By Brad Leithauser
Some guy on TV is describing how he fitted his automobile with a new skin: gluing them one by one, he has blanketed every inch of its exterior with beer-bottle caps. Or he’s recounting how he fashioned, from zillions of ordinary toothpicks, a toothpick ten feet long and a foot thick—something Paul Bunyan couldn’t lift to his mouth. Or he’s displaying the dozens of photo albums that catalogue, exhaustively, the individual stacks of pancakes on which he has breakfasted daily for the past six years. And as I sit watching, one of my daughters ambles by, glances at the screen, and mutters, “Whoa, free time.”
Whoa, free time. In a minimum of space, it speaks volumes. It says, Boy, leisure time must hang heavy over your head. And, Have you stopped to consider the uselessness of what you’re doing? And, often, Adults do get up to absolutely asinine things, don’t they?
Concision. While a love for poetry may seem inseparable from a love for words, I feel a special fondness for the poem (or quip, or short story) that gets the job done while using them—words—sparingly. I like epigrams, miniatures, punch lines, and I keep a sort of mental cabinet of clipped curiosities. Pride of place belongs to the author of “Fleas,” a poem often attributed to Ogden Nash but actually written by Strickland Gillilan. (The story gets complicated: Gillilan did not call it “Fleas”—it’s unclear who first did—and Ogden Nash was apparently credited because he ought to have written it.) In any case, it must be the shortest successful poem in the language. (I’m tempted wildly to declare it the shortest successful poem in any language.) Here it is in its entirety:
One of Gillilan’s specialties was light verse, and a sympathetic reader will remark on how the poem, brief as it is, formally does what good light verse typically does: with its unlikely rhyme, it smoothes seeming clumsiness (“Had ’em”) into antic dexterity. And it does so with—another hallmark of light verse—a polished finish. (From a technical standpoint the poem is, I suppose, an absolutely regular trochaic monometric couplet.) But there’s more. The poem actually offers a “criticism of life”—Matthew Arnold’s touchstone for poetry that addresses the “spirit of our race.” Doesn’t it say, in effect, Why fuss over minor annoyances, as we’ve been doing since the beginning of time, given that complaining has done nothing to alleviate our lot?
On a graver note—as grave as humankind is capable of—what about “Jesus wept”? Surely, the shortest verse in the Bible may be the most affecting.
I’m partial to haiku, particularly when they intimate a far larger story than they tell. Here’s an especially terse example by Buson (translated by Robert Hass):
The separation referred to may be a literal two years. But I prefer to think it’s metaphorical. Departing, remaining—in either case, it’s a loss, the season of loss. A single entity—a couple—devolves into a pared, shared falling away.
The most touching English-language haiku I know belongs to Seamus Heaney:
But this year I face the ice
With my father’s stick.
In a mere seventeen syllables, the poem evokes a complex, compromised psychological condition. There’s comfort in the notion that Father is sheltering us with that stolid stick of his. And there’s anguish and vulnerability in the implication that the stick has been transferred because Father has died—recently, within the past year. As we set off from home into the freezing outer world, all sorts of emotional accommodations must be discharged.
Concision in its broadest spirit encompasses far more than a stripping of verbiage. It clarifies the contours, it revels in the sleek and streamlined. Years ago, I edited “The Norton Book of Ghost Stories,” a gathering of twenty-eight tales from the thousand-plus that I read and took notes on. In some ways, my favorite in the book is W. F. Harvey’s “The Clock.” It’s hardly the scariest of the lot, but it does have the simplest premise, and utilizes the fewest props. There’s nothing in it but a straightforward, naïve narrator, a long-boarded-up house, and a ticking clock. (A ticking clock? But who in the abandoned house has wound the clock?)
I’d set Harvey’s clock beside some other household knickknacks, like the glass menagerie of Tennessee Williams’s play. I’ve seen many successful plays that were shorter or had a smaller cast, but, for me, “The Glass Menagerie” represents a certain sort of pruned perfection. Its quartet of touchingly at-odds characters creates a tableau where no line of dialogue feels extraneous, and every latent nuance is brought to pathos.
Still, poetry remains the domain where concision consistently burns brightest. (Someone told me that Marilyn Monroe once remarked that she enjoyed reading poetry “because it saves time.” I like this quotation so much that I’ve never dared to confirm it; I’d feel disenchanted to learn it was bogus.) My little cabinet includes two six-line poems whose psychological richness surely couldn’t be duplicated in a full page of poetic prose. The first is W. H. Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:
Perfection 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,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
We have here some Nazi monster listening to Schubert lieder at the end of a workday devoted to the Final Solution. Or Henry VIII admiring a Holbein portrait right before ordering another innocent to the executioner’s axe. Or Caligula attending a lighthearted masque on the heels of a highly productive brainstorming session with his court torturer. Here is, ultimately, the whole haunting, ever-repeating saga of the good ship Civilization foundering when a madman somehow seizes its helm.
I’m equally drawn to Donald Hall’s “Exile,” a poem that presents the double bonus of being a few syllables shorter than Auden’s and having a draft history of dramatic excision: Hall initially composed and published the poem in a hundred lines, of which ninety-four were eventually trimmed:
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.
We don’t know whether the boyhood friend survived his fall. But we do know this was a friendship of an especially fertilizing sort for a budding poet: a bond fusing the warmth of natural boyish amity to the pleasures of shared literary observation. Then, in stanza two, a girl materializes. The romance that evolves is clearly puppy love, with the ephemerality of its kind. Yet its one-time intensity turns out to be haunting: the sort of thing you wind up, years later, writing a poem about.
The third stanza echoes in my head whenever I find myself wandering around the old Detroit neighborhoods of my boyhood. Even those blocks that have escaped either renovation or the wrecker’s ball, the ones where the houses look the same, have become different blocks and houses. The change is within, like some reworking of cornea and retina; over time, you can’t help seeing with new eyes.
Together, the three stanzas provide a spare but secure ligature, binding up a man’s years. And each stanza is more effective for its narrowing shift from pentameter to trimeter in its second line. Things feel curtailed—as though the poet’s words, cut short, are dwindling away in the air.
The poem is a lovely example of a familiar, maddening, ever-alluring paradox. The poet seems to be arriving at something significant, and we’re following him there. You’re approaching a riddle, closer and closer, until suddenly it looms before you, the arc of your existence—your life! And now there’s everything to say. But the revelation occurs in a place where—concision’s vanishing point—you have no language left at all.