The Appeal of Short and Sweet Poetry

Dep. Sports Editor | Jack Wright

One of the greatest consistencies within literature is variety.

Naturally, this extends to poetry. Genres and themes fade in and out of fashion as cultures evolve and public interest shifts. Homer’s epic poetry, passed on through oral tradition, differs in tone and content from Emily Dickinson’s quatrains.

While spotting the differences between one “big” literary name and another, the disparities in form and structure are unavoidable. Homer’s Odyssey spans twenty four books (or chapters) while Dickinson’s ‘An Hour is a Sea’ is three lines in length.

Dickinson’s poem is so short that I can include the whole thing here without incurring the wrath of the editor:

An Hour is a Sea

Between a few, and me –

With them would Harbor be –

And that’s the whole poem. The trademark dashes and capitalised nouns are present, typical of Dickinson, yet the most striking feature of the poem is the brevity. To me, the poem highlights isolation and longing. The expanse of the sea, the comparison to time and the potency of the ‘me’ captured within that gorgeously fleeting two-line image are mesmerising.

That final dash may seem to indicate that the poem lacks a true conclusion, though the rhyming unifies everything beautifully. Unsurprisingly, I love this poem. And the reference to the ‘Sea’ within the first line ties things together nicely with that previous mention of the Odyssey. Not bad, eh?

Any lover of poetry could go on and on. The amount of substance that a poem contains is not strictly dependent upon the number of lines, or the amount of books or chapters. Sometimes, an artist should be praised for self-control; for saying just enough without overstaying their welcome.

This is not to say that Homer or Dante or Milton overstay their welcome, or are unworthy of praise, for they certainly warrant the title of “Classics”.

For modern audiences, particularly younger individuals, brevity is digestible.

Poets such as Rupi Kaur are bestsellers, and I wonder how much of that is to do with their form and structuring. Milk and Honey features a variety of shorter verse pieces divided into four distinct chapters. Her work is not stylistically difficult to read, though her messages can be challenging in their starkness and unflinching portrayal of violence, loss and so on.

I found Dickinson’s poem within a Faber and Faber publication entitled Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems edited by Simon Armitage. It’s a great little read and features a variety of different poets across a number of different periods. Not a single poem within the collection extends beyond thirteen lines. How’s that for brief?

I’d like to share one final thought. The last poem of the collection is by Don Paterson, entitled ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’. The poem is blank.

I ask, then, when we condense completely – absolutely – when brevity is the very core of the poem itself, is it still poetry? And is there beauty to be found in the nothingness?


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