t be IT?’ when six or seven lines say all that we need to say, and so we stuff in a bit of padding. The spare, short, deep poem has much to recommend it.

  3. I hardly ever write long poems, maybe because I don’t like reading long poems. Often the length puts me off and my concentration slips after more than 20 lines. because they don’t hold me. Perhaps its just a preference like everything else in life.

  4. Helpful and interesting, thank you. How about this? :–

    Manning, Frederic, 1882-1935
    Grotesque (written 1917)

    These are the damned circles Dante trod,
    Terrible in hopelessness,
    But even skulls have their humour,
    An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
    And we,
    Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
    That murks our foul, damp billet,
    Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
    As a choir of frogs
    In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.

    and this:

    On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness
    Arthur Guiterman

    The tusks which clashed in mighty brawls
    Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.

    The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,
    Was feared by all, is now a rug.

    Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf,
    And I don’t feel so well myself.

  5. Thank you for this interesting article – I enjoy struggling with the art of compression – and get bored with poems of the ‘never mind the quality feel the width variety’ – preferring to read a good book. But, of course, ten lines can spread right across the page – and that can be tedious too.

    The Plough Prize includes a short poem entry – I’ve been on the long list twice – but The Delinquent published my best one!! Angela

  6. I assume ‘under 10 lines’ means ‘to a 10-line limit.’

    It doesn’t, of course.

    Poetic licence?

  7. I’ve long found this a strange paradox because, as a reader, I’m drawn to shorter poems, and I think it’s based purely on aesthetics. A small nugget of text, a simple block of words, is a visually attractive thing for me, whereas long columns spanning pages tends to make me wince a little. But, when writing poems, if the piece comes to as little as 10 lines or less, I can’t trust it’s enough to fully convey the point, I feel compelled to elaborate. I suppose we must learn to trust our abilities and not overstay the welcome.

  8. Great to hear it for the short poem. I must look out for that Faber anthology. It must include Herrick’s “Whenas in silks…”

    Michael Longley is a master of the short poem. His most renowned is probably ‘Terezin’:


    No room has ever been as silent as the room
    Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.

    (from Gorse Fires)

  9. I think there may be a tendency among judges to equate “short” with “slight”. Plus, of course, a weak line that might be excused in a long poem stands out terribly in a short one. Paul Muldoon is great at writing short but not slight, IMO.

  10. Emily Dickinson didn’t need to write verses and verses to pack a punch.

    In my experience short poems are (almost) always better received at poetry readings (another good reason for writing them).

    Didn’t Philip Larkin say he didn’t read any poems that went over the page?

    Below is the poem on the underground poster which fits nicely above my desk (another good reason for the short poem):

    My Voice

    I come from a distant land
    with a foreign knapsack on my back
    with a silenced song on my lips

    As I travelled down the river of my life
    I saw my voice
    (like Jonah)
    swallowed by a whale

    And my very life lived in my voice.

    Partaw Naderi

  11. Thanks to everyone for all your comments and additions to this piece. I’ll be intrigued to see whether the short poem does start to make its mark within standard categories in competitions in the future and await the Magma results with interest.

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