Posts Tagged ‘emily dickinson’

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Poetry Sunday: Short Poems

May 20, 2012

Poems come in all shapes and sizes and most certainly cover every imaginable topic.  There are the lengthy epic poems like Milton’s Paradise Lost, decreasing in size like Rumi’s quatrains, until we arrive at the short haiku masters like Bashō.

The long epic poems read like novels.  They have room for plots and changes in mood and character.  Length dictates shorter works to be more singularly focused.  In fact, singularity is what makes them work.  You might think a short poem takes but a moment to compose.  Sometimes they do, but more often short poems take as much, if not more, time to construct as poems with lengthier word heft.  There are styles, like the Shakespearian Sonnet, that dictate length, but many works of metered and free verse employ the brevity short poems.

I consider a short poem to be any that fits on a single page, and that means one column.  We all know there are people out there that can cram War and Peace onto a grain of rice, I mean reading poetry under normal conditions.  Others arbitrarily define short poems as having six quatrains of less, or twenty-four lines.  With my definition in mind, most poems are short poems.

For me, short poems are more about that singularity than a specific length limit.  A true master of the short poem is Emily Dickenson, one of my

Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype

two favorite poets by the way.  She used a delicate turn of phrase to draw the reader to a single thought.  Here is a nice poem of hers that illustrates the point:

Hope

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

This poem obviously focuses on hope but expands out to show the impact hope has as well as the effect the world has upon hope.  With only eighty-two words, Emily explains one of life’s trickier subjects to grasp.  Yes, there is much more to hope than any one poem can encompass, but this is a complete view of one way to see it.  It is powerful and has a depth that goes beyond its few lines.  At the same time is shows strength, it also shows frailty.  That juxtaposition is common in shorter poems.

Not all short poems use comparison directly.  Here is a poem of mine that uses both simile and metaphor to explain what I mean by beauty.  It is markedly different from Emily’s example, and I do not mean to suggest I am as fine a poet as she is by the comparison.  While she employs direct metaphors (“Hope” is a thing with feathers) to open her poem, I use the poem as a whole to compare beauty to grace.  What the poems have in common is to explain a single thought.

The Beauty of Every Woman

The beauty of every woman
is not about the look
and to think it so would be the same
as the drop to sum the brook

Her soul’s the place where beauty writes
each volume of her tome
Then soon the essence of every book
finds her heart and calls it home

From her heart-page each measure is read
to discover her gentle ways
providing to all life’s caring love
and guide us throughout our days

The beauty of every woman
is all about the soul
Her spirit being life’s precious scribe
etching upon our scrolls

You see, true beauty is a woman
no matter what her face
for beauty is seen by special eyes
put simply, ‘tis godly grace

 

Bashō Statue

As a quasi-rule, the shorter the poem, the more it counts on comparison as a device.  As the length shortens, each word takes on greater importance in conveying the poet’s message.  On the extreme end are the shorter Japanese styles we in the West lump into the term haiku.  Traditionally, not only are haiku short, they also need to have a subject dealing with a season of the year or nature in some way.  Modern haiku are less restrictive on that point.  What all properly formed haiku have in common is juxtaposition and a cutting work known as “kireji.”  It is not always easy to pick out the kireji in haiku translated from Japanese; it is true that something is lost.  The most famous haiku is Bashō’s Old Pond:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

To really get haiku, the reader must take each line separately.  Read them with a pause, for a thought, and then read the next line.  Look at it this way, if we read “old pond a frog leaps in water’s sound, it is sort of flat.  If we read it with pause and use “in” as the kireji, it takes on depth: “old pond… | a frog leaps in | in water’s sound.”  It causes us to consider the thought of each line as well as the overall thought of the poem.  Read properly, a few little words can be very powerful.

I have not written many haiku.  Here is one that came to mind while watching a military funeral at Beaufort National Cemetery, in Beaufort, SC:

Sacred Stones

volley chases air
gathered loved ones flinch and weep
a lone bugle cries

It would have to be considered “westernized” as I did not employ a kireji directly but I do tie the lines together with the juxtaposition of “weep” and “cries.”  Still, it holds a powerful thought.  If you have ever witnessed a military funeral with full honors, this haiku will stir your soul, if not, it will give you an idea of it.

In the end, short poems are like a punch to the gut, they knock the wind out of you.  Each line has to get right down to business and move the poem along.  Part of the appeal is the space this leaves for the reader to fill in the gaps with their own personal feeling and experiences.  Maybe that is the appeal of short poems in the first place.

I will end with a free verse example that speaks for itself and has no need for an explanation as to my meaning.  It truly illustrates the emotional power a short poem can have.

Heartbeats

If all you wanted was my heartbeat,
you only had to ask.
Each beat, each pulse of it
is there only for you.
There is no need for deception,
though easy a mark am I.
I believe all you tell me, each lie,
I do not question them.
I cannot – I will not!
For I am lost in the promise of what might be,
what never was.

Take them all…
I have no further use for heartbeats.

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Free-verse, free-verse everywhere, but still no poets think

March 20, 2012

Walt Whitman
Father of Free-verse

I am often asked where my inspiration comes from regarding my poetry.  I am taken a little aback by this, as I think my poetry is self-evident. I guess they are asking more about what makes me see the world as I do rather than what a particular poem is all about.

For me, my life is poetry, not some free-verse prose form that runs on like a bad version of Hemmingway.  No, the poetry of my life is more like Frost, Dickenson, and Yeats.  In other words, it has something to say, a singular point to make.

I will never be a modern poet.  I do not understand spoken-word or slam poetry.  I’m not knocking them, it’s just not me.  I am all about metaphor and form, that and a good selection of adjectives.  It has been said I write “like a nineteenth century poet.”  I am sure it was not meant as a compliment but for me there could be no greater.  I am lost in a romantic time when true craftsmanship existed in poetry.

In the end, modern poetry has just passed me by.  In fact, I see free-verse much the same as Robert Frost.  He put it like this: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”  I tend to think the form is over used today.  In a sense, it is advanced poetry.  It requires the poet to be poetic without the use of ninety percent of poetry’s tools.  It is like a carpenter building a house with just a hammer.

Still, it does have its place, there is no denying that.  To be honest, some of my more popular poems are free-verse.  My point is I use the form sparingly.  I produce a work in that style, and then retreat back to the safety of rhyme and meter.  It is like coming home after a vacation.   It is good to get out and see the world, but nothing beats coming home.

Perhaps it is the fast-paced world that promotes free-verse.  I mean if all you have to do is move from a to b and not worry over structure, results come quickly.  I am not sure “quickness” is what Walt Whitman wished to inspire or that the controversial poet, Ezra Pound accepted a “fire and forget” approach to poetry.  They mastered the use of words and kept a poetic feel to their work.  Pound’s great free-verse The Garden has little in common in approach, style and feel of works produced today.  The effort he expended is obvious and the result speaks for itself.

Opening Stanza of The Garden:

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anemia.

Of course Ezra would be happy with poetry going beyond where he left it.  He even said to do just that.  My point is not about the newness, it is the seeming lack of effort I feel with much of what I read in today’s free-verse offerings.  I feel it debases the art of poetry.  I get the sense a young poet reads some T.S. Eliot and thinks “I can do that,” never realizing the painstaking time and deliberate word selection Eliot struggled with.  Even one of his best poems, one of the best poems ever, The Waste Land has been criticized for its disconnection and disjointed style, more a criticism of free-verse than Eliot.   Still, when you read it, then step back from it, the symmetry and beauty of the work stands like a beacon in the night.

The opening lines of The Waste Land:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

What all these champions of free-verse had in common is the ability to pick and choose the elements they used and remain poetic.  They knew how to color outside the lines.  That is what seems to be missing today.  While they abandoned the rules, they never abandoned style.

In the end, each poet must walk their own path.  My 2¢ worth of advice will not hold even that value to them.  My only hope is young poets wake up and put in the effort to produce true poetry and not just slap a few catchy words together and think themselves brilliant.

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