P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.30 - November 2018
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2018 November No. 30
“A World in A Grain of Sand”: Beautiful Bite-Sized Poems
“A World in A Grain of Sand”: Beautiful Bite-Sized Poems
This month I am not going to try to convince you of anything. Rather, I invite you to join me in savoring a banquet of wonderful—and wonderfully brief—poems, and reflecting a bit on what makes them wonderful. Pith, lyric punch, brevity, concision—the quality I am interested in has many names and occurs in various forms and traditions. But the guiding principle was expressed perfectly by William Blake in his “Auguries of Innocence.” We’ll be looking at poems that manage to “see a world in a grain of sand.” You may be thinking immediately of haiku, and frankly so am I—but I plan to save that large subject for another essay.
As a young poet I began, as many do, by writing fairly short lyrics. In part this was because I didn’t have much to say—or, more accurately, I didn’t know how to say much about the teeming emotions within. One early model was Richard Brautigan, immensely popular at the time, whose cheeky and casual effusions rarely made it to a second page. Many were so unassuming they were over almost as soon as they began. Some even looked sort of lonesome, surrounded by great gobs of white space on a mostly empty page, which was strangely comforting to a lonely, socially awkward sixteen year old boy:
Do you think of me
as often as I think
“Please” isn’t even close to being a great poem, I know, but I think I realized that even then. Nonetheless, its simplicity and unbuttoned artlessness was a thumb in the eye of the ponderous world of Great Poets approved of by our school books and the adult world in general. Needless to say, Brautigan never was mentioned in any classroom. And while my taste has evolved and grown much more catholic since then, I confess that I’ll still take “Please” any day over musty relics like William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” through whose god-awful stilted tedium I remember laboring in English class. Nothing about such lines as these spoke to me as a boy:
All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
And frankly, Brautigan at his best can still move me in the same way Dickinson can, with his oddball charm and honesty. His unpretentious colloquial style and good eye for detail puts him in the tradition of William Carlos Williams’s quick sketches of everyday life. I didn’t know it then, but both Williams and Brautigan were drawing on Ezra Pound’s imagist poems as well as the history of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry that influenced them. For instance, here’s one of my favorite Brautigan pieces, clearly showing the influence of the haiku heritage:
It's not quite cold enough
to go borrow some firewood
from the neighbors.
He taught me to love him
and called me his flower
An old woman clutches a bagful of groceries
to her chest. A loaf of white bread sticks
out the top. She has forgotten to put her
food stamps away. They’re still in her hand.
I don’t know about you, but I find that poem quite evocative as well as beautifully understated. It’s true that too often Brautigan could be sentimental, overly whimsical, trivial, or even nonsensical, but one lesson I took from his poetry generally was a belief I still subscribe to: poetry need not be some rarefied gemlike bit of eternal wisdom, but can come from and reflect on the life we actually lead. (I’m also fine with rarefied wisdom, incidentally.) Short, informal reflections on ordinary experience, I firmly believe, have great value. And there’s nothing wrong with seeing the humor and absurdity in life, or even mocking our own or others’ fits of loftiness. Here’s Brautigan spoofing the tendency of some haiku writers to make a big hairy deal out of, well, not much:
A piece of green pepper
off the wooden salad bowl:
I also took from poets like Brautigan the lesson that length of a poem does not necessarily have anything to do with quality. Teachers love complexity and ambiguity and difficulty, because such works are eminently “teachable,” as we say. We also relish bulk for the simple reason that a teacher is someone, as Ezra Pound once quipped, “who must talk for an hour.” Thus the masterpieces enshrined in anthologies and textbooks often are lengthy, dense, ambitious affairs, from “Paradise Lost” and “The Prelude” through “The Waste Land.” But readers—as opposed to teachers—have always known that there is as much value and beauty in the tradition of lyric pith. A teacher may have a hard time spending a whole class period analyzing this 17th Century love lyric by Robert Herrick, but it’s still a great poem:
Upon Julia's Clothes
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!
So too with many of Langston Hughes’s briefest poems, which do not call for or benefit from the kind of detailed classroom analysis required by many classic poems. Yet in their economy, their understatement, their plain simplicity, they beautifully present powerful and unsettling truths:
Refugee In America
There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heart-strings freedom sings
All day everyday.
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I knew
You would know why.
Likewise, so many of Dickinson’s spare untitled poems cannot be improved on, even if they lack the bulk and teachable density of something by Wordsworth:
"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see--
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
More recently novelist Margaret Atwood wrote a kind of anti-love poem which has already become something of a contemporary classic, displaying Dickinson’s bite and concision:
You Fit Into Me
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
As my own poetry developed and I read more widely, I eventually realized that I am temperamentally more of a Whitman than a Dickinson: my default settings seem to be sprawl, inclusion, rhetorical and narrative development, and repetition. I love reading what Alice Fulton once called “maximalist” poems. When young I was bothered by all the digressions and redundancy and less-than-stunning sections of poems by poets like Ginsberg or Whitman; I was often bored with the intimidating size of poems by Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and other canonical staples. Yet as I grew older, I found myself more and more drawn to poets who ramble and digress and tell good yarns; who include science and philosophy and history in their work; who like to build up a good head of rhetorical steam with litany, lists, and other additives to the lyric base. More and more I appreciated Williams’s longer poems as much as that red wheelbarrow or the stolen plums; I relished Frost’s longer dramatic narratives; I loved getting lost in Moore’s quirky encyclopedic style; likewise with the apparently free-associative, conversational reflections of Bishop. Among still-living poets I greatly enjoy such maximalist figures these days as Gerald Stern, Albert Goldbarth, Pattiann Rogers, David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Tina Kelley, Tony Hoagland, Patricia Smith, Martha Silano, and too many more to enumerate.
Yet I still love brevity, in all its shapes and styles, from epigram, couplet, sonnet, and triolet to haiku and senryu. But it simply happens that as a reader I seem to admire concision and lyric punch more than I'm drawn to it as a writer of my own poems. Which is one reason I seem to go quite regularly on binges of reading and writing extremely brief poems, in hopes of infusing my natural expansiveness with some of the virtues that come from radical economy, understatement, and reliance on image and figure over statement.
Incidentally, it seems I am not alone in this back-and-forth between sprawl and pith. In fact some of the beloved gasbags in American poetry (such as Sandburg, Moore, Ammons, Ginsberg, even old Walt Whitman himself) show a real touch for quite brief lyrics. While Whitman is rightly known as a symphonic sort of poet, with his endless lists and repetitions, he also composed vivid snapshots such as this:
A Farm Picture
Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,
And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.
Or this unforgettable picture of the aftermath of a Civil War battle:
Look Down, Fair Moon
Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene,
Pour softly down night's nimbus floods on faces ghastly, swollen, purple,
On the dead on their backs with arms tossed wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.
A. R. Ammons, who wrote a number of book-length poems and loved to meander down page after page, meditating, describing, free associating, often interspersed such bulky work with a life-long fondness for the radically condensed. He once collected his favorites in a book with the wonderful title, The REALLY Short Poems of A. R. Ammons. In it you’ll find acidic epigrammatic morsels such as
Their Sex Life
One failure on
Top of another
and many bits of serious linguistic foolery, such as
Bravery runs in my family.
Yet when he wants, he can also compose a nature lyric as delicate and modest as it is beautiful:
The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away
There are so many great examples, many of them scattered through the works of poets not particularly known for extreme brevity. I’ve long loved the potent understatement of W. S. Merwin in this somewhat uncharacteristic effort:
Who would I show it to
Not only is that about as tiny as one can go, it shows the uncanny energy available in the interplay between title and body of a poem.
On the other side of the Atlantic, D.H. Lawrence, a true heir of Whitman in his long-lined, shaggy poems, was equally capable of a Whitman-like reticence in gems like this one:
The White Horse
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.
Like Ammons, Charles Reznikoff was known for very long poems chock full of detail. Yet some of his tiny ones are as good as they get, such as this untitled haiku-like piece:
About an excavation
a flock of bright red lanterns
And this one:
Not the five feet of water to your chin
but the inch above the tip of your nose.
Even Marianne Moore, whose collected poems definitely are filled with all sorts of delightful detours and lines sprawling across many pages, occasionally pauses to punctuate with something like this:
I May, I Might, I Must
If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try.
Some poets have made careers out of brevity, such as J. V. Cunningham, whose many epigrams have the classic bite of something from the 18th Century:
Epitaph For Someone Or Other
Naked I came, naked I leave the scene,
And naked was my pastime in between.
Lorine Niedecker was more extreme than most in her devotion to condensation, and in fact referred to her work once as “this condensary.” Take a look at this beauty:
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in
And how about the sound-play in this multifaceted piece, just fourteen syllables long?
where her snow-grave is
of mourning doves
I’m sorry to say that most of my own very brief poems never escape my journal. It seems I just am not too good at this business of condensation. One exception might be haiku—the jury’s still out on that, but thanks to the influence of a former student of mine, Brent Goodman, I’ve been trying my hand at haiku a lot in recent years, not to mention learning a good deal from Brent. As noted, I hope to explore haiku and lessons learned from Brent in a future column.
Moreover, I am also not very adept at traditional meter, rhyme or the usual conventional forms (sonnet, villanelle, etc.) that employ them. But as with tiny poems, I sometimes practice writing in various traditional forms in hopes of maybe getting lucky some time and, more importantly, taking what I learn from such work and applying those lessons to my more natural style. Perhaps my career as a teacher made me a cockeyed optimist. But it definitely demonstrated that we seldom improve by repeating what we’re already good at. We get better by accepting challenges. Some day I may write a decent sonnet. And just maybe (hey, I can dream) a tiny lyric as good as “Upon Julia’s Clothes.”
In the meantime, here’s the best bite-sized poem I’ve done so far. It came from the standard exercise in creative writing courses of imitating a published poem. In this case I decided to do my own version of William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say.” I was happy enough with it to bestow on it the title “Love,” the one and only time I’ve done that.
This is just
she left half
of the last
on the kitchen
for me to find.
[first published in Verse-Virtual]
It was only after finishing this essay that it occurred to me that “Love” could have been penned by Richard Brautigan. I seem to have come full circle to where I began.
©2018 David Graham
Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this article please tell David. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Letting authors know you like their work is the beginning of community at Verse-Virtual.