The long and the short of it – the usefulness of short poetry forms

When the idea of writing overwhelms me, I remember the beauty of short forms. There’s a part of me that sometimes feels a bit guilty when I do this. Why? It is not as though short forms are cheating.

Putting aside the novels I’ve started and left fallow, the 80 000 – 100 000 word thesis I’m working on sometimes freaks me out. It is not because of the word count but the need for cohesion. The pressure for coherence bears down. Faced with pages of notes and (some rather beautiful) planning sheets I still find myself beset by questions such as ‘can I sustain a sensible argument?’

Now that I’ve worked my way through the first 10 000 words – which I suspect will end up as somewhere more like 5000–7500 by the time I get to the next incarnation of that chapter – I’m feeling more confident that I know what my argument is. Or, at least, what I believe it is going to be so long as I can come up with the evidence to support it.

Short forms

A lot of my writing is image based. This works well for me when I’m working with short poetry forms. I like the way these forms call for a compression of language. Haiku, tanka, cinquains, Ezra Pound couplets are among my favourites. The constraints that short forms impose are comforting.

The example of Pound’s use of the form that comes most readily to mind is probably ‘In a Station of the Metro‘.* I find Pound’s juxtaposition of the human/metropolitan with nature works beautifully. Those two lines do a lot of heavy lifting.

Ages ago – the century was still fresh – I spent some time purposefully working with short forms. They fitted well into my routine. There were one or two poems from that period that I quite liked. One was based on the structure suggested by Ezra Pound couplets…

By the Pound

Red cherries in rich globular pairs;
Words arranged in tight bundles.
Lovers entwined on the river bank;
Images wrought with measured breath.

It isn’t just the poem I’ve been reflecting on but how I was able to fit writing into a crowded schedule. Among the short pieces – which helped keep me focused – were some extended pieces, mostly short stories, that were cohesive (even if not always coherent…I need to remember that I might achieve one without the other). Writing fed into writing that fed into more writing. It was a case of filling the well to be able to draw from it.

The bigger project

For the past few weeks I’ve been revising the draft of Chapter 1. I’ve also been reworking the (beautiful) plan I had drawn up for the shape of the whole thesis. My ‘super symmetrical structure’ has shown itself to be nothing but a dream. The whole approach has changed, too. I should also be well into the second chapter. I’m not.

Looking back over the work I handed in I can’t help but see that I need to be careful with how I use images. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using images at all. I know I can’t mix metaphors in the writing (which I have done terribly in a couple of past essays…) but I do want to use some images in the course of the discussion. I like writing with images but I need to keep them sharp, especially in the context of academic prose.

The discipline of short forms needs to come into play in my extended pieces of writing. While aiming for the 80 000 words, I need to keep control. The language needs to be compressed, ideas well focused. Images might help express the ideas. While it could be fun, it is probably not appropriate to slip a haiku or an Ezra Pound couplet masquerading as prose into analysis and commentary.

Not only do I need to be making use of the discipline of short forms, I think I should be working with them. I have three reasons for this:

  1. I need to working on practicing concise language and compressed images.
  2. It is good to have a routine (and expectation) of producing contained objects.
  3. I find short forms can be effective memory keys.
Fresh cherries in a bowl
Sweet cherry pairs

The plan evolves

I think there is space to integrate short forms into my daily practice. Not as an add-on but as a part of the work that I’m already doing. Page after page of bullet points and flow charts have not been working that well for me. A few haiku and cinquains might be just the ticket. They can unlock all sorts of emotions and ideas in ways that are much more effective (for me) than straight notes.

Notemaking just got a whole lot more creative, and fun!

*I have no idea of whether he thought specifically of these as a form, and that’s a research rabbit hole I’ve no intention of tumbling down. I must not tumble down that rabbit hole…


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