SunWinks! August 24, 2014: Keeping It Short

SunWinksLogoDear SunWinkers!

William Stafford got up at four in the morning and wrote a poem every day. Robert Bly admired this and spent a year writing a poem a day, which he subsequently published as Morning Poems.

 I’m just guessing here, but I don’t think you can write “The Waste Land” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” every day. I was writing almost a poem a day a couple months ago, not in response to a challenge, just feeling fecund. Most are a page to a page-and-a-half long.

You get a feel for a certain length. The beginning is about half a page. The development is about half a page. And the ending is about half a page. You write the beginning, and after about 6-10 lines, it’s time to start thinking about getting into the development. It’s very much like the difference between sitting down to write a minuet or a sonata.

You might want to try writing a poem a day for a month, as thousands do during NaPoWriMo. It keeps the juices flowing. It forces you to be constantly looking, as you read or move about in the world, for ideas for poems, asking yourself, “Why does this speak to me?” “What is the deeper meaning here?” and “What could this be a metaphor for?” You might find something inside yourself you didn’t know was there.

You might try writing an epigram a day. An epigram is a poem of two or four or six lines, usually witty. My favorite is by Alexander Pope:

 Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

Some of the possible themes of an epigram, from The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms*:

 They can be written to compliment or insult another person, to make a political point, to praise or ridicule a hero, to make a sudden and shocking statement about love, to make a dedication, to give advice, to make fun of life, to commemorate a dead person, to express a philosophy of life, and to send a secret message that is hidden behind the obvious meanings of the words.

             *[Edited by Ron Padgett; New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1987]

Not every epigram has to be as surpassing clever as Pope’s. But it should have something to it that makes it a poem, some image, irony, metaphor, immediacy, import, or personal insight.



I recently picked up a book entitled The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa,* which is a collection of travel sketches by Matsuo Basho in the manner of the haibun: short sections (usually a paragraph) of travelogue interspersed with haiku. (What a marvelous thing to find at the Value Village Thrift Store!)

 *[London: Penguin Books, 1966, 1987 reprint]

Yuasa has rendered the haiku in four lines each, believing that carrying the 17-syllable requirement into English is arbitrary and does not serve the spirit of haiku in English. (I quite agree with him, but I also enjoy working in the 5-7-5 haiku format in English.) So what we end up with here is a collection of beautiful epigrams! Here are a couple:


Not a flaw there is
On the polished surface
Of the divine glass,
Chaste with flowers of snow.

With a hat on my head
And straw sandals on my feet,
I met on the road
The end of the year.

© Nobuyuki Yuasa


Reading these, I was inspired to toss off a few epigrams in my poetry journal:


I used to think
I made something true
just by thinking about it.

are metaphors
for real things.

Lying naked with you
after making love
I feel like a beautiful
young woman.

A treasure waits for me
at the second-hand book store.
It calls to me from across town.
Everything is connected.

I bicycle everywhere
cutting through the clear air
like a yacht in full sail,
exhilarating in the physicalness of it—
developing powerful glutes.

My sweetie brings me a bag
of chocolate-covered-coconut bites.
I gleefully open one
and pop it in my mouth.
I forgot to take two bites!

© 2014 Douglas J. Westberg


Langston Hughes, whose Collected Poems I recently added to my library, has written dozens of epigrammatic poems, especially in the early part of his career:


My People

The night is beautiful.
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful.
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

            (Reminds one of Basho, doesn’t it?)


That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

            (How’s that for an image?)

Young Prostitute at Brazil World Cup

Young Prostitute at Brazil World Cup

Young Prostitute

Her dark brown face
Is like a withered flower
On a broken stem.
Those kind come cheap in Harlem
So they say.

(Evoking Basho again!)

© the Estate of Langston Hughes


Finally, a couple more examples from my two favorite poets:


The Immortals

None of us have felt good this year:
pus around the eyes,
sores that come and go with no explanation.
But we still believe we will come through it!
I signal this news
by lifting a little finger.

© James Tate


from Seven Poems

I have a key
so I open the door and walk in.
It is dark and I walk in.
It is darker and I walk in.

© Mark Strand


The Prompt

Write two or more epigrams.

Alternate Prompt

Write one epigram. One lousy epigram. Is that too much to ask? 😉

Post your response on your blog. If it’s a WordPress blog, tag it WeSun. If you don’t have a blog, put it in a Note on Facebook or some such functionality, something you can link to.

Then comment to this post with the link to your response.

I reblog this column at (you should be following that blog, too) and will post the links to your responses there. I will also comment on all responses. Don’t put your responses in a comment here on the SunWinks! blog. It won’t travel with the post to the other group.



© 2014 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Please share, reblog, link to, but do not copy or alter.



  1. Pingback: SunWinks! August 24, 2014: Keeping It Short | weaving in space

  2. Pingback: SunWinks! August 24, 2014: Keeping It Short | Writing Essential Group

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s