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Can writing short poems make us better poets?

Karen McCarthy Woolf’s point about short poems not winning competitions makes me ask, why not?  Do judges somehow feel short-changed, reckoning that poets don’t put as much work into writing a short poem as a long one?  I don’t think this is true – a short poem where every word counts is just as likely to have uncertainties, weaknesses that need working on as a .longer poem.  But I suspect it’s what most judges feel deep down and it’s a prejudice that will continue.  In this case Magma’s new poetry competition is long overdue, joining the Plough Poetry Prize with a competition which poems up to 10 lines will definitely win.

I’ve been trying to think what makes a really short poem good and, at first, there seems no answer – great short poems are as varied as longer ones.  When the Magma team decided on the 10 line limit, we thought of some famous short poems – Blake’s The Sick Rose, Wordsworth’s A slumber did my spirit seal, Herrick’s Upon Julia’s Clothes which Eavan Boland had written brilliantly about in Magma 48.  And we could all think of very short poems in recent collections which we’d enjoyed, though they tended to be exceptions among longer poems or arranged in sequences.

But perhaps there’s someone we can learn from.  I’ve been reading Ezra Pound again and I’m struck how, as with everything else he touched, he used short poems differently.  He used them not only to break with 19th century romantic style and with regular form, but above all he used them to teach himself to write more intensely.  His first collections have poems of various lengths but in Lustra (1915), the collection where Pound’s own voice really comes through, most of the 76 poems are short, between 2 and 20 lines, and not a sonnet among them.  He had created Imagism in 1912, apparently in the tea room of the British Museum, and his best imagist poems appear in this collection, most famously In a Station of the Metro:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

which had taken him months to cut and cut from a longer poem, and Alba:

As cool as the pale wet leaves
of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.

These took courage in a culture without a tradition of very short poems like the haiku and perhaps because of this they are carefully worked:  using Metro in the title to draw attention to the French meaning of “apparition” – “appearance” would be simpler and duller; the sudden use of images from nature (Pound said “the natural object is always an adequate symbol”); the sound values, especially the alliteration in Alba and its varying vowel lengths; and the “crowd”/”bough” near-rhyme and use of “dawn” repeating the title to give finality (“alba” means dawn as well as a poem of separation by the coming of dawn).

Not all the short poems in Lustra are serious.  There are epigrams like The New Cake of Soap:

Lo, how it gleams and glistens in the sun
Like the cheek of a Chesterton.

and parodies like Papyrus:

Too long…

(in four words, the remnants of a 3000 year old poem by a young man in springtime missing, or being kept unsatisfied by, his girlfriend); and the mock meditation of Meditatio:

When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs
I am compelled to conclude
That man in the superior animal.

When I consider the curious habits of man
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.

These are written with a care that gradually became instinctive for Pound:  the alliteration in Soap, the sound repetitions in Papyrus, the latinate vocabulary of Meditatio (and its posh Latin title) tied together with insistent alliteration and contrasting with the Anglo-Saxon “dogs”, “man” and “puzzled” at the ends of lines.  Through all the many pages of the Cantos, the care for sound values that Pound learnt writing the short poems in Lustra never left him.

The best, like all Pound’s finest poetry, seem to be poised between a fierce appetite for the present and an equally fierce regret for the past; for example, Shop Girl:

For a moment she rested against me
Like a swallow half blown to the wall,
And they talk of Swinburne’s women,
And the shepherdess meeting with Guido.
And the harlots of Baudelaire.

Pound remembers erotic descriptions of women by other poets and dismisses them, but for me the poem lives by the sound qualities of the second line: “swallow”/“wall” rhyme visually, but “swallow”/”half blown” echo by sound, and “half” has a strange hiccup effect, perhaps mimicking the poet’s gasp as the girl rests against him.  With “blown” instead of “half blown” the poem would be far less worth reading.

Not all the poems are very short.  The Garden starts similarly to Shop Girl, becomes very different and can be said to have 10 lines.  Unfortunately none of the internet versions print it accurately, in three sections with the third and last lines broken.  But I’ll end with another very short poem.  Pound was the first poet to spend much of his time making versions of poems in other languages – French, Italian, Provençal, Anglo-Saxon among others – and by 1913 was developing an interest in Chinese poetry.  Fan-Piece, For Her Imperial Lord is original, not an imitation – an early attempt at a haiku without being hung up on numbers of syllables:

O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.

The speaker, it becomes clear, is a discarded concubine.  She is writing this poem on a fan, perhaps hoping her lord will read it if she leaves it lying about and know her regret at being passed over.  Like many great poems, this works by implications we only gradually become aware of:  the silk, the frost and the woman are all white (in Asia as in Europe, beautiful women were white-skinned, artificially if necessary); the silk, the grass and the woman are wild things that have been cultivated, but only the silk and the frost are cold.  In a poem almost wholly of monosyllables, regret is carried by the cadence of “aside” after the full rhyme of “blade” and “laid”.

Would poems like these win a competition?  They would deserve to, but judges’ reluctance to award prizes to very short poems is likely to continue.  Still, in Magma’s short poem competition, judged by five recent editors, poems of this kind of intensity, with sound values that help create the poem’s meaning, are likely to stand a good chance.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. In the immortal words of ???? (some say Mark Twain but I’m not certain)… “If I’d have had more time, I’ve have written a shorter letter.

    A short poem can be so difficult to do well. Great that ‘short poem’ categories and prizes are now offered.

    Even Carol Ann Duffy suggested that Twitter would make poets of us all, with its 140 character limit. Personally, I’ve found Twitter has been great for my writing.

    Short blog posts are good too. Check out Seth Godin’s blog for the master of the succinctly marvellous –

  2. Writing short poems, such as haiku, senryu and tanka, is very difficult but it indeed makes one a better poet. One learns to practice economy, and make newer images with objectivity and honesty of expression and meaningfulness in whatever one wishes to communicate in ‘regular’ poems.
    But if one becomes a slave to the form, the poetry of the poem may diminish and it is badly reflected in ones regular poems too.


  3. Via Google:

    “I have made this letter longer than usual,
    because I lack the time to make it short”
    — Blaise Pascal, ‘Letters Provinciales’ (1657)

    the quotation is from Pascal’s “Lettres Provinciales”, Letter XVI and reads as follows:
    “Mes Reverends Peres, mes lettres n’avaient pas accoutume de se suivre de si pres, ni d’etre si etendues. Le peu de temps que j’ai eu a ete cause de l’un et de l’autre. Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”
    ~according to Ian M. Richmond, Department of French, University of Western Ontario

  4. I do so agree with R K Singh – one should not be a slave to form – a poem should be a free spirit not something hammered into a frame – or laced up like a boot so as to pinch your toes.

  5. Short poems pinch no toes – rather are they wise, with every syllable making its mark.

    The older I get, the less inclined am I plunge into those interminable outpourings that some poets feel obliged to give us – wrapping a simple thought in umpteen layers of obscurity. Say what must be said, then stop.

  6. I recently reduced a dubious 36 line poem down to 4. Much more satisfying than chucking it away. It took a few weeks, tho, to realise what I needed to do.

  7. Both for the meticulous writer and ardent reader, short poems play a vital part,
    for not only short poems save our precious time, also prove much can be
    quickly and efficiently absorbed through short poems. An attempt at short poems
    reveal in fact more patience and care is required on the part of the writer,
    for he has to chisel every word and meaning in limited allocated space.
    Short and sweet is a delectable quality.

  8. So, we are nearly all in agreement that writing a short poem shows a thoughtful, careful monitoring of words, a succinct short poem hits the spot like a bite of chilli, better than crunching through a stick of celery.

    Also more memorable and repeatable. I have tried many different forms, it certainly sharpens my pencil!

    More short poem competitions please!

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