Small Draughts: The Poems Of Braided
The short poem is a wonder of nature.
– Charles Simic1
Beyond haiku and other specialist poetry circles, it is rare to find
a book composed entirely of very short poems. Jim Harrison and Ted
Kooser, old friends and correspondents, started writing letters to
each other in the form of very brief poems when Kooser was diagnosed
with cancer several years ago. The result, Braided
Creek: A Conversation in Poetry, is not only a
pleasure to read, but also a window into the possibilities of the
very short form.
Historically, maybe the most prevalent type of brief poem is the
How tall would I be
without my enemies
to measure me?
Some of Harrison and Kooser's aphoristic poems speak with the
omniscient narrator's voice, like proverbs. Others are more personal
and employ the first person:
I thought my friend was drinking
too much, but it was the vodka
that was drinking him.
Harrison and Kooser fulfill the twin demands of the aphoristic
form: getting to a truth quickly and knowing which truths are worth
A variant of the aphoristic verse is the simple
"observation" poem. Unlike the aphorism, the observation
is usually just that—it observes, but stops short at the task of
Midday silence is different
from nighttime silence.
I can't tell you how.
Not surprisingly, many of the poems in Braided
Creek seem to be inspired by haiku. They are
nature-oriented and focus upon a moment:
In my garden
the late sun glows
through a rabbit's ears.
Much of the poetry in Braided
Creek is funny and
continues the tradition of humorous forms like joke-poems or senryu
(the cousin of haiku)2:
Straining on the toilet,
we learn how
the lightning bug feels.
Creek is also filled with sharp, imagistic
bursts—in the tradition of imagistic short poems.
In an egg yolk,
an artery fine as the touch
of a feather.
Thematically, much of the poetry is about death and related
issues like the body, loss, and memory. These are poems written by
older poets—valuable in their own right, but especially relevant
in the context of an aging America.
A coffin handle
leaves a lasting impression
on a hand.
Stylistically, the poems have a quiet and intimate, physical
feel. They are reminiscent of William Stafford or even James Wright.
The midwestern origin of the writers may have something to do with
I counted 340 poems in the book. A few of the poems do not achieve
the high level of success the overall collection does.
What has become
of the great hunter?
Today he won't kill flies.
Although this poem asks an interesting question, it lacks some
qualities that make the other poems succeed: strong images,
concentrated insight, and imaginative situations. A particular risk
of the short form is the temptation to write to the side of
aphorism, neglecting the poem. Such poems can sound didactic.
Creek, Harrison and Kooser show some of the
range of short poems. Of course, the book is also a personal
document—a conversation—carried on between two long-time
How one old tire leans up against
another, the breath gone out of both.
1 Charles Simic. "Novica Tadic." The
Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs.
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994: p. 40.
2 The senryu is structurally similar to haiku (e.g. same syllabic
count). But it is thematically different: while haiku is
nature-based, senryu is social, and often humorous. For more
information, see: William Higginson, The
Haiku Handbook. New York: Kodansha