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The New Short Lyric Poem
First published in Magnapoets (July 2009)
Mindful that “everything old is new again” and that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” I think that it is yet fair to claim that the confluence of a number of poetic traditions is, today, producing poetry that breaks new ground. I am referring specifically to the new short lyric poetry that is developing in the ancient Western traditions of epigram and gnome under the influence of the last century of cross-fertilization by the also ancient Japanese traditions of waka, tanka, hokku, haiku, senryu, etc., written in English. Contemporaneous with the increasing Eastern influence is the school of Imagism in Western poetry dating from the early 20th century. No serendipitous coincidence, this; Imagism was itself influenced by Eastern poetics. (Imagism has been written about extensively, including the Eastern influence, so I do not propose to rehearse that history here.)
What all these ancient poetic forms have in common is extreme brevity—not just terseness or laconic expression, but radical concision. Imagism adopted this value as its second characteristic: Absolutely no word is to be used that does not contribute to the presentation. Ezra Pound defined the “poetic image” as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Immediacy is key to the intuitive awareness which is the desideratum of these briefest of poems. Radical concision is a proven technique for evoking immediacy.
In Western poetry, again, radically concise poems have a venerable tradition, from the 6th century B.C. in the case of gnomic poetry. What has this long tradition to learn from Japanese poetics? The answer is still being worked out, largely within the significant community of poets writing haiku, tanka, and related forms in English. While epigrams and gnomes are hardly “flavor-of-the-week” in modern English poetry, English poetry in Japanese forms is vibrant and extensive.
There are many fine tomes on haiku and tanka in English, both academic and popular, both prosodically focused and contextually focused, so I will not rehearse the history of Japanese poetic forms in English in this brief article. I will, instead, restrict myself to some comment on the macro trends to date. Although Adelaide Crapsey, an early Imagist and creator of the American Cinquain form (as an English tanka analogue), made a serious study of Japanese prosody, the overall history of the 20th century English-speaking poets’ fascination with haiku and tanka has been suffused with Japonisme, enthusiasm for exoticism, Zen Buddhism, and the general heightened interest in all things Eastern. As new poets who do not share these enthusiasms have entered the field over the last few decades, a cultural schism has opened and widened between the new factions along the axis of traditionalism versus innovation. That is to say, one school embraces recreation of traditional Japanese poetry in English as the objective of their efforts while the opposing school seeks to discover and isolate the poetic techniques and aesthetics which have enriched Japanese poetry and then bring them to bear in writing Western poems. In the opening decade of the 21st century, the “haiku wars” between these factions continue but with an increasing awareness by both factions that Japanese poetry in English must be distinguished from the very short Western poetry that has its foundations in both Western and Eastern traditions.
It is from the ranks of poets writing Western poetry in Eastern forms and, increasingly, in nonce forms derived from both traditions, that the new short lyric poetry is emerging. Most often published as “haiku,” “senryu,” “tanka,” etc., rather than as gnomic poetry or epigrammatic poetry, this new poetry is, to varying degrees amongst poets, firmly rooted in certain Japanese aesthetics. One, upon which I have written previously, is “ma” or as I refer to it, “dreaming room,” meaning some empty space inside the poem which the reader can fill with his personal experience, from his unique social context.  The Japanese ma aesthetic has broad applicability across the spectrum of arts and has special value to Westerners writing gnomic poetry.  Mastering its principles is a step toward the capability to filling a tiny poem with more freight, more power, than would seem possible. There are other features of Japanese aesthetics that similarly equip the poet of extreme concision to write powerful poems; yūgen (mystery, profundity, subtlety), karumi (lightness), kokoro (heart), wabi-sabi (imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness), and the list goes on. While Western epigrams and gnomes are often witty insights and home truths, even proverbial in nature, there is much more that can be accomplished by a poet equipped with techniques from both East and West.
I believe that the whole spectrum of tanka and haiku in English is leading to a new short lyric poetry in English. I am not speaking of a new form, nor even of a genre, but of a style of poetry that is informed by the brevity, concision, suggestiveness, and open-endedness of Japanese short verse. It is a highly imagistic poetry, markedly less discursive than most Western poetry; far more reliant on intuitive reading. This kind of poetry is more interactive than most Western poetry, whether free or formal. The reader completes the poem out of his/her personal experiential context and is, thereby, a co-creator of the poem. Such a poetry is incapable of polemic, or of use as propaganda. It does not talk at or to the reader, but with the reader.
For the reader long used to discursive poems, the new short lyric requires a paradigm shift in approach. It does not yield its fullness to a single, quick, read. The reader must give such poems an opportunity to work; that is, the reader must engage the poem and enter into it. The extreme brevity of these poems facilitates this extra reading effort.
For an example of a poet far along in his journey with the new short lyric, I suggest reading the recent works of Larry Kimmel, this hunger, tissue-thin and Blue Night & the inadequacy of long-stemmed roses. In those collections, one can find traditionally framed poems in Eastern forms as well as poems that break out of known molds and into new ground. Kimmel is by no means the only poet writing in the new style but the new style is perhaps most clearly discernible in his work. Meanwhile, here is a poem of my own:
I slept in the woods
(from The Dreaming Room anthology, 2007)
Denis M. Garrison
 “Assimilation of the ‘Ma’ Aesthetic Better Equips Western Poets to Write Haiku.” Simply Haiku, Winter 2008, online at www.simplyhaiku.com/SHv6n4/features/Garrison.html