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Peace without children, yellow field
where I dissolve, finally, into a murmur of bees.
The poppies’ sea-green pods
swell like thought-balloons in the comics,
each one empty except for an asterisk.
I’m taking this opportunity to get in touch with my roots, said the wind-thrown tree.
The aging transport ship
as the Newtonian surface of what
they still sometimes call outer space
dissolves around it.
On the next to last boxcar, in neat black letters:
NATURE WILL WIN.
Then the flashing orange light receding around the bend.
A random selection of quotes (and one paraphrase) from the “Poems & poem-like things” archive. Sometimes when the words don’t flow and writing seems impossible, it’s useful to remind myself that I have come up with a few odd and interesting lines, lord knows how.
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.)
neither the honey
nor the bee.
And the famous
I don’t know what to do. I am of two minds.
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.
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.
Who knew ten languages
But could not choose
When writing English poetry
Which to use.
This same screech owl
was trilling at 4:00 p.m.
from across the field.
Water from the tap —
it’s still moving when I drink it.
I trembled like that once, too,
after days without sleep.
I felt invincible.
Gray fur spreads
through the coffee grounds.
I’m bleary-eyed again.
Video link (RSS subscribers must click through)
There’s also an accompanying image at my photoblog. I’m not sure what the species is here, nor why they’re attracted to this bucket in which brushes covered with latex house paint have been cleaned out. If anyone can enlighten me on either score, please leave a comment.
This was shot with my regular digital camera (in the heat of the moment I forgot I had a camcorder), then speeded up to about twice the actual speed. I extracted, cleaned up, and selected a portion of the audio track — annual cicadas in full whine — to combine with my recitation. I dashed off the poem under the influence of alcohol for authenticity’s sake. Here it is, for the benefit of those on dial-up:
This is no moon, my poet friends.
Those are no crickets.
That cloying scent doesn’t come from a flower.
Whatever you’re trying to quench, it isn’t thirst.
He will be killed and she will be killed and everyone except for me will be killed as a Muslim, as an alien, as an intellectual, as a homosexual. And I stroke my chin and chuckle in agreement with whatever crude thing is under discussion to cover a sudden watering of my eyes, because shit, they’ve just caught her with a bomb, the policemen say.
They march her in handcuffs up to the table where the commander and I are playing checkers, my silver coins against his gold (plastic is too precious). I am unable to look at her and she does nothing to acknowledge me, whether from contempt or because she wants me to live, I don’t know.
The commander prescribes his usual panacea: one bullet. They take her away. I pray to the ground in which I somehow still believe: open under my chair, swallow me whole. But it doesn’t. The moment passes. I relieve the commander of another gold coin.
I want to see a tree, a tree, I’ll go mad if I don’t see a tree, the chief of baggage tells the writer-in-residence at Heathrow.
Something singing right at dusk; I go out to listen. I’d hoped it might have been a saw-whet owl, but it turns out to be a distant ambulance. Needless to say, hardly anyone whets saw blades anymore.
It’s staggering to realize that the great eastern forest was completely cut over without the use of chainsaws or skidders. All those axes! All those railroad lines snaking through the mountains! And the men cursing the trees in Italian, in Polish, in Czeck, in Hungarian, in English, in German, in Serbo-Croatian… Trees that were too massive for the sawmill were blown apart with dynamite and left to rot.
Learning to read the forest involves mastering a language of absence. The tree standing on a colonnade of roots preserves the shape of the stump on which it sprouted. On rocky ridgetops, a ring of boulders might mark the spot where an American chestnut once stood. Pits and mounds throughout the forest signal the violent overthrow of giants.
The words beautiful elephant come into my head. I open the anthology in my hand to a poem called “The Death of an Elephant.”
Mushrooms as colorful as unclaimed luggage. The elder tree turns a thousand dark eyes toward the earth.
Underneath the spoon’s
small lake of chowder
she fears her face
is still staring back,
some girl in China,
& depending on the angle,
either outlandishly skinny
or outlandishly fat.
She shuts her eyes
& quickly shoves it in.
“Delicious, isn’t it?”
her mother smiles
from the other side of
their round, round table.
This lacewing may be experiencing a teachable moment. I know I was: up late dreading poetry, I suddenly realized I was dreading over someone else’s shoulder. It must’ve come in through a hole in the screen door, and perhaps thought — erroneously, of course — that the computer screen was another way out.
Green lacewings are as sensitive as they look. Their hearing is so acute that some species can even pick up bats’ sonar, whereupon they fold their wings and plummet to the ground to avoid capture. They communicate through subtle vibrations of the body, especially during courtship — inaudible “songs” unique to each species.
This was not always such a sensitive being, though. In its wild youth as an aphid-lion it ate any soft-bodied invertebrate in its path, and was even capable of resorting to cannibalism if no other food was handy. It had large sucking jaws with which to grasp its prey and inject stomach acid, turning the other’s insides into a Slurpee.
If you too are up late tonight, you might still have time to confess your poetic sins before “100% Honest Day” is over at Read Write Poem. Here’s what I wrote:
I have a deep-seated fear of unconscious plagiarism, to the point where I even suspect all my best lines and images to be stolen from someone else. One of the main reasons for my lack of enthusism for publishing my work anywhere other than my own blog is the fear that someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of modern poetry will discover my unwitting thefts. And even if I could know for sure that all my works are original, I would probably continue to feel at some level that I am an utter fraud as a poet. (I wonder if this is why so many of my fellow poets get MFAs?)
If I want to overcome this fear, I think I simply need to retrain my ears. Surely it can’t be too difficult to learn to distinguish one’s own unique vibrations from anybody else’s. My aphid-lion days are, after all, well behind me now.