Poems of great brevity have a long and honorable history in English poetry. Examples such as Alexander Pope's Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness,
I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
Or Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro,
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Or Louis Zukofsky's
--each is an interesting and entertaining example of how a poet can imply or infer large concepts or ideas through a very few, carefully chosen words. "Found" poems, which usually are comprised of just a couple of words, occupy a whole anteroom to the larger warehouse of poetic genres.
How far may we go in compressing meaning into language? Is it possible to make poems so small and ingenious that no elaboration is necessary? Can a small poem evoke a context of possible meanings broad enough to rival that which is possible through complex, elegant structures, like sonnets? Can profundity be abbreviated?
In mathematics, we know that small, neat formulas can summarize universal concepts. Einstein's famous E=MC2 is often regarded as the ultimate equation describing the elemental force trapped inside the structure of matter. Mankind's eventual success or failure as a species may well depend on how we are able to utilize the wisdom contained in that kernal of mathematical description.
Against the legitimacy of this potential compression is the charge of pretense or fakery. Indeed, the tendency towards a reductio may reflect a desire for over-simplification. Modernism, in its early and most famous crucial texts (The Waste Land, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Spring & All, Harmonium, The Cantos, Discrete Series, A, etc.), was explicitly generative, attracting a nimbus of interpretation and contextual responses which buttressed the texts, lending an adjunct legitimacy to what frequently seemed opaque surfaces, at least to the general reading public.
In the post-War period, the possibilities of compression and concision were explored at length by Robert Creeley, starting near the end of Words , reaching a crescendo in Pieces , and lingering some into the 1970's, after which he resumed a less stringent aesthetic. Anyone who knows Creeley's work is familiar with Pieces. Somewhat less well-known, though just as important to the minimalist tendency, is his short collection Thirty Things [Black Sparrow, 1974], which is in many respects the quintessential statement of his commitment to the uncompromisingly short lyric, which is intended to carry the weight of occasion and meaning normally assigned to seemingly more ambitious formal efforts. Taking, for instance, an example, this--
if we go back to where
we never were we'll
be there [REPEAT] But
--the quality of riddle or of a meaning encoded is expressed with so few words that a sort of ultimate truncation opens up between expectation and method. Poems such as these have, for me, the same quality of moving large concepts around, efficiently, as do mathematical formulas. In each of these two poems, a circularity or redundancy is used to express an obsessive mental "tic" or time hang-up. Each uses a common vulgar phraseology, turned back upon itself through a discrete musical setting, revealing a logical "loop" or hitch.
Are such little gadgets really poems? Do they belong beside the considerable works of Marvell, Donne, Blake, or Hopkins? Can ease of apprehension be offered as justification for their apparent accessibility? Or does their lack of evident presumption and pretense guarantee that they will never be accorded the seriousness which people normally associate with Literature?
If our notion of conceit in the "metaphysical" sense can apply to elaborately conceived poetic structures, such as those typical of Donne, then highly compressed or abbreviated ones might also be considered such, through subtraction and great ingenuity. An ultimate simplicity may accomplish the ultimate summarization of fact, or feeling. This is certainly one of Minimalism's great attractions.
We will have more to say in coming posts about Minimalism, and its various manifestations in post-Modern verse.