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Ode to Micro Poetry: More than May Meet the Eye

by Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof

Less than 8 inches. The micro-skirt. Shorter than a mini-skirt. A brief word this month on poetical equivalents. We could say that the Japanese tanka form of five lines is the mini-skirt of poetry. Both aim to cover what is substantial, but nothing more. Likewise the micro-skirt and haiku push the “less is more” concept for the sake of concision.

Haiku master, Gary Gach, in a 2008 workshop at Poetry Center San Jose, told us that, “To language, haiku puts poetics under the microscope.” The electron microscope, using particle beams, allows us to focus on very small things such as micro-organisms. Poets use their own devices, yes? William Blake saw “the world in a grain of sand,” and  Walt Whitman declaimed, “Oh, amazement of things –– even its least particle!” Today poets continue to invent new ways of looking at life on a very small scale. Frieda Risvold in 2008 was given the “Best Inventor Award” by the Angels without Wings Foundation for “The Atom,” which follows the traditional haiku 5-7-5 configuration –– but here we are counting letters, not syllables, such as her example…


Freida says she considered calling this form “the mini,” as she was inspired by poet-musicologist, Nita Karpf, who invented a form called “the micro.” A poet who entered a “name that form” contest sponsored by the Angels with Wings Foundation suggested calling Karf’s form “the mini-aha,” which brings us full circle back to haiku master Gach Gach who said that haiku was “aha-poetry.”

With the “micro” ––fashion or form –– what is hidden is left to our imagination.This month I profess a love of micro forms –– I am speaking only of poetry, okay?

We begin with Taiwanese poet Chen Li. Although he cannot read Japanese, he has read much haiku in English. Because the Japanese language uses many Chinese characters and because his father knows both languages, Li has translated Japanese haiku which then inspired him to experiment with his own three-line poems. He says that he took the title of his 1993 collection, Microcosmos, from a musical composition by Bela Bartok. In 2005 he published Microscosmos II. Here are two examples:

Mother’s blue silk handkerchief:
the profound and damp starry sky of
summer night


The unbearable lightness of dream:
pressed by gravity-free breasts
of the lover who is gone.

Microcosmos II

We find “micro” central to a book scheduled to be released on November 1, Micrograms, by Ecuardorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade who died in 1978. This edition is translated by Joshua Beckman and Alejandro de Acosta, and the advance release previewed that it would include essays and poetry. Like Li, Andrade credits haiku for inspiration. An example of his work:

Seagull: Foam eyebrow
on wave of silence.
Kerchief of shipwreck.

Sound familar? That gem appeared in last month’s “Poetry Prof,” Mini Ode to the Seagull. Could not resist juxtapostion with Li’s handerkerchief. How about a new one?

Last Night Toad: Your little
typings strike
the moon’s blank page.

Beckman also is a repeat from last month. This co-translator was cited for his own book of poems –– mini and micro length –– Your Time Has Come. His shortest?

Hot concrete
after rain.

As a bonus, I “found” a poem on his title page:

Verse Press
Amherst, Mass.

Poem or not? Your comment is welcome.

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