The Case For Being Concise: Short Poems That Speak Volumes
Brad Leithauser likes to look for poetry in graveyards. A novelist and poet himself, there's something he values greatly in tombstone epitaphs: brevity.
"You really don't want to go on at great length," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "There's something very touching ... in seeing how they are meant to be commemorated, often in little bits of verse here and there."
In a piece for The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, Leithauser makes the case for conciseness and cites many of the haiku, epigrams and quips that speak volumes.
"I love those moments where you feel you couldn't cut another word out of this if you tried," he says. "It's just as spare as spare can be."
American poet Ogden Nash is well-known for his light verse and is often credited for writing a successful and miniscule poem called "Fleas":
It turns out humorist and poet Strickland Gillilan is the real author of these lines.
Many of the memorable short poems are humorous light verse, but Leithauser points to several examples of complex topics tackled in just a few lines. He's particularly drawn to Donald Hall's poem "Exile." The piece was initially 100 lines long when it was first published, and Hall winnowed it down to just six:
A boy who played and talked and read with me
Fell from a maple tree.
I loved her, but I told her I did not,
And wept, and then forgot.
I walked the streets where I was born and grew,
And all the streets were new.
The last two lines have a great significance for Leithauser. "I grew up in Detroit," he says, "and every time I return to the city, that feeling that even if the streets are the same, they're new. You know, life has moved on."
Though short verse doesn't leave much room for authors to share details about themselves, it often provides a reflection of the writer's circumstances.
Leithauser points to a couplet from Robert Louis Stevenson's collection A Child's Garden of Verses called "A Happy Thought":
The world is so full of a number of things
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
"I think [Stevenson] was the spirit of thanksgiving," Leithauser says, "and himself ... had bad health much of his life but managed somehow to take joy in things and express it appealingly in just a few lines sometimes."
"With these very short poems, you can sometimes feel truly that they don't have an author so much as just a discoverer."
Leithauser points out that the language of very short poems often includes slogans, like the World War II idiom, "Loose lips sink ships."
"It's a perfect little poem," Leithauser says. It's a couplet, you know, two lines and two lines. And, of course, it too had a very serious message."
Leithauser says that's the feeling readers should have with short poetry that really works — there's nothing to add, and nothing to take away.
Do you have a favorite short poem? Share it in the comments.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
In a piece in The New Yorker, Brad Leithauser cites a line attributed to Marilyn Monroe, who said she liked to read poetry because it saves time. An observation worthy of Yogi Bera perhaps. A poet himself, Leithauser writes about his love for the haiku, epigram or quip that gets the job done in as few words as possible. So we'd like to hear about your favorite piece of concise writing, poetry in particular, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Brad Leithauser is the author of several novels and of a forthcoming collection of poetry, "The Oldest Word for Dawn." His piece in The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog is titled "In Praise of Concision." He's with us from New England Public Radio, our member station in Amherst, Massachusetts. Good of you to be with us today.
BRAD LEITHAUSER: Thanks for inviting me.
CONAN: And when we think of short poetry, I guess the first name that comes to mind for a lot of people is Ogden Nash.
Yes. And I had thought - I'd been telling people for years and years that Ogden Nash wrote what I thought was the shortest successful poem ever written, called "Fleas," and in entirety it's Adam had 'em. But it turned out I was wrong and it was somebody else. It was a poem that should've been written by Ogden Nash and so it got attributed to him.
Attributed to him. So those things can happen. That line from Marilyn Monroe, you said, there's in the news business stories too good to check.
LEITHAUSER: Yeah. I don't know if she ever actually said that but I - and I'm hoping that if I'm wrong, no one will ever correct me.
CONAN: There's a few of Yogi Bera's lines that nobody wants to check either because he didn't say them. As you look at short poetry, you tend to think, yeah, Ogden Nash and people like that, this is going to be mostly light verse.
LEITHAUSER: Yeah. I think that's true, although, you know, I - one of the places I like to look for poetry is in graveyards and some of that, of course, is very serious indeed. But you've - you're paying a stonecutter. You really don't want to go on at great length, the stone costs money. So - but there's something very touching, it seems to me, and especially if they're people you don't know and they've been dead for a while, in seeing, you know, how they are meant to be commemorated often in little bits of verse here and there.
CONAN: I guess I never thought of it that way. You always heard about how Dickens was paid by the word and stonecutters also paid by the word.
LEITHAUSER: No, exactly. And, you know, it's funny. I - Robert Louis Stevenson has - actually, if you wouldn't mind I read it, it's very short.
LEITHAUSER: But his epitaph called "Requiem" is eight lines long and I think it's very serious. He says - but I think it's extremely beautiful, and it just - it's all the words are basically monosyllabic. It's just his declaration of how he wants to go out from the planet: Under the wide and starry sky, dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, and I laid me down with a will. This be the verse you grave for me: Here he lies where he longed to be. Home is the sailor, home from sea, and the hunter home from the hill.
Now, it seems to me in eight lines that really does capture a view of life. You sense his gratitude. There's an irony here, is that when he's writing that he's at home, he's - he died out in the Pacific, thousands and thousands of miles from his native Scotland. But he is home in the sense that, you know, he's returned to the earth. I think in eight lines you have a vision of the world that's just benign and sweet and lovely.
CONAN: There's a piece that you cite in your story in The New Yorker. It's called - it's about Donald Hall's "Exile." A poem, you say presents the double bonus of being a few syllables shorter and having a draft history of a dramatic excision that was initially a hundred lines long when it was first published, and he worked it and worked it and worked it and got it down to six.
LEITHAUSER: Yeah. No, exactly. And it may have been longer than that. The version I had seen that was published was a hundred lines. And, you know, I - it's the most dramatic case that comes right to mind of seeing in the big mound of dirt, you know, the little veins of gold or whatever. And I think that the little six-line poem is quite beautiful. But again, you know, there too - I think we tend to think of short poems, we think of light verse. Most of us think of limericks, of course, and I love limericks, but a number of lovely little things have been done in just a few lines too.
CONAN: Do you have a copy of it there with you, or should I read it?
LEITHAUSER: No, please, I'd love to hear you read it.
CONAN: A boy who played and talked and read with me fell from a maple tree. I loved her, but I told her I did not, and wept and then forgot. I walked the streets where I was born and grew, and all the streets were new.
LEITHAUSER: Yeah. And as I mention in the piece, for some reason those last two lines have just stuck with me. And I grew up in Detroit. And every time I return to the city, that feeling that even if the streets are the same, they're new. You know, life has moved on. And, you know, it's funny. The language of very short poems moves into slogans and, you know, I was thinking today of the - which was a slogan from World War II, loose lips sink ships. It's a perfect little poem. You know, it balances. It's a couplet, you know, two lines and two lines.
And, you know, of course, it had - it too had a very serious message, that if you know anything about what's going with your son or in the military or any - your brother, whatever, don't say anything. You don't know who is going to hear and somehow a little loose talk and the next thing you know somewhere thousands of miles away a ship has gone done. It's an extremely - I love those moments where you feel you couldn't cut another word out of this if you tried. You know, there's nothing here that - it's just as spare as spare can be. It's very pleasing to me.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. This is Scott, and Scott with us from Inverness in Florida.
SCOTT: Hi. I'm actually from Pensacola. That's just where my phone is.
SCOTT: All right. Anyway, my favorite is Langston Hughes' "Motto."
CONAN: And how does that go?
SCOTT: I play it cool and dig all jive. That is how I stay alive. My motto as I live and learn is dig can be dug in return.
CONAN: Dig can be dug in return.
SCOTT: It's my motto too.
CONAN: It's interesting. We got an email. This from Ryan in Ross - excuse me - Jennifer Ross, who also cited another Langston Hughes poem titled "Little Lyric." I wish the rent was heaven sent.
Scott, thanks for sharing that.
LEITHAUSER: And that one too, that one too is a perfect balanced couplet. You know, I mean it's funny. On the one hand it's as informal as can be. And on the other hand there's a skeleton there that is, you know, quite rigid, you know, quite rigorous.
CONAN: Here's an email, and this is from Eliza in Baton Rouge: My mom used to recite the R.L. Stevenson couplet from "A Child's Garden of Verses" called "A Happy Thought." The world is so full of a number of things. I sure - I am sure we should all be as happy as kings. After my mom died of brain cancer in 2008, this poem stuck with me. It's been a reminder to find the joy in life even when things are hard. A few years ago, I got the poem as a tattoo, a tribute to my Mom. This is another benefit of a short poem. Pithiness means it doesn't take up much space.
LEITHAUSER: Yeah. It's like the stone-cutter. And it's interesting that Stevenson has come up, you know, twice in our very brief conversation. But I think he was the spirit of thanksgiving. And himself, if we're talking about health, had bad health, you know, much of his life but managed somehow to take joy in things and express it appealingly in just a few lines sometimes.
CONAN: And are those poems, the child's collection for verse, were they written for children and thus short for short attention spans or written and then said, well, that's good for kids?
LEITHAUSER: No, I think written for children, but you know, there was the expectation that children used to have longer attention spans than they do, clearly. I don't know if they were unrealistic back then or if there's been a huge change, but I am struck often reading, you know, children's verse, it really is designed for kids of, you know, the last century and thinking, huh, you know, this is very complicated, you know, and it's long and it's, you know, the - there was - they had not yet invented the phrase dumbing down and perhaps had not even begun to really engineer it in ways that we maybe have.
CONAN: Well, I guess I'm old enough to have been required to memorize, you know, Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo and a fair amount of other, you know - Poe is easy to remember, the tintinnabulation of the bells, I can recall that but...
CONAN: Here's - we were talking about brown pelicans in the previous segment. This is a short poem written in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt. It's an email from Megan: A wonderful bird is the pelican, mouth can hold more than its belly can. He holds, in his beak, enough food for a week, and I wonder how in the hell he can.
LEITHAUSER: Mm-hmm. I've always like that. And it's one of the - it's, you know, it's the limerick structure but it - with just the touch of naughtiness to it but, you know, unlike many limericks, it could not be read over the radio.
CONAN: No, it couldn't...
LEITHAUSER: It's cute and sweet, yeah.
CONAN: The other form that, I guess, by definition is short is the haiku. Here's a tweet from Jillian Beck: My teacher at UCLA is wearing a shirt with this haiku on it. Haikus are easy but sometimes they don't make sense. Refrigerator.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Joan, and Joan's with us from Wiggins, Colorado.
JOAN: Hi there.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JOAN: The poem that I particularly like is from Shel Silverstein. And it's I made an airplane out of stone. I always did like staying home.
LEITHAUSER: You're cheating on the rhyme a little bit, but we'll forgive it.
CONAN: We'll cut him some slack? He's a songwriter, too, so I guess that explains it.
CONAN: Thanks, Joan, very much.
JOAN: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Brad Leithauser, who wrote a piece for The New Yorker's blog about shot verse. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this is an email from - about a Dickinson poem - I am sorry. This is John(ph). John with us from San Francisco.
JOHN: Yes, hello?
CONAN: John, you're on the air.
JOHN: Thank you. And actually my name wasn't John, she got that wrong. But, hey, I'm an HR director and I worked wherein a lot of people sometimes they come in grumpy moods and whatever. I've created a stupid little poem that's cheered up more people in the last 30 years. Here it goes. Roses are red, violets are blue, some poems rhyme but this one doesn't.
CONAN: I'm not sure that's original with you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Probably isn't, but I have used that dozens and dozens of times over the last 30 years. It has turned people's attitudes and their days around for whatever reason.
CONAN: All right. I'll take your word for that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Enjoy your program. Thanks.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Let's go to - this is John. John with us from Louisville.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi, Neal. I'm happy to be a part of this conversation. I love poetry and always have.
CONAN: And which one would you nominate in this regard?
JOHN: Well, I was tempted to reference Robert Herrick's description of the sentiment form as that brave vibration each way free. But the one I'd really like to talk about is James Henry Leigh Hunt, too, is the author of "Abou Ben Adhem" and some other things. He wrote a poem called "Jenny Kissed Me." And if I may I'll...
LEITHAUSER: Oh, I've always - I love that poem, yeah.
CONAN: Go ahead, John.
JOHN: Jenny kissed me when we met. Jumping from the chair she sat in. Time, you thief, who love to get sweets into your list, put that in. Say I'm weary, say I'm sad, say that health and wealth have missed me, say I'm growing old, but add, Jenny kissed me.
CONAN: Oh, that's nice.
JOHN: I love that poem.
LEITHAUSER: I was - I resisted the temptation to burst in and - turned it to double. But I, too, I've always - I just have always loved that. It's just...
JOHN: It's so much about the - you know, describing the man and that one moment in his life, maybe decades earlier that made it all worthwhile.
CONAN: Thanks very much, John.
CONAN: And this is an email that we have from George: My favorite short poem has to be William Carlos Williams "The Red Wheelbarrow." So much depends upon red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.
Let's see if we go next to - this is Ian.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IAN: This is a Jim Morrison poem and, yes, the songwriter. It's really short, published in one of his works. It was called "Do You Have Straitjackets To Accommodate The Guests." Why yes, we do.
CONAN: All right.
IAN: That was it.
CONAN: And I supposed that's one of the few of his that we can read on the radio too.
IAN: Oh, no, most of the stuff's fairly tame, believe it or not.
CONAN: Interesting. All right. Thanks very much.
IAN: Mm-hmm. (Unintelligible).
CONAN: You too. Let's go to Lisa. Lisa with us from Montrose in Colorado.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.
LISA: I was raised on Ogden Nash. Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.
CONAN: That's one of my favorites too.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
LISA: You're welcome.
CONAN: In this same category, you have a lot of, you know, the epigrams, you know, Dorothy Parker is the Bronx, no thonx. I guess it's a poem but it wasn't - I don't think, conceived that way.
LEITHAUSER: Yeah. No - I like all of that sort of funny odd mixture of things where it's hard, you know, to exactly identify what it is. And when I say to you, you know, loose lips, sink ships - yeah, it is a poem, I mean, but I used it loosely and, you know, there is - just this range - and really what I'm interested in is the - is getting to that moment where is - everything is paired - is stripped away and you feel that - as it's true with candy is dandy.
There's - that you can add anything. There is just such a - it's - you can't take anything away. You feel as though, you know, it's an intact union and somehow in a way that is not possible when things are long, you feel as though, you know, it was always there. The poem existed and it was just, you know, she happened to recognize that or Ogden Nash happened to recognized it. But with these very short poems you can sometimes feel truly that they don't have an author, so much as, you know, just a discoverer.
CONAN: Let's end with a poem you also cited in your piece, W.H. Arden's "Epitaph On A Tyrant." Perfect of a kind was what he was after, and the poetry he invented was easy to understand. He knew human folly like the back of his hand, and was greatly interested in armies and fleets. When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. When he cried, the little children died in the streets.
LEITHAUSER: Oh, it is awesome. Yeah, it is.
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today.
LEITHAUSER: Well, thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Are the poems in forthcoming collection short ones?
LEITHAUSER: Yeah, a number of them are. Yeah, quite of - I mean, I wish there were more of them that, you know, that I feel had too many words in them. But I tried to - the kind of way where I can.
CONAN: That forthcoming collection is called "The Oldest Word for Dawn." Its author is Brad Leithauser, who joins us today from New England Public Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts. And thanks again for your time.
LEITHAUSER: Thank you.
CONAN: Next week, I'm going to be away and it's going to be a different show with a different host, but I'll be back a week after that. Have a great time everybody. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow is here with TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.