Brevity, pt. II

Last week in my blog post, I made a statement that I feel I should clarify rather than leaving it decontextualized on the page:

“There is nothing stopping every single poet in the world from simultaneously summarizing their future work into much smaller segments, except perhaps for the fact that detail is required in most cases to make the work as nuanced as it needs to be.”

With this post, I attempted to make a point: Brevity does something interesting and very compelling; however, the context needs to be appropriate for it to work effectively. My previous statement, in its condensed form, has a specific meaning: Every writer could choose to condense their work into much shorter segments by being overly summarizing, but this could (and probably would) result in a loss of detail and nuance that would make the piece entirely different. However, because I failed to incorporate detail into this very brief statement (only one sentence, in fact) it lacks nuance and clarity and thereby can be confusing to readers with little context. (It proves its own point). It has not been unpacked; the sum is not the constituent whole of its parts. A detailed piece becomes much more than the summary of the same piece could be.

On the other hand, however, length for the sake of length is superfluous and some things are much better said within one (or two, or three, or four) line(s) (in the tradition of Hass, since we are reading A Little Book on Form). One brief poem that I particularly like is titled “Short Talk On The Sensation of Aeroplane Takeoff” by Anne Carson. Here is the poem in full:


Well you know I wonder, it could be love running towards my life with its arms up yelling let’s buy it what a bargain!


This poem sings through its shortness, its quick playfullness, its emphasis on each word and phrase that directly results from its brevity. Say this poem were instead written like this (my own “take” on it, which is far from the original):


staring out the window at the pavement dark

I wonder if love has left its mark

on me, or if it’s coming quickly ever closer as

wings that sweep through the air, my stomach

pulling upwards in tightness and hair, standing up

on my arms as I question this:

what does love do except purchase my own bliss?


This poem that I have written based off assumptions I took from the original is a poor attempt at “unpacking” what is complete on its own. First, I have completely missed the intended tone of the poem, turning it from something based in incredulous narrative to forced lyricality, spinning it from its original intent. This poem, like many others, does not need to be unpacked. Everything that it needs is already there. (And yet: Is not my poem something new, something compelling also?)

I suppose the same thing applies, in the opposite way, to great epics. If I tried to convert the Aeneid into one sultry line, I would probably create something like this:


Aēneas / dītches his / wīfe and in- / stēad finds a / trōphy in / Lātium


Or perhaps, if I were being less tongue-in-cheek, and less focused on feminism:


Wārs and too / āncient rules / sēparate / mēn from their / vālues and / prāctices


Now what I have cleverly done here is emulated the dactylic hexameter used by Virgil (in Latin) throughout the entirety of the Aeneid. (Though, I sort of swing it in some cases, like the word “Aeneas,” whose second syllable would normally be emphasized, rather than the first. In addition, English is an iambic language which made this difficult). But one simple English line cannot portray what the whole epic does. One might read my line and ask, well, how does Aeneas ditch his wife? Or, alternatively, how do wars and ancient rules make people act in ways that they never would otherwise? The trick? Read Virgil, he will tell you in much more nuanced detail than I could. The cognitive dissonance is much more pronounced by example than by summary. (And yet, my summaries are interesting in themselves. They are a new creation, based on the Aeneid, but focusing on whatever aspect I chose.)

And so I return to the idea that brevity can produce something that length and detail cannot. For example, these blog posts these past two weeks. You just read this one, and I unpacked things that were helpful to consider, but consider the way this singular sentence flows, and is able to in some ways, do more than this entire blog post could:

“There is nothing stopping every single poet in the world from simultaneously summarizing their future work into much smaller segments, except perhaps for the fact that detail is required in most cases to make the work as nuanced as it needs to be.”

Sometimes detail and nuance are better, and sometimes brevity creates a lingering. I don’t have a universal answer, because there isn’t one. The poem will let you know what it wants.

One Reply to “Brevity, pt. II”

  1. Brevity is quite the conundrum for me. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s the soul of wit, but also the dialect of the demagogue (that one’s mine). It lends authority rhetorically, but robs authority argumentatively. As a poet, we have absolute authority over everything except what the reader feels. Our goal is to have control over that as well. So we add details like you said to have more control over the reader’s interpretation, in turn, though, we lose some control over our words (although we always try to control every aspect of everything no matter the length, it’s just harder). If it’s too brief all we have is control but no understanding. A poem consisting of just the word “Bubble” is clear and perfect to me in meaning, but bound to pop in the mind of anyone else. It’s a spectrum then, as most things tend to be. Good thing the poem exerts some of its own pressure on where we should place the slider for it, otherwise we’d be more lost than we already are.

    Brevity is about control.

    Really interesting discussion on brevity. This comment’s more of my take than a response yours, but thanks anyway for giving me an excuse to put my thoughts into words.

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