Saturday, January 27, 2007

What One Note Holds: The Short Poem

How short can a poem be, if it is to remain a poem? The Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote a series of one-word poems (though the titles were often considerably longer). 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', or James Wright's 'In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems'.

I like those two, but often the 'litty' combination of brevity and levity falls far short of the mark set by the best comedians. Take Woody Allen's 'Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it' or 'I am at two with nature'. Then there's 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.'

Essentially, very short poems are not that different from other kinds; they work (or fail to work) 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, a sentimental platitude or a statement (political or otherwise) that would be better served in prose.

But what should one make of the following?


Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.

Some would dispute that T.E. Hulme's couplet is in fact a poem. I think it is (and so did Larkin apparently, who included it in his Oxford anthology). For me, the poem manages a kind of magic, a cinematic, reverse-time-lapse effect, running history backwards, undressing all those gaunt, respectable old houses we've seen and momentarily wondered about, leaving civilization without its facade, but with a cocky, human note, almost the air of a song. Hulme wrote little poetry (his Complete Poetical Works when it was published in The New Age in 1912 consisted of five poems); so it is remarkable that he is acknowledged as the founder of the Imagist Movement, which had such an important influence on Pound.

Many approximations of haiku, tanka, epigrams etc. have as much substance as soap bubbles, and none of the buoyancy. But when very short lyrics work they can trigger what Tobias Wolff might call '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 his '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 Oppen's 'There is the one word...'.

I've been reading Kuno Meyer's recently reissued 'Ancient Irish Poetry', which has a number of epigrams and short poems. Here's his translation of an anonymous poem from the 9th Century:


Bitter is the wind tonight.
It tosses the ocean's white hair.
Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea.

D.H. Lawrence wrote some memorable short lyrics. I took out my hefty Penguin edition of his Complete Poems, thinking I might discover many that were new to me (or that I had forgotten). I was a little disappointed to find only a few more short poems that held together for me, and to realise that many were rather dull. But I also came across some interesting things. The first paragraph of his introduction to his 1929 book, ‘Pansies’, is worth quoting:

“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… We don’t want to be nagged at.”

Indeed; few people desire to be nagged at, or to read nagging poems. Lawrence wrote some remarkable poetry, especially about animals and plants. But he had very definite, often irritable and dogmatic, ideas about many things. Too often, the short poems are bursts of invective, flak from some war he seemed to be engaged in with certain kinds of English women and men; many amount to little more than framed Opinions. He acknowledges as much himself in the second paragraph:

“So I should wish these ‘Pansies’ to be taken as thoughts rather than anything else; casual thoughts that are true while they are true and irrelevant when the mood and circumstance changes. I should like them to be as fleeting as pansies, which wilt so soon, and are so fascinating with their varied faces.”

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, and likely more pretentious. 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.

So here is my nosegay:


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.


Even the rainbow has a body
made of the drizzling rain
and is an architecture of glistening atoms
built up, built up
yet you can't lay your hand on it,
nay, not even your mind.


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.


Now that the night is here
A new thing comes to pass, eyes close
And the animals curl down on the dear earth, to sleep.
But the limbs of man long to fold and close upon the living body
of another human being
In shut-eyed touch.


There is nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart
like the eye of a violet.


A lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening
no doubt to the sounding of the spheres.
And what a dandy fellow! the right toss of a chin for you
and swirl of a tail!

If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they’d be worth looking at.


We don't exist unless we are deeply and sensually in touch
with that which can be touched but not known.


I like relativity and quantum theories
because I don't understand them
and they make me feel as if space shifted about like
a swan that can't settle,
refusing to sit still and be measured;
and as if the atom were an impulsive thing
always changing its mind.


The tiny fish enjoy themselves
in the sea.
Quick little splinters of life,
their little lives are fun to them
in the sea.

Contemporary poets continue to be fascinated with making less more. Longley is obsessed with the short, imagistic lyric, and has written some memorable ones, Mahon too, and Heaney ('The dotted line my father's ashplant made...'). Muldoon's CRADEL SONG FOR ASHER is perhaps one of the greatest short lyrics of the century.

I've already written in an earlier blog about my recently deceased friend Anthony Glavin, who spent a couple of decades working on a long sequence of stunning 4-line poems, 'Living In Hiroshima'. If you're interested in seeing just how much it is possible to pack into such a small form, click on my entry for December 2006 and scroll down.

Here are four of my own shorter poems, the first two, DREAM ON and LIGHTBOX, are from my new collection, ‘The Sky Road’ (due from Salmon in April 2007). A 'lightbox' (from which I took the name of my blog), also called a roofbox, is the name given to the rectangular stone fanlight above the entrance to Megalithic passage tombs at Newgrange and elsewhere, angled to allow the rays of the sun to penetrate to the heart of the tomb.

The third poem, VANISHING POINT, is from my first book, 'Airborne':


That little seal
of ownership, your fingerprint
on this mug of cold tea, after you're gone.


Everyone should have one
dark hub for the dull day’s orbit:

stoneshouldered wings
where you bury the bones

of belief, and the redfaced sun,
to gain entrance, turns

a skeleton key.


Simply staring
into the space ahead
is not enough; there is
the traffic of eyes to be met.


Everything tends
to its own ends.

And my own haiku joke:


Hash –

And finally, two from my recent collection, 'Fade Street', including my only one-line poem (or monostich):


rattle and hiss, the sound so high
it is almost a whistle,

their bodying sigh
the air of something more palpable

than passing by.


'Listen hard enough and you wake the dead.'


Andrew Shields said...

That Hulme poem is fabulous. Thanks for sharing it.

Mark Granier said...

Glad you like IMAGE Andrew. I was delighted to discover it myself, in Larkin's anthology; a rather surprising choice. No Pound of course, which was a pity. Hulme was the original Imagist. Since Larkin though IMAGE worth including in the Oxford book he might have recognised the excellence of Pound's shorter poems in a similar vein. But of course Pound was part of the Three Ps, that Black Art triangle of evil whose other main practitioners were Picasso and Parker. Does such demented categorising remind you of anyone? (hint: his name ain't Smart).

Andrew Shields said...

I think you are thinking of Albernmann? (To use his German name.)

Parker and Picasso with Pound? Na. Parker and Picasso, yes, but surely not Pound! :-)

Mark Granier said...

Ganz recht.

Ms Baroque said...

Thanks for this Mark, very interesting post. I love how short poems work but I've never been too good at writing them. I love that Lawrence one, which hasd much the same spirit (the zeitgeist, I guess) of the Pound - or his "I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun," which I loved to distraction for many years.

sean lysaght said...

Goethe was fond of the epigram. The epigram seems essentially more about well-put wisdom than the poetry of the existential moment, which is where I'd place many of your chosen shorts. Here's a piece by Goethe:

You love no-one Philarchos, yet you love me with such duress.
Have you no other way of conquering me than this?

Mark Granier said...

Good point Séan. I shouldn't have called KM's poem epigrammatic; it's really more of a short lyric. I'll change that now. A proper Irish epigram I've always remembered is the following, from Kinsella's An Dúnaire: 'The poet's are blamed / But it isn't their fault. / You get only the contents / Out of a pot.' Yes, epigrams serve the trenchant put-down very well. Goethe's lines remind me of some Greek epigrams I've read; very similar tone. Is it your translation? I googled and found it's one of his Venetian Epigrams. According to the Wikipedia the pithy phrase "Er kann mich im Arsche lecken" (He can lick my arse) comes from Goethe's play 'Götz von Berlichingen' (could well have been part of a Greek epigram).

sean lysaght said...

Yes, one of the Venetian Epigrams, translated by myself. Here's another that combines the wisdom-in-a-nutshell approach with the capture of a moment:
When I meet you today, you lick your lips, and keep walking.
Is your tongue trying to tell me you never stop talking?

michael crowe said...

I was looking for "Little Fish" to put on one of my blogs and came across your blog. Brilliant stuff. I'll be back for more of a rambling root around later.

William_Knott said...

your thoughts on the short poem are interesting and your examples (including your own) most fine . . .
do you know Robert Bly's anthology of short poems, "The Sea and the Honeycomb," in which a few of my earlier short poems appear. . . i've continued trying to write them over the decades, and have recently posted a collection of them on my blog ( . . .

Mark Granier said...

Thanks Michael and William. William, I am delighted you like the poems. Thanks for alerting me to Bly's book. I have at least one of his books of translations (of Transtromer), but not the anthology of short poems you mention. I have just ordered a s/h copy from Amazon. I have been reading and enjoying the short poems on your website, and will return to read more of them.

Dave King said...

I enjoyed Image and found the whole post absorbing. Still much to chew upon. When I was VERY small (can't recall exactly how small) I wrote a no content poem entitled On Taking My Penny Black Stamp into the Road to Show a Thief. Of course, I didn't know at the time that I had written a no content poem, and have not had the courage to repeat the exercise. Don't know why I've burdened you with that, unless it was my way of saying thanks.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for the comment Dave, and the 'no-content poem' (though of course, as with my two examples, the title has plenty of content). It is remarkably sophisticated for a child.

Totalfeckineejit said...

I enjoyed TE Hulmes' 'Image'... so much in so little, and your own too, I didn't like Lawrence's at all! (Chacun a son gout)
And we nearly got away without mention of the dreaded H word, right 'til the end.
I am the president of PAH! (Poets against Haiku)

Angela France said...

I love the Hulme poem too.
Have you seen the 3 Alison Brackenbury posted? I expecially like the third:

Anne said...

Thanks for this. I love the Hulme poem.

Michael Longley has a good few short poems, of which "Terezin" is probably the most renowned:

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

Mark Granier said...

Thanks TFE, Angela and Anne.

Angela, like yourself, I especially liked the third Brackenbury poem. Thanks I hadn't read them before.

Anne, yes, I know that Longley poem, and I like it. An old friend Anthony Glavin (who died in 2006) wrote a kind of response to it, as part of his long sequence of quatrains called Living In Hiroshima. Here it is:


More silent than all those hanging violins
The room

Where imagination's
Strung-out like a frozen bow-arm.