No Ideas But In Things #3


Poetry is, as Shakespeare—the greatest poet of the English language—put it, “the force of few words.” If you can say what you have to say in eight words, why use nine or ten or 24? Of course, sometimes, for an effect, you may want to use more words . . . again, there are always exceptions. But brevity is certainly one of the most important characteristics of poetry—being able to say something interesting in just a few well-chosen words.

Who knows for sure (there are no fossils to prove it), but I like to think that the very first poets were those who had a talent or gift for conciseness. What most people, trying to say something, would struggle with, using 25 to 50 words, those original poets could put into one short burst of words, maybe 5 or 10 at most. And I’ll bet they also had a gift for finding an image to say what they had to say. And so, these early poets may have been quite useful to the communities they lived in, especially if what they had to say had an impact on survival, and was even memorable for a lot of people.

Maybe you’re familiar with the shortest poem in history? Check it out in the book of records. It’s called “Fleas,” and has two short lines, and it even rimes:


Did you know that the great boxer Ali was a poet? Here’s a short one by him, the title of which is ME?


Quite concise, you’ll have to agree, though there’s a bunch of “we’s" in it.
When it comes to conciseness in poetry, haiku is the best example I can think of. It consists of three lines, with a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables. There’s also loose or nontraditional haiku, a lot of which is being written these days (along with traditional haiku). In this case, a haiku can be just one line, or two, and the number of syllables will vary.

Let me give you some examples of haiku (the word is both singular and plural). Consider Basho, the most famous haiku writer of all, and one of his most famous haiku:

a crow alights
on a withered branch—
autumn evening

(translated from the Japanese, and so the syllable count is not 5-7-5 in English.)

Notice the following characteristics of Basho’s haiku, and of haiku in general:

1. Simplicity, which comes from literalness, directness—no wasted words, and generally no abstract words such as “love,” “beauty,” “joy,” etc.—straight talk, and image-making (no messing around).
2. Imagery—typically a haiku will contain details from the observation of nature. All haiku contain some kind of imagery, often just one detail of observation—which can amount to a revelation.
3. The identification of a season, in Basho’s case, Autumn. This doesn’t mean that you have to name a season—all you have to do is mention falling leaves (fall) or snow (winter) and that is sufficient. You’ll find that a haiku doesn’t always indicate a season of the year, but usually it does—and I understand that this seasonal reference was there in the earliest haiku, which came from Japan .
4. Lack of metaphor and simile—why? Because haiku in effect says that the world is the world, things are what they are. Haiku emphasize the “is-ness” and “such-ness” of things.
5. Two-part structure—notice the dash after “branch”—which often allows the poem to end on some sort of revelation or insight: when “a crow alights on a withered branch,” that single detail of nature means, simply, that it is autumn.
6. The connectedness of all things—as I understand it, in Buddhism (which haiku is informed by), you understand that everything is connected with everything else—if you deleted just one wave from an ocean, that ocean would no longer exist; if you removed one person from the universe, the universe would no longer exist—“All things are one thing, and that one thing is all things” (John Steinbeck’s words) .
7. Present tense—a haiku is almost always in present tense, the NOW—everything in a haiku is happening right now, as it’s perceived by the haiku poet, and by the reader of the haiku. Not yesterday or tomorrow or next week. Nowness is extremely important in Buddhist thinking.

A few more examples of haiku by past haiku writers:

my clogs stick in the mud

even though the temple bell
stops ringing, the sound keeps
coming out of the flowers

fish shop—
how cold the lips
of the bream!

two of my own haiku:

the man repairing
the old fence looks up with two
nails between his lips

the rain-washed stone toad
in the bird bath: clean Buddha
looking at the yard
a few recent, non-traditional haiku:

in a paper cup—
a long way from home
--Gary Hotham

soldier unfolding the scent of a letter
--Chad Lee Robinson, an SDSU graduate, and well-known haiku poet—you can look him up on the web, where you’ll find hundreds of haiku by all kinds of haiku poets

crossing a bridge
I enter her
time zone
--Chad Lee Robinson

weight lifter
slowly lifting
the tea cup
--Garry Gay

letting go
of the oars . . .
spring breeze
--Chad Lee Robinson

The haiku tradition is of course Asian, and Asian poetry and art and thinking have been influencing Western and American poetry and art, as well as psychology, and everything else (maybe you’ve heard of mindfulness meditation, for example?) for a long time. I’ve lived in China for a total of two years, and I’ve been influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry and philosophy. What impresses me always is the brevity, the suggestiveness of Asian art. These poets and artists don’t overdo; they imply and suggest, and leave the rest up to the reader or looker. There is a very strong sense of being able to say a lot in a few words, in poetry, for instance. But this is true in painting as well, for instance in Chinese paintings of bamboo. A few brush strokes will suffice, but there’s plenty of experience and expertise behind each of those brush strokes. I once talked to a Chinese artist who said that American artists, in his opinion, tend to “put too much into their paintings.” He said that in a Chinese painting, if the artist includes a fish, he or she doesn’t have to include water as well, since it’s obvious that a fish lives in water! That’s the attitude I’m speaking of: in other words, “less is more.” A good attitude to cultivate as a poet. I suppose F. Scott Fitsgerald was right when he said that some writers are “putter inners” and some are “leaver outers.” Poets are the latter kind, no doubt. See the poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” if you haven’t already seen it. It’s by Wallace Stevens. Each stanza is a short poem, almost a haiku.

Of course there are all kinds of short poems. The old GREEK ANTHOLOGY contains short, epigrammatic poems, which have had a great influence on poetry all over the world. (see for instance, A SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY by Edgar Lee Masters.)Consider these two poems from the American poet, John Frederick Nims, in his book OF FLESH AND BLOOD. The first poem is called “Transfusion,” the second, “Pastoral.”

Once Cruddy in the countryside
touched poison ivy. And it died.

Three rattlers sank their fangs in Dr. Crudd.
"Thank you," he bowed. "It much improves the blood."

(healthy attitude in this second poem--agree?) Finally, let me suggest that you may be a poet who works well with short bursts of words. Give it a try. Maybe that’s the way you want to make your poems because that’s the way you can do it best. A matter of short and sweet. Nothing wrong with that.

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.