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November 28, 2008 by Reader's Connection

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year–though this year, of course, we might have the slowest busiest day of the year of all time. In any case, we’re moving into a frantic season. You may not have time to read an epic novel; and if that’s your situation, you need to check out some shorter forms: short poems, proverbs, six-word memoirs.

The Niagara River

The poems in Kay Ryan’s most recent collection,The Niagara River, are all quite short. I haven’t read any of her five earlier collection–the library owns four of them, and I’m requesting some now–but judging from the critical quips on The Niagara River‘s cover, I gather that she never goes on for too long.

Her poems are compact, exhilarating, strange affairs . . . J. D. McClatchy
It’s like arm wrestling with the scrawny kid in the schoolyard who pins you before you know what’s happened. — David Yezzi


Occasionally, a Kay Ryan poem will spill onto a second page. My favorite (I guess) is “Almost Without Surface”, and it’s 24 lines long. Those are very short lines, but if that’s still too much for you, try some haiku. This poetic form dictates a three-line structure, so you’re safe. Pretty much.

The Essential Haiku

Robert Hass translated and edited the poems inThe Essential Haiku: Versions of Bash?, Buson, & Issa. Others translated the prose selections.

Mosquito at my ear–
does it think
I’m deaf?

attached to nothing,
the skylark singing–Basho

Flowers offered to the Buddha
come floating
down the winter river

If three-line haiku are too time-consuming, try some proverbs. In 1973, poet W. S. Merwin put together a collection called Asian Figures, and these sayings–from Korea, Burma, the Philippines, Japan, China, Malaya, and Laos–have found their way into his book East Window: The Asian Translations

East Window

Even with your aunt

Talk about tomorrow
the rats
will laugh

Word gets away
four fast horses
can’t catch it


Okay, it’s hard to say how long a saying will be, and if you require even greater compactness, you might want to try reading a six-word memoir. Ernest Hemingway, rising to a challenge, supposedly wrote the six word story:”For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Inspired by this model, the online storytelling magazine SMITH asked readers to submit half-dozen word memoirs. You can read them at the SMITH website, and some have been collected in Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure

Not Quite What I Was Planning

Naively expected logical world. Acted foolish.
–Emily Thieler

Born in California.
Then nothing happened.
–Mark Harris

Poet locked
in body
of contractor.
–Marilyn Hencken

Crazy clouds compounding,
refusing to rain
–Glenn Halberstadt

That last one is a fake. I did it myself. It’s a dorkled-up version of the last lines of Kay Ryan’s poem “Almost Without Surface,” and it works much better as a poem than as a six-word memoir. The Niagara River, page 36. Happy holidays.

SPEAKING OF WHICH (happy holidays, I mean) don’t forget the library’s GIFT SUGGESTION LISTS.



  1. Jim says:

    These are great suggestions. I just requested all three. It seems that short poems have some things in common with what we do with our posts on the the internet.

  2. I’ve only managed to find the first one. Any ideas where I might get the others?

  3. Glenn Halberstadt says:

    Have you tried requesting the other titles? The Essential Haiku, East Window, and Not Quite What I Was Planning all seem to be on shelf at Central Library at the moment, but any of the three could be requested and sent to the branch of your choice.

    Am I understanding your question correctly?

    Glenn Halberstadt
    Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library

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