A Brief Introduction to Brief Poems

poemtodayIn September 2009 I posted my first tweet. It was a short poem (see below) by one of my favourite poets, J. V. Cunningham. Twitter was still in its relatively early days – you had to use a forward slash to signify a line break in a poem – and I wondered how I could use it. I decided to try to post a poem a day for a year on my twitter account @poemtoday. When the year ended, I   continued the task, and I continued to find interesting poems to post. Now I have decided to anthologise some of these poems, to group them together under certain loose categories.

Searching for poems to post – and the search continues – introduced me to a world of poetry where concision is dominant. I make no great claims for the poems chosen – a coconut macaroon is not a peppered steak, let alone a 5 course meal – but I do make claims for them. They have all been chosen because, in their own brief way, they give pleasure. And more.

Some can condense great feeling in a short space. That celebrated anonymous poem – and I discovered numerous anonymous  poems of great depth and concision on my exploratory adventures in the realm of the brief poem – about the Western Wind (see below) says more in its four short lines about loneliness, separation and love than most longer poems. And some of the poems gain poignancy from the circumstances of their composition. Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem “On the snuff of a candle the night before he died” gains from the tragedy and bravery of its circumstances.

Mention of Raleigh leads to the area of translation. Robert Frost famously declared that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, but reading Raleigh’s version of Catullus below makes me declare that poetry is often what gets discovered in translation. That brief quatrain, in its rhythms, rhymes, ideas, images and concision, is a miniature masterpiece. And so I have posted many brief poems in translation, aware at all times that brevity requires clarity. And then there is the manic, mischievous bawdy world of Marcus Valerius Martialis (known in English as Martial) but that is another world and another post.

The world of the epigram and the couplet and the power of both is summed up in Coleridge’s brief definition below but he also signals a word of warning in another poem. Suffice to say I have tried to find the swans amidst the fog. The limitations of the epigram and the short poem are skilfully dissected by David Barber in the best essay I have read on the topic (see Links below) and, if my journey has led me to disagree with him on many matters, I also acknowledge that these poems are not necessarily as nourishing as some longer poems. However, I cannot help preferring some short poems by Ezra Pound to vast swathes of The Cantos.

I could, of course, have tweeted haiku on a daily basis. The three line form fits the limitations of the 140 character limit. But I began with a disdain for the form – it may, I thought, work well in Japanese but not in English – that gradually grew into a grudging appreciation of its possibilities. Every year, for example, on New Year’s Day, I post the powerful plangent haiku Seamus Heaney wrote about his father. Some poems deserve reposting.

This is an odd and intriguing world where you will find poems of only one line in length (the monostich: a single line poem). I discovered one word poems (including the most expensive poem in existence written by Aram Saroyan which I will post about later) and titles that had no words attached. I discovered poems in skilfully arranged letters that made up no words. I discovered a world which is one I wish to share by anthologising in a slightly systematic way some of the poems I have posted over the years.

I hope you enjoy the adventure.



Here lies my wife. Eternal peace
Be to us both with her decease.

J. V.  Cunningham


Westron wynde, when wylt thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can rayne?
Cryst yf my love were in my armys
And I yn my bed agayne!

Anonymous (16th Century)



Cowards may fear to die; but courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

Sir Walter Raleigh


From Catullus V

The sun may set and rise,
But we, contrariwise,
Sleep, after our short light,
One everlasting night.

Sir Walter Raleigh



What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


On a Volunteer Singer

Swans sing before they die—’twere no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


A drop of venom, a little bit of gall.
Lacking these, my friend, your epigrams lack all.


(Translated by Richard O’Connell)


I am His Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Alexander Pope


“Faith” is a fine invention
when Gentlemen can see —
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Emily Dickinson


In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound


The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams


For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Ernest Hemingway


Their Sex Life

One failure on
Top of another

A. R. Ammons



Dangerous pavements.
But this year I face the ice
with my father’s stick.

Seamus Heaney



Aram Saroyan



David Barber’s Essay A Brief for the Epigram