Reading Report: How Short Is Too Short?

Musical Tables by Billy Collins, no grade

I don’t grade collections of poetry, but I do occasionally comment on them. This one appealed to me because the poems were so short, most of them just a few lines long. It was, as you’d expect, a breeze to read. But some of the poems seemed, I dunno, sort of un-poem-y. I mean, how short can a poem be and still be considered a poem? Given so few words, how do you establish that it’s a poem and not merely a statement of thought?

I know what the poet himself thinks about short poems. Not only did he create this collection of them, but he also wrote in the afterword,

These days, whenever I pick up a new book of poems, I flip through the pages looking for small ones. Just as I might trust an abstract painter more if I new he or she could draw a credible chicken, I have faith in poets who can go short.

Small poems are drastic examples of poetry’s way of squeezing large content into tight spaces. Unlike haiku, the small poem has no rules except to be small. Its length, or lack of it, is its only formal requirement.

Afterword, from “Musical Tables” by Billy Collins

And I agree with him except to say that IMHO a poem has to evoke a mental image and an emotional reaction. It has to have the potential to make some quiet part of the reader’s brain suddenly jump up and say “Wait, what?” or “Oh, wow!” Here are two poems from the collection that did that for me.

A Memory

It came back to me
not in the way
a thing might be returned
to its rightful owner

but like dance music
traveling in the dark
from one end
of a lake to the other.
New Calendar

The poem of next year--
every week a line,
every month a stanza,

and a tiny sun
rising and setting
in every numbered square.

In these, I can hear distant music and imagine tiny suns rising and setting, feel nostalgia for a bygone time, and visualize a year as a poem, or a poem as a calendar. But many of the other poems in the collection struck me as plain thoughts, or even jokes. They were, I suspect, simply too short to get the images and/or emotions across.

So, I would say that the collection is hit-or-miss, but it’s worth reading not only for the hits, but also for thinking about why the hits hit and the misses miss. Perhaps there is such as thing as a “poetic bare minimum,” and if so, then Musical Tables is an exploration of it.

In any event, I enjoyed the hits enough that I have decided to read more poems by Billy Collins, and Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems is now on my reading list.

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