What exactly is a short poem? How ‘short’ can ‘short’ go whilst still retaining impact and sense, giving satisfaction to the reader? These were some of the questions explored by Greta Stoddart and a fantastic group of poet-participants in a workshop for Exeter Poetry Festival I attended this weekend.
A combination of exercises, provocations, and discussion, the short workshop was hugely stimulating and enjoyable, sending this playwright off into the afternoon thinking about words, images, narrative, and something more elusive – what is known in Chinese poetry as tzu-juan: ‘An all-encompassing present… “occurrence appearing of itself”…where the speaker enters both the physical depths of the thing/moment observed and the greater depths of his/her own consciousness.’ (David Hinton Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.’)
Greta believes that this ‘all-encompassing present’ is one type of short poem, with a narrative present – a snippet of a larger story – and an unreal, dream-like style or approach being a further two kinds. Further examples include the dramatic monologue (The Mother by Anne Stevenson), an opinion piece, or ‘telling’ poem, and humorous work (Ezra Pound’s The Bath Tub).
One of the largest pitfalls of short poetry is how they can be snapshots, mere fragments or impressions. In our group discussion, it became clear as readers we wanted more than the visual or immediate, although the possible impact of that was acknowledged.
Greta asked why we were drawn to the short form, and participants spoke of that white space – the silence – around the short poem, and how that offered the potential for reflection and meditation. The short poem also seemed to ask for less commitment from a reader than a longer poem, although the experience wasn’t necessarily a passive, or lesser one. Its accessibility was appreciated, as was its lightness and portability – you can pick up and learn a short poem easily by heart, and carry it with you, turning over images or questions in your mind long after you have put the physical poem down.
It was joyful to be in a room with such engaged and generous participants, guided by a sure and provoking (in the best sense!) hand. Greta shared examples of short poems with us, and led various exercises where we explored different starting points for new work, and ways to break open old poems which aren’t working, to make them fresh and get at their perhaps hidden, previously inaccessible centre. I won’t reproduce those exercises here, as I feel that is stealing from the poet/facilitator, but I encourage those interested to seek out Greta and attend other workshops she leads. You can find more about Greta, her work, and her workshops at: http://www.gretastoddart.co.uk Exeter Poetry Festival details can be found here.