minimalism in poetry

Minimalism was foreshadowed by several twentieth century movements that believed poetry should be more authentic, homespun, contemporary and accessible to the general public. As practised today, minimalism may derive more from Dadaism, concrete poetry and haiku, and it certainly presents parallels to the visual arts. {1} {2} {3} {4} Minimalist poetry focuses on bare words or phrases, sometimes rearranging them on the page so that their most basic and individual properties disclose something unexpected about themselves.

Though slight in themselves, these little exercises can be thoughtful, entertaining and provocative, exploiting language as does all poetry.

William Carlos Williams

In his own work, books and diary jottings, William Carlos Williams advocated poetry based on live contact with the world. Art should make more vivid what is already there. Poems arise from moments of heightened consciousness in individuals whose sensibilities had been developed and extended by writing a responsive poetic line. His own work exemplified:

1. the discontinuous nature of experience (i.e. composition by juxtaposition)

2. a syntax and diction based on the spoken language

3. observations brought to prominence by framing techniques and not encumbered by connotations, deep questions, symbolism and the like.

Trite and banal, mere chopped-up prose they might appear to the uninitiated, but they were honest and American and the way forward. {5} {6} {7} {8} {9} {10}

William Carlos Williams was not an amateur, and his better pieces did achieve their modest aims. Rather than argue their merits in vacuo, let's compare two pieces of writing. Both are celebrated, unvarnished descriptions of the local scene. The first is the fragmentary opening of William Carlos Williams' Spring and All (1923): {11}

Spring and All

By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast -— a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

From Spring and All by William Carlos Williams.

The second is in the regular — to our ears initially monotonous — measure of late Augustan verse:  a short section from Delay has Danger (Tales of the Hall) by George Crabbe (1754-1832): {12} {13} {14} {15}

Delay has its Dangers

Early he rose, and looked with many a sigh
On the red light that filled the eastern sky;
Oft had he stood before, alert and gay,
To hail the glories of the new-born day:
But now dejected, languid, listless, low,
He saw the wind upon the water blow.
And the cold stream curl'd onwards as the gale
From the pine-hill blew harshly down the dale;

On the right side the youth a wood survey’d,
With all its dark intensity of shade,
Where the rough wind alone was heard to move,
In this, the pause of nature and of love,
When now the young are rear’d, and when the old,
Lost to the tie, grow negligent and cold —

Far to the left he saw the huts of men,
Half hid in mist, that hung upon the fen;
Before him swallows, gathering from the sea,
Took their short flights, and twittered on the lea;
And near the beansheaf stood, the harvest done,
And slowly blacken’d in the sickly sun;

All these were sad in nature, or they took
Sadness from him, the likeness of his look,
And of his mind — he ponder’d for a while
Then met his Fanny with a borrow’d smile

From Delay has its Dangers by George Crabbe

Crabbe’s piece is telling a story, using conventional couplets to depict rural life in a realistic and unpalatable manner — more than the pastoral tradition encouraged, or even Wordsworth much attempted. Williams is simply presenting the scene as it strikes him. With Crabbe’s piece we can note that 1. the Fenland scene is aptly described, 2. the description sets the mood, 3. the youth’s musing on his surroundings give the story a wider significance, 4. the storyline engages our interest and leads us over the banalities of description, 5. the sense is always emphatically clear, 6. considerable variety of expression exists within the regular verse.

The Williams poem illustrates its author’s views on poetry. Keenly perceived and convincingly natural, it serves no end beyond making us see the commonplace more acutely. And see it through the author’s eyes. Modernist poets are not self-abnegating, not a medium through which to view the world with a little selection and personal colouring. There is no dichotomy between life and art: their experience is the world they present. For this reason, Modernists have generally avoided the novelist’s art, making the actual composition the subject of the poem, a way of giving coherence to what would be otherwise be fragmentary and discontinuous.

Black Mountain School

The Black Mountain poets — Olson, Creeley, Duncan — employed open forms. Poems were expected to grow out of the writing process, rather than being fitted into any pre-existing plan. Nonetheless, for all the manifestos and theorizing, many of their more popular pieces are straightforward and traditional, differing only in using colloquial language,{16} whatever is commonly claimed. {17}


I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, -- John, I

SD, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

From I Know a Man by Robert Creeley


As always, the groupings cover many aims and styles. Robert Duncan's vocabulary was Romantic or even archaic {18} — 'putting back all the things I have labored a lifetime to remove', grumbled Pound after one of Duncan's visits. An undemanding example: {19} {20}

My Mother Would Be a Falconress

Ah, but high, high in the air I flew.
And far, far beyond the curb of her will,
were the blue hills where the falcons nest.
And then I saw west to the dying sun--
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.

I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
until the blood ran hot and I heard her cry out,
far, far beyond the curb of her will

to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where the falcons nest
I saw, and I tore at her wrist with my savage beak.
I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.

From My Mother Would Be a Falconress by Robert Duncan: in Bending the Bow. New Directions, 1968.

Unwittingly, Duncan became more a precursor of minimalism in this extract, however, where the fractured syntax follows the poet's breaks of thought: {21}

(Sept 27:)     Then Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour
    where we witness the continual song that runs thru the walls

I loved all the early announcements of you, the first falling in love,

                          the first lovers

                                                         (Oct 1)
       mouthing the stone thighs of the night,

   murmuring and crying out   hopeless   words of endearment.

The soldier in the dirty corner of the war
   finding his lover,   the lover  sending roots of innocence
into the criminal ground    striking   a light that illumines
        the dark belly,       the old man      recalling
the bird's leap upward to flight towards the heart

        from his nest of hair,       his

mimesis song makes of the dewy lips the fountain forces.

From The Currents, Passages 16 by Robert Duncan


Minimalist Poetry

Neither the poetry of William Carlos Williams, nor that of the Black Mountain School was minimalist, but by stripping poetry down to its most basic expression, and outlawing most literary devices, they focused attention on individual words, the properties of those words, and how they could be exploited by typography or rearrangement on the page. {22} {23} {24}

In its small way, minimalist poetry has become celebrated, and poems that are fairly traditional sometimes get promoted as examples of this latest trend: an example: {25}

missing you while you read about africa.

You didn't notice my short dress, or the hint
of violets I dabbed over my blue-veined heart.

Even as I swayed, so my hem lifted like mist
over a harvest moon, you read on.

I want to rise over your dark continent,
drag my hands through thick foliage

cling like thick-sweet mango
to the roof of your mouth.

From missing you while you read about Africa by C.E. Laine: Postcards From a Summer Girl. Sun Rising Poetry Press, 2004.

True minimalist poems are very different: briefer, innovative, more cerebral. Typically they use:

1. the fewest words to make their point.

2. typography or visual devices and/or

3. elements smaller than words: letters, typographical marks.

In this example, the i's stolen from missing turn up with the thief: {22}




Missing by George Swede.

As letters are dropped in the following piece, we move from the eternal questions of the world to modern rejection (with an overtone of the Anti-Christ) to a group of individuals (a we) and finally back to the intangible again (awe). {22}


     anti quest ion

          a we


Antique Question by Karl Kempton.


And here it is the ECHO that is being 'reflected', and the counter-image is indeed thin and insubstantial: {22}


Choice by Geof Huth


Other Forms of Minimalism

There are many types of minimalism. In Hugo Williams's amusing Old Boy, the banality is deliberate, a desire not to say more than the facts strictly warrant: {26}

Old Boy

Our lesson is really idiotic today,
as if Mr Ray has forgotten
everything he ever knew
about the Reformation
and is making it up as he goes along.

I feel like pointing out
where he's gone astray,
but I'm frightened he'll hold up
some of my grey hair
and accuse me of cheating.

From Old Boy by Hugo Williams. Collected Poems (Faber, 2002)


But a poem may also be minimalistic in another sense, of course, and make a point of having nothing to say: {27}


A day like this, perhaps:
a winter whiteness
haunting the creation,

as we are sometimes
haunted by the space
we fill, or by the forms

we might have known
before the names,
beyond the gloss of things.

From Septuagesima by John Burnside. Feast Days (Secker & Warburg, 1992)

Is It Poetry?

Clever, and sometimes amusing, but is it poetry? Minimalists develop certain aspects of words that are always the province of poetry, and their typography takes fewer liberties than those allowed Arabic or Persian verse. Within their limits, the pieces can be very successful — often more so than other styles today. Poetry just about, then — which is as its authors intend: no larger statements or emotional colouring.

References and Resources

1. Artists by Movement: Minimalism. Brief entry in Art Cyclopedia, with prominent artists.
2. Minimalism. Jun. 2004. Minimalism in the visual arts and music.
3. Minimalism. Stanley Fish. Jun. 2004. Note on minimalism in literature and public life.NNA
4. Is less more? Jonathan Freedland. Dec. 2001.,3605,609721,00.html. Guardian article on minimalism in the visual arts.
5. William Carlos Williams. NNA. Bibliography, poems, letters and a translation from the Chinese.
6. William Carlos Williams. Cary Nelson. Another excellent site with good selection of poems.
7. William Carlos Williams. Paul P. Reuben. Good bibliography: part of the Perspectives in American Literature series.
8. William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Michael Eiichi Hishikawa. Internet resources for Williams. NNA
9. William Carlos Williams Review. Excerpts free online, otherwise $15/year.
10. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to Pound, Eliot & Yeats (Belknap Press, 1976), 246-275.
11. Spring and All. William Carlos Williams.
12. Crabbe, (George). Alfred Ainger. Feb. 2004. Extended four-part essay and quotations.
13. George Crabbe: Tales of the Hall. Excerpt from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907–21).
14. George Crabbe. Texts of three short poems online.
15. George Crabbe. Poetry Archive's listing of books etc. for sale.
16. I Know a Man. Robert Creeley. April 1997. Homepage of Seamus Cooney.
17. On "I Know a Man" Short critical articles on the Modern American Poetry site, somewhat overwritten.
18. On Robert Duncan. Michael Palmer. Spring 1997. Article on Modern American Poetry site: note polysemous and the reference to Duncan's free use of ornament, of archaic diction and grandiose rhetoric.
19. My Mother would be a Falconress. Robert Duncan. 1968.
20. On "My Mother would be a Falconress". Short critical articles on the Modern American Poetry site.
21. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to Pound, Eliot & Yeats (Belknap Press, 1976), 515-527.
22. MNMLST POETRY: Unacclaimed but Flourishing. Bob Grumman. 1997. Excellent introduction from the Light and Dust Poets ezine. I have modelled the section on this article, but there is (or was) a flourishing school of British minimalist poets who conducted none of these experiments but turned out basic and repetitious lines in the manner of Robbe-Grillet. It was these that Kennedy, Gioia and Bauerlein were probably thinking of in their Handbook of Literary Terms, and to which Gruman objected: Bob Grumman's po-X-cetera Blog. 2004. NNA.
New Poetry thread comments on Gruman's article and minimalist poetry generally.
23. [New-Poetry] P**m Robert R.Cobb. Apr. 2001. New Poetry thread comments on Gruman's article and minimalist poetry generally. NNA
24. Minimalist Webring. Brief listings.
25. missing you while I read about Africa CE Laine. Fall 2004.
26. Old Boy. Hugo Williams. 2002. NNA.
27. Septuagesima. John Burnside. 1992.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.