May 14, 2007

A Primer of Small Things

I'll admit it; I favor mid-length to long poems over short ones. To my mind, longer pieces have a greater ability to build satisfying tensions and rhythms than do shorter pieces (excepting serial pieces composed of smaller individual numbered portions--which are more like long poems than a bunch of short poems). When I refer to shorter pieces, I am talking about the contemporary conception of short, which is very short. Once upon a time the sonnet was considered to be a short form in English-language poetry, but our interest in the 20th and 21st cetury in Asian forms like the haiku and renga has shrank our conception of shortness to very, very short. This proclivity can be irksome at times, because it is harder to write good short poems, I'd say, than most people think. And the short-short poem in English is an altogether different animal than an Asian form rendered in an actual Asian language, as much as we'd like to convince ourselves otherwise.

That said, the top few selections in my long-neglected "to-read" pile featured an interesting menagerie of short poems that really mine the potential of the form. The first of these, Aaron Lowinger's Open Night Poems from House Press is a nice collection of uber-personal vignettes in the form primarily of brief poems in the ballpark of 12 lines. Amongst these is an actual formal sonnet, and it is interesting to see Lowinger pay homage to these poems' lineage in a profound way. At their best, short poems offer a kind of youthful exuberance in their ability to address a wide array of subjects in a short time, and these poems with their dark-chocolate-no-saccharine earnestness hearkened back to my mid-20's when small emotions seemed epic and the amorous potential of the world was boundless. These poems are influenced heavily by the New York School as well, in their focus on autobiographical events and real-world names, but in a fashion that is less cloying than the work's progenitors--the New York School if it were not written by snotty New Yorkers (this spoken by a snotty New Yorker).

Next up was Frame #2 from Press4Press, a small square cerulean-colored anthology with work from Thomas A. Clark, Logan Ryan Smith, Jeffery Beam, Sally Ashton, Marjorie Manwaring, Aaron Tieger, Michael Schiavo, Amie Keddy, Whit Griffin and Jess Mynes. Some of these names are familiar to me, such as Aaron Tieger, who over the years has become a master of the short quotidian poem in which a surface banality tilts just out of focus enough to draw interest. Aaron's poems have always been most at home in the corners of one's eyes. I had not read Amie Keddy (one of the editors)'s work before, but the little poems here operate like pared-down fairy tales with their primal sparseness: "the man/ had a piece of wool / from such a lamb / and a jar of milk." Among these, Sally Ashton and Logan Ryan Smith's poems give one a little more legroom, and offer a wider palette of sonic pyrotechnics/

A short poem seems to have two routes to travel, that of hyper-specificity or towards aphoristic enigma, as in Tom Orange's A Day in Switzerland: A Book of Picabian Aphorisms from Susanna Gardner's w/e chaps project. Each of the aphorisms in the little book bears a timestamp and, as such, could be viewed as one long poem. However, the aphorisms are largely self-contained, and, like the paintings of their namesake, offer a poignant distortion of everyday life fueled by desire and melancholy. At times the poems assume a puffed-up oracular voice, "12:12 am Laughter is/ the sublime/ unreason to/ this comedy of life," and at others a naked urgency, "6:10 am I /admire /your /eyes /Will /you /help /me" These little poems seem to extend their frame of reference not by way of a focus on the small or specific, but rather the large and abstract, touch-not-cobble stones.

The poems in these little books definitely inspire me to take another look at short-form poems and give great insight into the future and potential of the genre which is evolving towards a uniquely American short poem, no longer derivative of forms from other languages or of the early Imagist approximations of same.


Geof Huth said...


Strange how I read so many blogs daily (this one included), or practically so, catching up as I have to, but I rarely comment on any. I read the feed and heed no other need.

This topic, though, pulls me out a bit, since small is what I'm about, even when I'm about big.

I write two poems every day, and rarely ever is one more than 20 words long. These poems are part of grander structures, but they're meant to survive on their own, if called to.

So what can I say about the short poem? It's never easy, and it's harder than anything large. The larger an anything is, the more forgiveness there is for error or badness or mere awfulness in it.

The tinier a poem (take a pwoermd), the more likely a problem will be fatal.

Let's try to make a Huthian small poem right now, as a test.

not to
from or

How can that little thing survive? How can it live on its own, away from its parents (though it's obviously an orphan)? And how could we keep our desire and our intellect from copulating when the possibility of such lustrous lusus naturae is the promise of such couplings?

I have no idea.


Mark said...

Hi Geof,

I meant to mention something about Pwoermds, which seem different from other short forms of poetry to me; maybe insofar as they are individual words, they are more like parts of some vast ur-poem that we aren't able to perceive in its entirity.

Or perhaps as things get smaller and smaller, the rules get differen; like in quantum physics or something.

Lusus naturae (I had to look that up) would definitely come under a different category of short poems (though one definitely veering toward aphorism or enigma). Strangely enough, Aime Keddy has a poem with a Vegetable Lamb in it.