Sharpening Your Short Poems

Small poems are a big challenge: the less words you use, the more important each one becomes.

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Within poetry, the hardest thing to write is a short poem. There’s something magical about the laser precision in the shortest of poems. It might be that you can easily recall the whole thing, allowing you to fixate on the perfection of the single image. Alternatively, it’s the endless labour that’s gone into every syllable, like compressing fist-sized lumps of coal to form the smallest diamond.

Often, I read a two-line poem and I’m left feeling a sense of pity. A line may have hung too long, or a certain word could have had the slightest imperfection. In longer poems, it’s easier to build a complex image by stacking lines until the desired effect is achieved but when language is scarce, the selection of each word must be more considered.

Forms such as haiku are beautiful in their delicacy but to create a truly great poem in a confined space is a work of labour equal to far longer poems.

For an example of a powerful, carefully cultured poem, consider ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s a master-work of syncopation that at first glance seems effortless. The use of “we” at the end of each line creates a steady though uneven rhythm that prevents the reader from guessing the morbid ending, as well as adding an element of jazz music to the pool hall that poem is set in. ‘We Real Cool’ covers a range of themes including Youth and Rebellion, Mortality, Morality and more, and it covers all this within 24 words.

In short poetry, every word holds a more substantial mathematical weight. A single bad line hidden amongst ninety is statistically unnoticed and quickly drowned out by the context of following lines but when only two lines cast the whole story, a single word that doesn’t fit becomes so much more noticeable, creating an imperfection that ruptures the piece.

Short poetry should justify its brevity, lest it be lazily written. Think why this poem should be so short and refine it. Sometimes, it’s not even a matter of finding the right words; sometimes the space and the silence around the poem can hold as much weight as words themselves. Sometimes, we have to build a poem in such a way that the rest of our setting is hidden inside other words and consider where we can hide other layers.

Writing short poetry trains your inner editor brutally and in time it reinforces your longer work by forcing you to consider the parts as much as the whole. Short poetry is a race-car built of premium components, or perhaps it is the sharpest edge.

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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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