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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 1: January 2020
Craft Essay: 393 words [R]
By Peter Fiore

A Note on Brevity


Scott Fergusson, Tennis Director at the Westhampton Beach and Tennis Club, once told his pros, “You’ve got 15 seconds to get your point across. After that, kids start fidgeting or bouncing balls off their rackets.” Gogyōhka* gives you even less time. In a world addicted to text messages, emails, and on-line abbreviations, I’d go even further—you’ve got one line to draw a reader in.

Put the ring in the nose or get out.

So brevity obviously first means the elimination of all wasted words. A poem like

I can always tell
how long it’s been
since I’ve been home
by the length
of my father’s eyebrows

doesn’t need that first word, since it’s first of all understood and then clear by line 3. In addition, beginning with “can always tell” jump starts the reader into the poem faster. Traditionally, haiku poets eliminate pronouns and prepositions, although this often does not register in English translations.

Another example of the elimination of anything unnecessary can be seen in Tim Geaghan’s poem:

17 pigeons settle
on the gray shingles
of a Gulf station
November blue sky
on a bus barreling down 95

Is “on a bus” needed? It doesn’t matter if you’re on a bus or in a car, does it? “barreling down 95” does the job.

Brevity can also mean the elimination of what the nuns called “helping verbs” in the present and past progressive. Aizu’s poem

with all the living
with all the dead
the lovely earth
is floating
in a dark universe

doesn’t need the helping verb “is.” A later revision works much better, I think:

with all the living
with all the dead
the lovely earth
floating now
in a dark universe

Brevity can also extend to the elimination of capital letters—except for proper nouns. Gogyohka poets sometimes use capital letters at the beginning of lines to introduce a new thought or image, or to signal the absence of enjambment. This is unnecessary, too, as lines should have natural endings or at least pauses, determined by the breath, the natural pause a writer takes between phrases or images. Capital letters actually have the effect of slowing the reader down, and once that happens there is always the danger of losing him/her.

The point of brevity is to get to the reader’s heart as soon as possible.

—Essay was published previously in Atlas Poetica (Issue 24, March 2016); appears here with author’s permission.

*Publisher’s Note:

As per Wikipedia, Gogyōhka is a five-line, untitled, Japanese poetic form, which, unlike tanka with its conventional syllabic structure (5-7-5-7-7), has no restrictions on length. While Japanese poets have written five-line poetry as free-style tankas since the early 1900s, it was not until 1983 that Enta Kusakabe named the form Gogyōhka and first elaborated the five rules of five-line poetry. For more details, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gogyōka

Peter Fiore
Issue 1, January 2020

lives and writes in Mahopac, New York. He is the author of three books: text messages, the first volume of American Gogyōhka poetry (Mushroom Press); flowers to the torch, tanka prose (Keibooks, 2015); and when angels speak of love, a novella (Loose Moose Press, 2017). His prose and poems have been published in American Poetry Review, Atlas Poetica, Bright Stars, great weather for MEDIA, KYSO Flash, Poetry Now, Rattle, Sandy River Review, Skylark, Still Crazy, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Skylark, and elsewhere.

Fiore is also a jazz pianist, having played in several venues in the greater New York City area including The Black Whale and LeRefuge in City Island and Pete’s Saloon in Elmsford, New York.

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