In Japan reductionism and miniaturisation have long been the social norm and it is a challenge to cram a lot into a tiny space. I remember when I had my ZX Spectrum how much fun it was trying to see what I could force into the 48K available to me. For example, I used to use variables rather than numbers because they took up a few bytes less. In my writing too I found myself drawn to smaller and more compact pieces. I'll be honest when I'm in a bookshop I'll always pick up a novella before a novel. I think it takes real self control to say what you have to say and get off the page.
When does small get too small though? It's an interesting subject and what I found in my research is that there a lot of people out there who are very serious about minimalist forms of poetry.
[Japanese : hai, amusement + ku, sentence.]
If asked, most people would credit the haiku with being the smallest poetic form but really what most people think of as haiku is a bastardised version of the Japanese form of non-metaphorical nature poetry laid out in three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively like this example from Richard Wright:
Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.
The poet Jesse Glass, who has lived and worked in Japan for many years now, takes a fairly rigid view, essentially declaring that haiku in English is impossible. That doesn’t mean some very nice poetry can't be produced using that structure as you can see from the example above but perhaps haiku is not the best name for it. In reality the strict adherence to the 5-7-5 structure is not necessary as Jack Kerouac demonstrates:
Snow in my shoe
The Japanese equivalent to syllables, morae, are much shorter and carry less information than that of English syllables. Although there is no consensus, most haiku enthusiasts agree that 12 syllables and a 3-5-3 syllable meter (or 2-3-2 accented beats) achieves the same quality as the Japanese form. An excellent demonstration of this can be found on Bureau of Public Secrets site where they present no less that thirty different translations of the same poem, a frog haiku by Matsuo Bashō who is generally regarded as a master of brief and clear haiku.
(Trivia: The largest collection of haiku translated into English on any single subject is Rise, Ye Sea Slugs by Robin D Gill, which contains 900 or so poems, all about sea cucumbers, dating back to the 17th century).
Just for the hell of it, here's a fine example of Scottish haiku by John McDonald (with translation):
i the sin –
bleck scarts on the burn
in the sun –
black scribbles on the stream
A lot has been written about the haiku in English but if you want to investigate a bit more then Forms in English Haiku by Keiko Imaoka is a good place to start.
There are of course other forms of Japanese poetry such as renga and senryū but haiku far overshadows these as far as the public's awareness goes.
The world's smallest poem
The question has to be asked though: how small can a poem get and still be a poem?
If you'd asked me before I started working on this article what the world's shortest poem was I would have said:
Much to my great surprise I've discovered that that work is accredited to one Shel Silverstein although I have also found the same poem bearing the more interesting title ''Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes' and attributed to a certain Anonymous. The world's shortest poem used to be Aram Saroyan’s 'Blod,' and at once upon a time the Guinness Book of World Records certified this to be the case. Later he managed to better this with 'm':
Dave King posted a blog recently about Duchamp's Fountain (a latrine he submitted to an exhibition as art) and, of course, this raised the question: What is art? In my response to him I couldn't resist bringing poetry into the mix:
…I've wondered for years what the smallest unit of poetry could be … and I don't think in all honestly it can be less that two 'words' either forming the poem so the reader has to consider their relationship to each other or one word as the poem and another as the title to contextualise it.
Now I think about it, probably where I'm coming from is the minimum requirements for a sentence to work: a noun and a verb. A poem does not need to be written in proper sentences however. This coincides I find with what poet Bob Grumman has to say about extremely condensed poetic forms, that they should…
…contain some significant particulars of at least two separable, explicit, concrete images, whose blend or clash persuasively yields some unstated awareness of Final Things – such as the inevitability of death, or the permanence of Beauty… (from A Divergery of Haiku in Modern Haiku (Volume 34:2, Summer 2003)
He cites the following example by Jonathan Brannen using concrete images:
I think it can also work perfectly well with abstract notions as in this untitled example by George Swede:
becoming a photograph winter afternoon
While I was researching this post I came upon a number of interesting new – at least to me – terms: kernular poetry, micro poetry, one-word poems and pwoermds.
In Bob Grumman's column from Small Press Review, Volume 34, Numbers 5/6 May/June 2002, he defines 'kernular poetry' (coined from "kernel" and "capsular") as "poems less than twenty (or so) syllables in length" and he cites the haiku as a good example "for it is generally a kind of incomplete thought – the sensual expression all thoughts are marrowed with, sans commentary." I think that is as good an expression as any for this kind of poetry. It is probably a fairly decent expression for poetry in general because it makes it clear that the poem requires a reader to complete it and the real talent is to know what you can afford to leave out. To that extent I would suggest that reading 'kernular poetry' is good practice for new readers of poetry because all distractions – "set-ups, amplifications and ornamentation" as Grumman puts it – are omitted.
Grumman is the author of Haiku to Lyriku: A Participant’s Impressions of a Portion of Post-2000 North American Kernular Poetry in which he introduces a whole host of wonderful terms: naiku, lyriku, mocku and faiku in an effort to analyse and categorise these tiny poems.
Micro Poetry (including mathemaku)
Micro poetry (sometimes micropoetry) is a more commonly used term which tends to be applied to very short pieces that purport to be loaded with philosophy. In reality a lot of these are no more than verbal doodles not containing enough material to evoke much more from the reader other than irritation but this is not always the case and there are many examples of very fine micro poetry like this example from Anna Akhmatova:
Not with the lyre of a lover
Do I go seducing people,
The rattle of the leper
is singing in my hands.
Robert Grenier is a decent exponent of micro poetry, at least in his early work. Whale Cross Press have provided an on-line version of his work Sentences which originally appeared as an edition of 500 boxed 5" x 8" index cards. Every time you go back to the site the poems/sentences are presented in a different sequence. Ron Silliman has referred to this as "one of the crowning achievements of 20th century poetry".
For me the oddest poem was this:
which was actually published separately – along with nineteen others – in Tottel #5 in 1971. I can see a sequence obviously, the next two entries logically being 12 and 21, but I struggle with this as a poem. Where do we go next? 6 and 6? Or 6 and 60?
If I was going to write a numerical poem, which I'm now going to do, I think it would be something like
4 <> 2 + 2
because of my long-time fascination with the sum 2+2=4 as symbolic – in my head at least – of all forms of calculation and the fact that, in my head at least, 4 is 2+2. (It can of course be 1+3 or -2² or √16). I think it comes from the fact that God is love but love is not God. You can't trust the simplest of truths to keep up its end of the equation. In reality I would never write a 'poem' like this because it would annoy more people than it would please. I get it but that's because the poem is incomplete and all the missing factors are in my head. I'm sure if I went back to it a few weeks on it wouldn’t feel half as clever as I might have thought it was when I wrote it.
Grumman has his own term and take on this kind of poetry: mathemaku:
I like the idea of it and there is a certain poeticness to the piece but it's its maths that confuses me. Maybe I'm being too literal. You can read Bob Grumman's commentary on the poem here. I much prefer Aram Saroyan's
In 1978 I wrote my first micro poem. I'll be honest I'm not sure that I'd even read a haiku at this point but I suspect that I'd read 'In a Station of the Metro' by then:
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
THE FACES OF MEN
the Light of the Sun
The reason I'm fairly sure I'd read Pound's poem (which has never ceased to delight me) is because there is a tone to my poem which is evocative of his. Both remind me of the mortality of man. I had a habit back then of capitalising certain words (typically 'Truth') in my poems. Only many years later did I learn that Emily Dickinson did the same. (BTW you might want to check out Apparition On My Last Winter Visit To Paris by Reyes Cardenas).
Here is a similar micro poem I wrote following the death of my father:
THE END OF ALL ILLUSIONS
Yes, even granite men
melt in the rain in time.
20 January 1996
I submitted it to a magazine and it was subsequently rejected. The editor made a few pencil notes on the poems she sent back which was helpful. On this one all she wrote was, "This is a neat saying." At the time I was very angry because I considered it a very meaningful and poignant poem. The fact is that unless you know what it's about you're never going to know what it's about. It's not a terrible poem. I actually think it is a far better poem that I even believed then simply because is does not depend on its history to make sense. Death is universal and so are heroes.
I can see where she was coming from because a lot of this style of poetry can have the feel of a saying or a proverb like these two delightful examples from Peter Payack:
I was going to write a one line poem
But now I’ve gone too far.
THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT
An irresistible force
meets an unmovable object.
No pleasantries are exchanged.
I even wrote one entitled 'Proverb':
To understand you must experience.
What can be experienced can be conquered.
You are my nightmare -
I will not dream you any more.
6 November 1982
(Part two: one-line poems, one-word poems, one-letter poems and beyond).