Thursday 18 December 2014

BOOKworm

Published 16/09/2006 | 00:11

*In college I hated having to study Paradise Lost, not just because it was difficult but also because of its sheer bloody length. Like many people, the poems I most love seldom occupy more than a page - Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings, which runs to eight lines over three pages, is an honourable exception.

*In college I hated having to study Paradise Lost, not just because it was difficult but also because of its sheer bloody length. Like many people, the poems I most love seldom occupy more than a page - Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings, which runs to eight lines over three pages, is an honourable exception.

Brevity, I feel, is the soul of poetry and sometimes the shorter a poem is the better. Indeed, Frank Ormsby has edited a lovely little book of Irish verse called The Hip Flask (Blackstaff Press), in which no poem is longer than 10 lines. There we can read Paul Muldoon's richly suggestive Ireland:

The Volkswagen parked in the gap,

But gently ticking over.

You wonder if it's lovers

And not men hurrying back

Across two fields and a river.

And I also love Seamus Heaney's poignantly evocative The Strand:

The dotted line my father's ashplant made

On Sandymount Strand

Is something else the tide won't wash away.

Sometimes, though, a poem can be too brief to carry any substance, I came across one such example in the current Times Literary Supplement by Andrew Elliott (who also features in The Hip Flask). It's called Abstract Expression and, at just one line in length, it must be the shortest poem the TLS has ever published. Here it is in its entirety:

Hard not to envy Jackson Pollock his lack of a full head of hair.

If you say so, Andrew.

*And while I'm on the subject of short poems, the English poet TE Hulme, who was born on this day in 1883 and who was killed in action in 1917 while serving with the Royal Marine Artillery in France, was a master of brevity. His Complete Poetical Works, which comprise five poems, none of them longer than nine lines, were much admired by Ezra Pound, who published them in 1912. Hulme was a self-styled Imagist who railed against conventional 'poetic' subject matter and outworn language and who espoused a "visual, concrete language" to convey "vividly felt actual sensation" and he was lauded, not just by Pound, but by TS Eliot and other modernists, too.

One of his poems has been much anthologised and you'll find it most easily in Larkin's Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. It's called Image and, like Andrew Elliott's poem, it runs to just one line:

Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling.

I like it.

*Mark Haddon, author of the best-selling The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has enraged the people of Peterborough by calling it a "horrible" place with no good hotels or restaurants - even though he chose to set his new novel, A Spot of Bother, there.

They shouldn't take too much offence, though - after all, Joyce's vilification of Dublin, with its "odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal" put it on the international map and eventually led to the spectacle of Joycean scholars thronging the city and enriching its economy.

- John Boland

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