Baring it All: The Challenge of Short Poems

It was the evening of April 30, the final day of National Poetry Month, and I had just realized that I was four poems short of my goal of 30 poems in 30 days. Dinner was almost on the table, Game of Thrones was cued up, and wine was ready to be drunk. I knew if I waited to write until after all of that, it would be too late. So, I decided to write some very short poems to get my count. I felt a little like I was cheating, but I reminded myself that short poems have as much a place in poetry as long poems do—haiku and senryu, being the most recognized forms of short poetry. I reminded myself, too, of the power and punch of “The Red Wheelbarrow”by William Carlos Williams, one of my favorite poems:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

 

With the clock ticking, I returned to an article I had recently read in Outside Magazine by Eliza Griswold. Griswold researched and wrote about an ancient Pashtun folk poetry form called landay which is two lines and 22 syllables long. According to this article, landays are written primarily by women, and share intimate life experiences, including heartaches, sex, reflections on war, a woman’s position in society, and more. Landays pack a lot into 22 syllables. Take this one, for example:

When sisters sit together, they’re always praising their brothers
When brothers sit together, they’re selling their sisters to others.

(Incidentally, the syllable count changes when the poem is translated, which is why the above poem has more than 22 syllables.)

I decided to give the form a try.

What’s deceptive about short poetry, and short form poetry, specifically, is that it looks so easy. You’ve got limits, both line and syllable limits, and often, as is the case with haiku, senryu, and landay, you’ve got content limits. Haiku must be about nature, senryu about human mishaps and quirks, landay about life stories. Simple, right?

Writing in a truncated form like this requires you to leave things out. And knowing that you must leave things out to fit the form, means that what you leave in is all the more important. With only a handful of syllables, your poetry becomes bare, almost raw. An awkward line, or not-quite-right word can’t hide behind its better counterparts. It’s all out there, which means, of course, that any neuroses you might have already harbored as far as your writing goes, gets heightened, amplified.

As I began to piece my landays together, I looked again at the ones listed in the article and thought about “The Red Wheelbarrow.” None of these poems employ complicated language. There are no clever turns of phrase. No difficult literary devices to speak of. Nothing immediately sensational. They are simple, spare. What they all do, however, is withhold something, and this doesn’t just apply to their form.

Take “The Red Wheelbarrow.” We are told that “so much depends” on the wheelbarrow, but we don’t know what. We are given a scene, but no overt characters. The characters are implied: someone must exist to push the wheelbarrow, someone must feed the chickens.

In the landay above, we don’t know why the brothers sell the sisters, or why the sisters continue to sing their brothers’ praises, even after being sold. We don’t know precisely why this separation and inequality exist between the sexes.

This conscious withholding in content is what allows these short poems to be so powerful. With what little information provided, readers are left to fill in the blanks, to lend color and substance to the image that has been just barely sketched for us by the author.

In the end, I wrote my four landays. It was an exercise in holding back, and in being careful with language. I felt the weight of my words more so than I usually do. I felt as if I was playing with a Rubik’s cube, turning words this way and that, sliding words in, sliding them out again, until I had my perfect line-up of syllables, until each word packed just the right punch.

Here’s one that I produced, on the eve of April 30, just before food, fantasy, and wine:

Discharging

The boys come home, each in their time. Some look for-
ward: cabs, dates, summer; others burn to go back.

 

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The Burro

donkeyWhen I was in fourth grade, I wrote a haiku about a burro. At the time, I was living in a small town called Big Bear, which is in the San Bernardino Mountains, about three hours northeast of Los Angeles. I lived, along with my brother and mother, at the very top of a long dirt road, two houses from the start of forest, and burros were a real concern. Anyone who knew anything about living in Big Bear knew that you had to bungee your trash lids closed, so that the burros wouldn’t get into the trash and toss it all over the road. Sometimes, even if you did bungee it, and the bungee cords weren’t strong enough, the burros would find their way in, with the same disgusting and dismaying results. Picking up moldy apple cores, used tissues, and other kinds of terrible trash before the neighbors saw was a common occurrence at our house.  Either we forgot the bungees or ours were lacking in fortitude. So, when presented with the assignment in class of writing a haiku, I guess my 9/10-year old mind gravitated toward the burros and the myriad ways they often ruined my life.

My haiku, along with others I assume, was entered into a contest, and won. I remember feeling unbelievably proud . . . and surprised. Shocked, even. Shocked that someone out there had deemed my burro haiku worthy of recognition.

I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony where I would have been honored, but I did receive a ribbon and a special certificate that I do still have somewhere, buried in a box, along with my high schools yearbooks, angsty poem-filled journals, and yes, my treasured Phantom of the Opera perfume.

Ok, so how has the burro, the haiku, and the prize influenced my writing today? In some small, but important ways. First, I learned that I didn’t have to and don’t have to write poems about heartache. This might seem obvious to some of you better adjusted individuals out there, but that was frequently where my mind gravitated, even as a fourth grader. I learned that a poem about a dopey burro could serve just as well. Second, I learned I could be funny. Not that I, as a human being, could be funny, but that poetry could be funny, that it could be quirky and strange. Third, I learned that forms, like the haiku, were out there for my use and for me to bend to my will. Forms were fun; they didn’t have to be constricting. And fourth, in that year, I learned that what I did on the page, could garner me praise, attention, and recognition.  And that was cool. I liked the way that felt. And though outward recognition is not what drives me to write, it does serve as a good motivator. And, as any writer knows, motivation, however you come by it, is a good thing.