Micropoetry in the West: a brief survey

Mention micropoetry to most people, and naturally they think you’re talking about haiku. In fact, a 31-syllable tanka also fits snugly into a 140-character post on Twitter, Identica, or similar micromessaging services. But I’ve been compiling a list of other, mostly Western models that Twitter poets might derive inspiration from as well.

1. Fragments of Sappho. Of course, they weren’t written as fragments, but the fact that we consider even the shortest ones worth translating multiple times surely says something about their lasting value, millennia after they were transcribed onto sadly fragile papyrus leaves. Examples include:

I will let my body
flow like water over the gentle cushions.
(Jim Powell, trans.)

For me
neither the honey
nor the bee.
(Powell)

And the famous

I don’t know what to do. I am of two minds.
(various)

2. Biblical one-liners (mashal and hidah). Scholar James Kugel repeatedly cautioned that talking about “poetry” and “prose” in reference to Biblical texts was misleading. But his volume The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader’s Companion with New Translations is an excellent introduction to ancient Jewish lyricism, however we choose to categorize it. He shows how “the short, pungent, two-part sentence” is the basic building block of biblical prophecy and poetry alike, and how the wisdom books are especially rich in examples of what Kugel called “the one-line poem”:

The north wind gives birth to rain, and secret speech to an angry face.

Like the sound of thorns under a pot, so is the speech of fools.

If a tree falls to the north or to the south, wherever it falls, there it is.

3. The Greek Anthology. Many of the poems in this ancient compendium wouldn’t have fit into a tweet, but some of the most memorable would have:

The lines are cast and the nets are set and waiting.
Now the tunnies come, slipping through the moonlit water.
—The Delphic Oracle (Kenneth Rexroth)

Stranger, tell the Lakedaemonians that we lie here awaiting their orders.
—Anonymous (various)

This man: this no-thing: vile: this brutish slave:
This man is beloved, and rules another’s soul.
—Bianor (Dudley Fitts)

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.
—Anonymous, sometimes attributed to Sappho (Rexroth)

4. Epigrams of Martial. I know these mainly from William Matthews’ translation, The Mortal City. A few make the 140-character cut, at least in the original Latin. With his abundant, snarky wit, Martial would’ve ruled the Twitter roost.

What good is my farm, and what are its yields?
I can’t see you from any of its fields.

*

Once a doctor, now an undertaker,
he’s still got the same old bedside manner.

*

Anger suits the rich as a sort of thrift—
hatred’s cheaper than the meanest gift.

*

Brevity is good, the couplet-maker hopes. But look:
What good is brevity if it fills up a book?

5. Mexican dichos (and other proverb traditions). This was the subject of one of my very earliest blog posts, in which I quoted from Folk Wisdom of Mexico, by Jeff Sellers. The one I thought most poetic was Cada quien puede hacer de sus calzones un palote — “Anyone is entitled to make a kite out of his pants.”

Of course, many other folk proverbs from around the world are equally poetic. I think of West Africa as a region where the popularity and abundance of proverbs paradoxically helps nourish one of the world’s last flourishing oral epic traditions.

6. Limericks. I’ll just quote the Wikipedia here:

Gershon Legman, who compiled the largest and most scholarly anthology, held that the true limerick as a folk form is always obscene, and cites similar opinions by Arnold Bennett and George Bernard Shaw, describing the clean limerick as a periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity. From a folkloric point of view, the form is essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function.

7. Blues. Years ago I read a number of scholarly books on the blues, and the two best treatments of blues as lyrics that I found were Paul Oliver’s The Meaning of the Blues (issued in Britain under the title Blues Fell this Morning) and Big Road Blues by David Evans. Evans talked about how blues composition differs from the way songs are passed down in European folk tradition. Bluesmen and women were on the whole improvisors, with repertoires of song-kernals in which one or two verses had become associated with a given tune, the rest of the verses to be added as inspiration and the length of the performance dictated. As any fan of the traditional country blues can tell you, variants of individual verses can pop up in any number of different songs, and depending on the song, the first line of a verse may be repeated once, twice, or not at all. So in its semi-autonomy and two-part structure the blues verse resembles the two-part utterance of ancient Biblical prose-poetry, though I think its origins were much more immediate: in the call-and-response pattern of field hollers and other work songs.

I never missed my water, till my well run dry.
I never missed my rider till the day she said goodbye.

*

She brought me coffee, and she brought me tea.
She brought me everything but the lowdown jailhouse key.

*

Took my baby to meet the morning train,
and the blues came down, baby, like showers of rain.

*

I’m gonna lean my head on some lonesome railroad iron.
I’m gonna let one of those big 18 hundreds pacify my mind.

8. Modern Western poetry is replete with examples of very short lyric verse. One thinks of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” the proverbs and song verses of Antonio Machado, and the monochords of Yannis Ritsos. An essential collection — and one of my favorite poetry anthologies in general — is Poetry Brief: An Anthology of Short, Short Poems, by William Cole. A slimmer anthology by Robert Bly, however, contains a much higher proportion of poems that would pass the Twitter test: The Sea and the Honeycomb: A Book of Tiny Poems. Here’s Bly’s translation of a poem by Apollinaire, “The Fly”:

Our flies know all the tunes
They learned from the flies in Norway—
Those shaman flies that are
The divinities of the snow.

And here’s one from Poetry Brief in the spirit of Martial and the Greek Anthology: “Ezra,” by Lawrence Durrell.

Ci-git Ezra
Who knew ten languages
  But could not choose
When writing English poetry
  Which to use.

18 Comments


    1. Thanks. It’s French for “Here lies,” though apparently used often enough in English to qualify for an entry in Merriam-Webster.

      Reply

  1. Thanks for this, Dave!! (You’re a generous man.)

    I hope you posted to the RWP micro group & as a reference at Open Micro. If not, would you, or may I?

    Reply

    1. Hi Deb – I did leave a link on the wire of the RWP group, but didn’t think about Open Micro. Good idea. I’ll do that.

      Reply

  2. You know who writes really fabulous, dense one-liners? Kristen McHenry. I noticed this over and over in her work for Project Verse. It’s one of the things that makes her work sing.

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    1. Having read McHenry’s entry for the qarrtsiluni chapbook competion, which was one of the two runners-up, I am now a big fan of her work as well.

      Reply

  3. Wow! How did I miss that Bly anthology?

    This is a very helpful post. Thanks for the work it took to write it.

    Reply

    1. It was fun to pull together. I should do list posts more often.

      Don’t spend too much money on that Bly book. It’s mighty skimpy. Some nice Arab poems in it though, and a few other gems you probably won’t find elsewhere.

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  4. Oh! It’s funny, in the context of a Bonta post, the idea that it could be French never occurred to me. My mind was trying to make some dialect word for “cigarette” make sense there. I don’t recollect ever ci git in an English text, but I suppose Merriam Webster knows :-)

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    1. Well, but of course that was just the sort of thing Ezra Pound was fond of doing. I personally find the Cantos pretentious and virtually unreadable — you’re not wrong about me.

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  5. Agreed on the cantos. I think they get such a great rep because you have to work so hard to read them that afterwards you don’t want to have thrown all that effort away on something less than fabulous. I feel the same way about Joyce’s Ulysses. Some good parts, but not really worth the effort. There are less ambitious poets & novelists who achieved a lot more.

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    1. Dale, you’re the most erudite philistine I know! :) I personally never managed to get into either work, but I did enjoy William Carlos Williams’ Paterson — I guess because it tackled themes of interest to me, such as people’s relationship with the natural world. Ulysses does seem to have soul, though. Not sure I’d say that about the Cantos.

      Reply

    1. Same here. I’ve been typing wrong words all freakin’ day.

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  6. I’m pleased you mentioned tanka as I am amazed that there aren’t more mainstream poets (and writers) creating these incredible micro love poems which are probably more readily understood than haiku in the West.

    You mention a syllable count, and as with haiku, both are genres not forms, although the “perceived form” isn’t so much syllables, but the short line long line format and the turn, or volta like device.

    If you can grab a copy of the multi-million selling Salad Anniversary tanka collection by Machi Tawara (translated by Jack Stamm) you will fall in love with tanka. ;-)

    all my best,

    Alan

    Reply

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