February 2007

David Grayson


David Grayson is an Oakland-based essayist and poet whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Modern Haiku, Cortland Review, Caveat Lector and several other journals.

Short Poems: Nothing To Take Away

Reflecting upon industrial design, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, "In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness." 1

There are many kinds of short poems, from epigrams to haiku to imagistic shorts. A key characteristic (and pleasure) of the very short poem is, in Saint-Exupéry's words, its "stripped down" composition.

The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Disclose him 2

In Samuel Menashe's poem, the lines are narrow and the words are short and monosyllabic. The thin "i" sound is one of the two primary assonances. The "m" and "n" sounds close the lines tight. The result is a poem that feels lean and compact, and, of course, dovetails perfectly with the subject matter. In Snake Poems, Francisco Alarcón employs a similar pared-down style:

corn stalks
are upright

corn ears
in the wind 3

Like Menashe, Alarcón uses very short lines, monosyllabic words, and firm consonants. Substantively, Alarcón's poem is even narrower than that of Menashe; it comes closer to recording only what is essential. The first stanza takes the form of a definition, an equation where a = b: "a" being the subject and "b" being the image. He does the same in the poem entitled "Birds":

in flight 4

This three-word poem is so direct that it may be regarded as even simpler than a definition. It may be seen as a designation, a label. In this way, it illustrates the principle that Roland Barthes attributed to the short form of haiku: "the haiku diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation." 5

The definition poem is similar in spirit to traditional short forms like the aphorism and proverb-poem. In these forms, there is little extraneous material; they often articulate only what is essential; and the language is unvarnished. Antonio Machado's proverb-poems are good examples.

     It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing is not to know
what thirst is for. 6

The same is true for related forms like the epigram and the riddle. These poems distill an essence—whether, say, a story or moral lesson—and at the same time are often formally pared-down, too.

It's important to remember, however, that the short poem doesn't always employ a minimalist style. Very brief poems—even pieces composed of a line or two—can feel lush and full.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. 7

Though Ezra Pound's famous poem contains only one primary image, the poem is visually rich. While it is certainly stripped-down—in that it is two lines and communicates one central message—its voice is very different from those of the previously mentioned poems by Menashe and Alarcón. The following poem by Anna Akhmatova, slightly longer, is like Pound's in this way:

He loved three things:
White fowls, evensong,
And antique maps of America.

He hated the crying of children,
Raspberry jam at tea,
And female hysteria.

And I was his wife. 8

Akhmatova is able to describe the essence of the husband with a few compact lines. The language—with references to "antique maps" and "raspberry jam"—is earthy and grounded. Both Akhmatova's poem and that of Pound are full-bodied: textually layered, dense and rich, evidence that it's important not to conflate the short poem with a stylistic minimalism.

Achieving the stripped-down perfection praised by Saint-Exupéry, whether minimalist or not, is no easy task. What Barthes observed about haiku is true of short forms generally: "The haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily." 9 Of course, truly great short poems are enormously difficult to pull-off. As Thomas McGrath jokes in his poem, "For a Critic Who Tries to Write Poems":

Well, well, little poet!
Still looking for a dew drop
In the middle of a thunderstorm! 10



1 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "Wind, Sand and Stars," in Airman's Odyssey (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942), 39.
Samuel Menashe, New and Selected Poems (New York: The Library of America, 2005), 166.
Francisco X. Alarcón, Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992), 67.
Ibid., 49.
5 Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 83.
6 Antonio Machado, Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, tr. Robert Bly (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 111.
7 Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro," Selected Poems (New York: New Directions Books, 1957), 35.
8 Anna Akhmatova, "He Loved Three Things," in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, trans. Jerome Bullitt, ed. Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade (New York: HarperPerennial, 1982), 268.
9 Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 69.
10Thomas McGrath, "For a Critic Who Tries to Write Poems," in Passages Toward the Dark (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1982), 71.



David Grayson: Poetry
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 34The Cortland Review