Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 24 March 2008

Less is more or less (part one)

“Less is possible.”

Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture  

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
Sparrow's nest

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):

maws birl
i the sin –
bleck scarts on the burn

gulls wheel
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:


Had 'em.

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:


a petal
a peal

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.

Kernular poetry

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

+ forest

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:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.


How quickly
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:


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.


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).


The Insane Writer said...

Hi Jim,

Thank you so much for your comment on my post. The person who insulted me as a writer was actually a band member. I offered to review their band's music.

I have noticed you've been dropping by my blog, a lot. Thank you. When I have some free time, I will be back to take a look at your writing. :) Right now, I have some articles I need to wrap up. Take care!

Dave King said...

As you are probably aware, I have a great interest in Haiku, find it incredibly difficult to write (in fact, I have just binned all but a few of mine), and am fascinated by the issues surrounding it. The purists, of course, say that there are all sorts of things it must contain (like a word to say what season is intended) or not contain. Which, I suppose, lends support to the thought that it is impossible in English. Your point was well made though, that the form still produces good poetry, but perhaps it should be called something else. The post was very much appreciated.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Jim

I loved your Granite Man poem...


I think Haiku and other quite-formal models are great. I think budding-poets should try to work within restrictive forms more often, rather than launching straight into free verse - which can be 'terribly easy' if one isn't brave enough to make it 'terribly hard'.

I think of a quote attributed to
Picasso - " It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback Dave and Ken.

I've only attempted haiku a few times, Dave. I think the main reason is that it's been done to death and I always like my poems to find their own structure anyway. I can see why the purists dig their heels in though quite simply because what the west has done to the form. It started off as a kind of nature poem so there is an argument to keep it like that. I just wish that more people would consider the other forms of Japanese poetry.

And, thanks too Ken, for the comment on the 'The End of all Illusions'. I think it's the most successful condensed poem I've ever written. My brother and sister would get it. It's nice to see that it could affect someone outside the immediate family.

About ten years ago I took a student under my wing. It's the only time I've ever done it and it was hard work but the first thing I started her off on was haiku in the anglicised 5-7-5 format just to get her to structure and consider every single word. She didn't write great haiku but some interesting poems came out of those first few sessions. My basic instruction was to find something worth saying and say it well. I suppose that's a good rule of thumb for all poets to keep in the back of their minds.

C M RAJAN said...

Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed your minimal poems.I myself like writing very short and simple lines.

And that line, "granite men melting in rain in time", was wonderful.

Thank you for giving me a few moments of sublimity.

Love & regards,

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for the kind comments, Rajan. I'm glad you appreciated the post. The second part will be up on Thursday. It really was far too long to expect people to read it all in one go.

Chanel said...

i heard of you,
before. your name
sounds very familiar,
but i'm just a young
sixth grader who
is desparate to become
an author. I love your blog and it's name. I hope you check out my stories. Regards.

Jim Murdoch said...

Nice to see a new name Shenell. I had a wee look at your three blogs. Nice presentations, not over-cluttered. The fonts were a wee bit small for me but they all looked good.


I enjoyed this post very much!

I would like to share a one-line story with you and your readers by Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Mark Granier said...

Hi Jim,

Interesting post, and a subject I've often thought about. I wrote about it on my LIGHTBOX blog here:

Just an opinion, but I think your 'granite men' would be far stronger without the title.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for dropping by Susan and Mark.

I'd read the one-liner by Hemmingway before, Susan, in fact I suspect it's what's started the six word meme that's been going around recently. Had it been poetry I likely would have included it but it was never presented as such. It's still an impressive compression of language no matter what it is.

And Mark, I wish I'd run across your blog in my research. At the very least I would have included 'HAIKUISH' as a bit of fun. Very interesting. I've added you to my feedreader and I'll see if I can squeeze in a link in part two of this blog.

Tam said...

The next time somebody annoying asks me what book I'm reading, I will casually reply...

"It's a collection of 900 poems about sea cucumbers"

I just think that sounds fantastic.

Conda Douglas said...

Another great entry, Jim. I especially loved the "m" poem. Your post really got me to thinking about the nature of language and how poetry distills it down and down and yet still retains meaning. Somehow.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you Conda, always nice to see you. Since you particularly enjoyed the "m" poem you'll appreciate the poems in part two which is just up now.

And Tam, nice to see another new name of the page. I have to say I wouldn't turn up my nose to a copy of that book just to say I own it.

Anonymous said...

Good overview, Jim. I've never been a big fan of minimalism so Saroyan doesn't do much for me. I do like the concept of micro-poetry, however. To me, the difference is in the presentation. A proverb can be poetic, but a poem is not a proverb. Kahlil Gibran is the best selling poet of the 20th century, but what he really wrote were books of maxims and aphorisms. I think there is a big market for that because people so desperately thrive on words of wisdom. You have presented some very nice poems of your own in this piece.

I'm going to plug your blog in my newsletter this week. Thanks for a wonderful read!

Chanel said...

Hi Jim,

thanks for the comment.
I know it is a bit small, i'm
trying to work on that.
But thanks for the advice!
And all the best on your future books!

Rachel Fox said...

'I always like my poems to find their own structure' you say. Me too. I don't believe it's in anyone else's hands (no divine intervention, thank-you) but I'm pretty sure the decisons are not all in ours either. We are really a lot less important than we think (and thank god for that...well thank something...oh, you know what I mean...).

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting point, Rachel. One thought, if it's not us then who is it? I think we need to be careful we don't mystify ourselves. I write my poems single-handedly – no one sees a piece until it is finished – but I am sometimes a little surprised by the form my poems take. It is, I believe, an amalgam of conscious thought, subconscious considerations, natural ability, experience, learned skills, time and unforeseen circumstance. A bit of luck goes a long way too but, at the end of the day, it's our name that goes under the piece and we're the ones who get slagged if it's crap.

Rachel Fox said...

It doesn't have to be a 'who' does it? I'm not sure about 'mystify' but I like a little mystery for sure. There's so little mystery...we're all so sure about everything...I like this particular bit of mystery and find it cheering somehow. And it doesn't hurt anybody. I won't be setting up a cult or anything.
Also just because someone says a piece of writing is crap that doesn't mean it is necessarily. Maybe their review is crap. I used to write reviews years ago and when I look back at them (even some I was very sure about at the time) I can see now that I was in fact writing a load of old nonsense.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I sometimes feel a bit like the scientist trying to stamp out someone's faith. I'm not saying that I understand fully how even my own writing process works but the fact that I can't explain it doesn't mean I have to concoct a mystery to explicate it. I hate, for example, the notion of a muse, the personification of inspiration. Inspiration is a good idea; we have them from time to time. Mostly we have ordinary old ideas and have to make the best of them. Occasionally we get a great idea. But whatever idea we do get has to be worked on in the cold light of day.

You're quite right about critics, sometimes they do miss the mark but I think more writers could be open to the possibility that our works of genius simply aren't. When I was young and arrogant I used to think everything I wrote was a masterpiece and the world was lucky to have me. 450-odd poems later I actually wrote a decent poem.

Rachel Fox said...

No, I'm not one for the whole muse thing either but I will keep a hold of my little mystery, if you don't mind (girly and unscientific as it may be). Are you telling me you don't ever look at a line you've written (or a couple of lines) and think 'wow - where did that come from...I didn't even know I had that in my head anywhere!' I know there may be an explanation...but I still like a little 'wow' in my life now and then.
Having said that I do still believe there are little people in the TV and that fairies work mobile phones. Even more frightening...I passed all my science exams at school!

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, my daughter came out of my wife. I was there. I watched it. But I don't understand it. There's understanding and there's understanding. And it's the same with some of my own writing, I read it and I know it came out of me but every now and then I'm taken aback. Where the hell did that come from? Well, I know where it came from. How it found its way out so eloquently is another matter entirely.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, you're a genius, obviously. At least some of the time. And that's better than none of the time - isn't it?

Robert Stone said...

This is a fascinating post. I write what are generally called haiku although most of them are only so in the sense of following the 5-7-5 syllable count.

Sometimes I call them occasi-ku because they usually are in emails, comments on photographs, or blog posts, or profile pages.

This one was in an email as response to what the person had written me:

When we face the facts,
head may know in a moment
but heart needs an age
-- Tuesday, 27 May 2008


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Robert. This really was an immensely popular post. I love the idea of 'occasi-ku' - it's a nice way of keeping poetry in the public consciousness.

Anonymous said...

Re. The most haiku translated on one subject. My holothurian collection was probably the largest collection of haiku on one subject, period (not only in translation). I say "was" because I have since translated and published about 3000 haiku about cherry blossoms. Some day I must get back to Wiki and . . .

Re. the short poems. A haiku writer and editor whose name I cannot spell (Van something dutch sounding in nyc) wrote a haiku in a word: tundra. And, Hoffman's excellent "Japanese Death Poems" includes a single character death poem written in 1645 by Takuan. It is "dream."

Jim Murdoch said...

Appreciate the update there, Robin. That's the thing, nothing stays still. I have to say I was nothing less that gobsmacked by the interest in this subject and, let's be honest, I just glossed over the topics. Interestingly I've just written my 1000th poem and out of them all only one genuine haiku.

Anonymous said...

I said I'm writing haiku, no,
haiku-like poems.
My husband said, haiku-lite?

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