Throughout the long history of orality, poetry, as a product of the pre-literary mind, Walter J. Ong reminds us in his masterful study Orality and Literacy (New Accents), possessed certain features, among them addition rather than subordination in thought; copiousness, rather than brevity; and the expectation of participation versus objective distance. We still recognize these traits in everyday speech as much as we do in the great global epics. Yet since the introduction of writing, the lure of linguistic and symbolic concision have enchanted many a poetic tradition. Perhaps the best-known example of this approach is the Japanese haiku, a form that emerged in the 17th century, though its origins go further back. The haiku provides one of several starting points for the microgram, a form launched by Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade's (1903-1976) in his eponymous book Micrograms, a collection of original and translated poems, with a historical essay, which he originally published in Spanish in 1940 in Tokyo, and which Alejandro Acosta and Joshua Beckman have now translated into English and published this year with Wave Books. In their shim of an introduction, Acosta and Beckman recount Carrera Andrade's background and life, contextualizing his development of this form. A diplomat as well as poet, he had just concluded a four-year stint as Ecuador's ambassador to Japan when he originally issued this volume, and it was the product not just of his exposure to Japanese poetry, but also to similar forms and approaches by peers such as Pierre Reverdy, about whom Carrera Andrade writes, "[his] technique is personal, and his greatest secret lies in the stripping away of all decoration: the cult of naked and simple expression." [Micrograms, ix] This, then, was his desire: to combine the personal and the objective, yet through an elemental simplicity of form and statement.
Carrera Andrade's own introductory essay, "Genealogy," historicizes his development of the microgram even further, tracing out a lineage through a series of forms, including the classical epigram, the Spanish saeta, the proverb and selected genres of song, as rendered by poets. The micrograms literary heritage ranges from the Golden Age poet Quevedo to the early 20th century lyricists Manuel Machado and Federico García Lorca, from the greatest of haiku writers, Basho Matsuo to his Carrera Andrade's contemporaries Takahama Kyoshi and a Hispanophone descendent such as José Juan Tablada, and as the Reverdy reference indicates, to French Modernist poetry. For Carrera Andrade, this lyric bloodline begets to his microgram, in which intention and coloration, wit, a focus on objectivity and universality, and concision are crucial. Metaphor takes precedent over the haiku's reliance on metonymy; via the former figure, with its substitutive power, the poet can achieve both the deeply personal and the universal, and thus a semantic and affective condensation. Many of the micrograms in Carrera Andrade's tiny trove gathered here present an animal or natural artifact, standing in for something else. Unlike the haiku, the microgram can be as laconic as two lines ("Alphabet") or as chatty as ten ("Bergsonism"). To give a fuller example, here is his microgram "The Earthworm":
Constantly tracing in dirt
the long inconclusive stroke
of a mysterious letter.
I read this as a poem about the art of poetry, or writing itself. Carrera Andrade's micrograms quickly cast their spell, such that I finished wanting at least double the number presented here. The author instead offers nearly two dozen haiku he has translated from Japanese, which Acosta and Beckman translate freely into English, sacrificing, as far as I can tell none of their punch. The entire volume makes a strong case for the power of lyric brevity, about which, as Baltasár Gracián, wrote, "Good things when short, are twice as good." My only quibble is that Acosta and Beckman did not provide the reader with Carrera Andrade's original Spanish. Nevertheless, magnificente.
The poet Rosmarie Waldrop successfully engages in concision of a different sort in Driven to Abstraction, her newest collection of poems from New Directions (2010). For years Waldrop has been perfecting the art of the prose poem, and her skill allows her to compress into 20 or so sentences, with great lyricism and no loss of argument, what many a prose writer or poet would labor pages over. Her poems in this volume cover a great deal of ground, from the immediate—the most recent Iraq War—to the more distant—life with her father during her childhood in Germany—to the abstract, taking up and extending Ong's idea but in a variety of practices beyond the literary—literally, the introduction of abstraction, via the introduction, during the Renaissance, of zero into Europe, the debut of the perspectival vanishing point in visual art, and the concept of money in economics. Her method is juxtaposition, the judicious image, careful deployment of rhetoric and figuration, and an attentiveness to the visual and aural powers of language that when artfully explored can do double or triple work. At times Waldrop achieves a synthesis that manages to pair concretion with abstraction, springing forth a resonance that startles and sticks:
When I was ten I read Westerns by Karl May and with him crossed the border between Mexico and Canada. Columbus erased heathen names like Guanahí. Christened the islands to come king of the promised land. As Adam, who "called the animals by their true names," was thereby to command them. San Salvador, salve, salvage, salvo. The power to name is power. Especially when backed by guns.
Here, in the seventh section of the book's opening poem, "All Electrons Are (Not) Alike," we touch upon and transcend time, the personal and the public, the religious and the secular, languages themselves, with no loss of Waldrop's wry political critique of one of the key master narratives of the West, reproduced, as she cites, via the fictions of the beloved German author of Westerns. Waldrop does this in each successive section, examining geometry, time, and the disastrous 2003 invasion, against which "everywhere people wind clocks to prevent this from happening" (79), sometimes loosening her paragraphs into stanzaic formulations that lose little of their power. In "Music Is An Oversimplification of the Situation We Are In," written in memory of John Cage, Waldrop creates a contrapuntal effect by placing a seemingly unrelated, alphabetized series of words at the bottom of the page beneath each prose poem. I thought of the conversation this approach created with several of Cage's talks and prose pieces, and with the work of a very different figure, Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa and In the Future Perfect, but also found myself wanting to hear these pieces performed aloud. Waldrop's art wrenches clarity out of disorientation, and rather than distraction, drives us, inimitably towards the keenest attention, to words, her words, and the world.