No time to read? Let’s read short poems, then!
It matters even more to the time-starved individuals of the so-called modern times like me.
This April, I downloaded an Android application called “Poems. Emily Dickinson” on my smartphone. It contained a total of 1082 poems by the reclusive 19th century American poet. I read all the poems in a period of two months, and that I did on a micro-bus from Ratna Park to Hattiban and back, on the way between the university where I work and home.
I have loved Dickinson’s poems since my early college days. But that was not the only reason why I read so many of her poems on public transportation. Almost as important was their length! Most of them, and those happen to be the ones I love the most, are just a few lines long and neatly fit into the screen of my phone. So, there was no need to scroll down. I could just click on them, finish reading them in a minute or even less, and then remove my eyes from the screen to ponder over their meaning amidst the chatter of fellow commuters and sound of horns blaring from the vehicles on the road. The poems were probably the only truly literary, and aesthetically pleasing reading I had done in months. The joy of reading her short poems, and the realization that one can express so much with so few words was, to put it simply, just amazing.
A two-line poem, entitled “Not”, for instance reads like this:
Not ‘Revelation’‒’tis‒that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes.
What more remains to be said?
Most of my favorite poets who have written short poems in English―Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, W.S. Merwin, among others―all belong to the twentieth century. I’m not sure why poets in the early 20th century developed such fascination towards this form. Could it have been that the industrialization, modernization, and the resulting rush in people’s lives forced the poets to compose short, compact, terse verses in opposition to the ornamental and optimistic verse of the romantic period, which to the imagists represented “careless thinking”? Or, was it because they were tired of material advancement, and saw a way out in verses that had embedded in their very form a spiritual potential beyond the materialism that obsessed the whole world?
But then, of course, the sonnet has been around in English poetry for centuries, as have various short forms of poetry in almost all the major literary traditions of the world. Ruba’i, for instance, is a popular form in Arabic poetry, which is comprised of 4 lines, and usually blends the themes of worldly love with the spiritual love. I personally am a big lover of the 11-12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam and the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi. These poets wrote in quatrains, each of which was meaningful in itself, but the collection of quatrains, called Ruba’iyat, was also meant to be read in a progression. Be it in times of joy, or times of distress, I have always found constant solace in their poems. The modern Hindi and Urdu Sayari also closely follow the pattern of the Ruba’iyat.
Japanese haiku, in the same way, is renowned all over the world for its short, penetrating expressions. A haiku, which consists a total of seventeen ons, with three phrases, each of 5, 7, 5 ons respectively, is probably the shortest of the poetic forms. Considered to be one of the inspirations behind the Imagist movement in English poetry, a haiku tries to bring about a realization in the reader by juxtaposing two images or ideas, which mostly come from nature. Poets from all over the world have tried to imitate this form in their languages, usually with not much success.
Another Japanese short poetic form popular for its brevity and underlying insight is the Zen poetry. These brief anecdotal and conversational poems by poets like Ikkyu Sojun, Matsuo Basho and Dogen Kigen, usually highlight Buddhist insights as well as traditional Japanese teachings.
The great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, is known for its all-encompassing nature. There is fact a popular saying that if there is anything in the universe, it has surely been mentioned in the Mahabharata; and if there is something that has not been mentioned in the Mahabharata, then it surely cannot exist in the universe either. But the popular late 20th century Indian philosopher Osho claims that all the worth of the Mahabharata lies in the short section called “Geeta” within it. If not for Geeta, thus claims Osho, the Mahabharata would either have been long forgotten or remained an ordinary Hindu myth. People who revere the Mahabharata and consider each of its verses deeply holy may find Osho’s claim irreverent, but what he says makes a lot of sense to me. I find it remarkable that in all that sprawling epic, it is a short section that holds the most meaning.
Mahakavi Devkota, in his essay “Is Nepal Small?” thus praises the importance of things small: “A diamond is small, a pearl is small, a gem is small, an innocent sweet-speaking child is small, and the pupil of the eye is small.” I believe, a well written small poem is as valuable as diamond, pearl or gem, or as precious as an innocent child or the pupil of an eye. In just a few words, a short verse can say something so starkly insightful that it might take a novel or an epic hundreds of pages of struggle to express.
I was ( it saddens me to confess) a voracious reader once. I loved reading books of all genres. But the demands of life are quite something, and there are times when you can’t read as much as you would want to. For someone like me, whose reading and writing at present has been limited mostly to academic stuff, short writings, and even more so, short poems, have come as a great respite. We live in a world with a progressively diminishing attention span. We are used to composing and reading 140-character tweets, 160-characters SMSs, and watching images on screen that change every second. At a time where the mundane seems to have left no space for any kind of sublimity, these short poems may be instrumental in reinstalling in us a faith in words and their ability to communicate the profound.
This is not to undermine Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’s epics or Dostoevsky’s novels at all. But at a time when people fight to stake their claim over seconds and bind them into the tweets and updates that constantly vie for our attention, I believe, short poems can provide a sense of timelessness to time-starved modern individuals, and deliver in small, condensed capsules what they have missed of art and literature.
My Six Picks
Scarecrow in the Hillock
– Matsuo Basho
Scarecrow in the hillock
Paddy field —
How unaware! How useful!
Fame Is a Bee
– EMILY DICKINSON
Fame is a bee.
It has a song –
It has a sting –
Ah, too, it has a wing.
In a Station of the Metro
– Ezra Pound
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.
― W.S. Merwin
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
– Omar Khayyam
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Where under crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help — for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.
(Edward Fitzgerald’s translation)
– Sulochana Manandhar Dhital
The night is a pregnant mother
If you don’t believe me, just wait and see
She will give birth to the sun.
(Published in Read, September 2014)