Succinct, edited by Jonathan Greene and Robert West
Succinct: The Broadstone Anthology of Short Poems
Jonathan Greene & Robert West, editors.
IN ANY anthology there are always some selections one likes more than others. There are always things left out that could have been included if space were unlimited. This necessity of exclusion and the limitation of space creates a challenge for any anthologist. A short poem is a similar kind of challenge. A lot more could be said, but we limit it to a brief presentation that aspires to have an enhanced impact by virtue of its very brevity. One would thus expect that authors who have immersed themselves in short poems would understand these challenges and limitations, and choose an anthology with great acuity and interest. Jonathan Greene and Robert West have delivered on that expectation.
Succinct is an anthology of poems chosen by the single criterion of being short. What is short? They tell us in the preface, "We agreed that every poem here would be shorter than a conventional sonnet, and that no two would be by the same poet, though a poet could appear again as a translator." There are 160 poems in the volume, if I have counted right. They seem to be drawn from the entire corpus of world literature spanning a wide variety of cultures, times, styles, and subject matters. Each is given its own page—which is appropriate. A poem should take up space, both on the page and in your mind. It is hoped that it will contain enough substance to fill both.
Because of this breadth and diversity, it is hard to say anything that would apply to the whole volume, except that I think most poetry readers would be bound to find something of interest in it. The poems tend toward the minimal and show a heavy influence of the poetry of East Asian cultures. I am going to review this book by lifting out a few poems that I like and a few that I like less and explain my preferences.
The most minimal poem in the book I would judge to be "Mountain Graveyard" by Robert Morgan (p. 99). This poem consists of two columns of single words
One interesting feature of this poem is that the two words in each line are permutations of the same letters. However, this clever subtlety is not enough to bind all of these isolated words to the title "Mountain Graveyard." In other words, this comes across as the preliminary notes for a poem yet to be written. This minimalism to the max is not enough to mobilize my interest. I want the poet to do a little more and develop a thought of some sort. For what it's worth, I actually think the words read better in columns than in rows.
Many of the short poems in this anthology are isolated, pithy images that echo the East Asian traditions. For example, "Artichoke" by Joseph Hutchinson
O heart weighed down by so many wings. (p. 65)
There is a little bit of play on the double meaning of 'heart' in English, but to what end? A depressed person looks at an artichoke and sees his own worried mind rather than something delicious to eat. Is there anything more to it than that?
In contrast, Jeffery Beam's poem "Sinew" (p. 20) is simple, but much more substantial and dynamic.
The word 'Look' at the outset straightforwardly, almost brazenly, grabs hold of the reader and drags him into the poem forcing him to create the image of the water splitting around the rocks. The poem is aggressive, not a passive image waiting for you to contemplate it. It recalls the verse from Isaiah "Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters" (Isaiah 55:1) It is that same kind of exuberant tug on the sleeve pulling one toward something of lively interest to the writer. The water is flowing; it is not just sitting there. There is movement: action, rather than a static image that is not doing anything. Then immediately following, another image, a spotted snake—likely more interesting than the water flowing around the rocks, and probably the real object of the opening word, 'Look.' One does not ordinarily call attention to water flowing in a brook, but a spotted snake is a surprising accident that grabs one's interest and might merit a sudden call to attention. But one might not see the snake immediately upon looking. At first one might just see the water flowing around the rocks. Then, as one scans the water and the rocks for a moment, one's eyes fall on the snake. And the snake is not just sleeping or sunning himself idly on the rocks in the stream. There is tension. He wants to get out of there. And there is empathy between the observer, the poet, and the snake. The observer grasps that the snake is going to make a move perhaps within an instant. The opening call to the reader to 'Look,' is justified by this urgency. So this poem takes a simple image and creates a small drama of brief duration that involves both the poet and the reader. The poem is not:
Spotted snake lying on a rock in a flowing stream.
The poem reveals interaction between the poet and the subject matter and quite literally calls the reader into this momentary drama, whereas "Artichoke" is self absorbed and static. Gary Hotham's untitled poem
without the mountains (p. 61)
is another of this latter type. William Matthews "Sleep" (p. 88), Steve Sanfield (p. 123), Taneda Santoka (p. 124), Norman Shaefer "Hungry Packer Lake" (p. 125) Masaoka Shiki (p. 128), Charles Simic "Dandelion" (p. 129), Kawai Sora (p. 131) all belong to this category which I will call the "B List."
This summarizes my preference: not just imagery, but imagery coupled with action, imagery plus reaction. Involvement, not solipsism. Thought. Reflection. A tangible human presence, not just a lifeless image. I'll enumerate some of the poems in the volume that impressed me favorably without going into detailed analyses.
John Montague's "Late" (p. 96) captures the anxious moment of return to a sleeping lover's bed after a late night out without her.
W.H. Auden's "Epitaph on a Tyrant" (p. 17) is enigmatic. Six lines of description without judgment, perspective, or sentiment. They do not necessarily add up to 'tyrant,' except that the last line 'when he cried the little children died in the streets' hints at an ominous wielding of terrible power.
Stephen Holt's "Christmas Card from Bold Camp Mountain" (p. 60) is a simple image of cold gentle wind through birch trees and the footprints of wild rabbits on a fresh white snow. It works by virtue of the title. A Christmas card is often just such an image of winter snow and wildlife. This is a Christmas card where the image is created simply and beautifully with words rather than a picture. But you can make the picture easily in your mind. It is personal because it comes from a specific location where the writer happens to be. A very effective Christmas card, and perhaps an example of what Christmas cards should be. However, without the title this poem would probably go on the B List. It is the identification of the images with "Christmas card" that gives the poem its impact and connects it to the reader in a way that anyone in the western world can immediately grasp.
"By Small and Small; Midnight to Four A.M." by Jack Gilbert (p. 49) is a poem about grief and self reproach, a common enough residue following the death of a loved one. I suspect, however, that the regret expressed in this poem is a condensation, a screen for other regrets and self reproaches in the relationship to the deceased that extend far beyond the final four hours from midnight to four A.M., although the poem does not hint at it.
William Kloefkorn's "Pioneer Courtship" (p. 75) is a narrative that reduces an evening of nervous attraction and hesitation at a dance to its essence. I like the way it lifts out the nonverbal understanding between the subjects.
I love George Garrett's "Book Review." (p. 48) I might quote it some time.
Archilochus's untitled poem (p. 15) from ancient Greece on the hospitality of war is a poignant image of warfare and attitudes toward death in war in the ancient world.
Thomas More's poem "Astrologer" (p. 98) is a dual disparagement of both astrology and female sexuality very effectively expressed.
This is not an exhaustive list of all that is good in this volume. There are many others I could single out for merit, like William Carlos Williams poem about the red wheelbarrow (p. 155), but that one is a classic that has been noted and discussed many times. Necessarily some selections had to be made with some regrettable exclusions. But this is only a review and I suggest you get the volume. Panning through it will yield many small gems.
There is no index of any kind in this book, so it is hard to find anything. If you saw something you liked and want to look at it again, you just have to thumb through until you run across it. This laziness or thoughtlessness on the part of the editors is the only annoying blemish I would point out. Succinct is a pretty good job overall, showing a lot of care and thought. The selections are weighted toward the minimal with a strong East Asian influence, but there is enough diversity that almost any reader should be able to find a goodly handful of surprising treasures.