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
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
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
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 essencewhether, say, a story or moral lessonand at the same time are often formally pared-down,
It's important to remember, however, that the short poem doesn't always employ a minimalist
style. Very brief poemseven pieces composed of a line or twocan 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-downin that it is two lines and communicates one central
messageits 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 languagewith 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.
2 Samuel Menashe, New and Selected Poems (New York: The Library of America,
3 Francisco X. Alarcón, Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation (San Francisco:
Chronicle Books, 1992), 67.
5 Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang,
6 Antonio Machado, Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, tr. Robert Bly (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 111.
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.