Hey, Vsauce. Michael here.
I am in Green Bank, West Virginia. Pocahontas County.
And my favorite word is … I learned it from Big Bird and it’s not so much a word as the alphabet, if you try to pronounce it like a word.
It’s a neat trick, almost poetic. But what counts as poetry?
How short can something be and still be a poem?
What is the shortest poem in the world and why does knowing it matter? Okay, now I am in Charlottesville, Virginia in a hotel room.
I’m on the road this week. Take a look at my amazingly fancy set up.
A popular contender for the shortest story in the world is apocryphally attributed to Ernest Hemingway.
It contains only six words.
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
A popular contender for the title of world’s shortest poem and the one honored at
WorldsShortestPoem.com is a clever couplet attributed to Strickland Gillilan, titled “on the Antiquity of Microbes” or sometimes just “Fleas”.
It goes like this: ” ‘Fleas’ / Adam / Had ’em”
But shorter rhyming couplets are possible.
Gyles Brandreth wrote the very cute “Ode to a Goldfish.” “Oh, wet / pet” Muhammad Ali composed an even shorter
rhyming couplet when he spoke at Harvard in 1975.
Using just 4 letters, his poem poignantly sums up the power of role models and leaders.
The idea that as one man climbs the rest are lifted up.
The poem is simply “me / we” But a poem doesn’t need to rhyme or contain multiple words.
A poem is simply a type of literary art that uses aesthetic or rhythmic
properties of a language to mean more than it normally would.
With that definition in mind take a look at my favorite one word poem by Aram Saroyan. The word light with an extra “gh”.
The poem became controversial because the NEA paid him $500 for the poem.
Critics berated it for its simplicity but that only made it more famous and popular. Lighght. It’s fun to type and it’s fun to say because what sound does the “gh” in the word “light” really make?
Is this a lighter, fluffier extended version of light or is it a gargled, choking one?
We can get shorter one letter poems.
Two of my favorites are ” ‘fit’ / n” and ” ‘nought’ / t”.
Of course, should the title count when measuring the length of a poem?
Well, maybe. I like Geof Huth’s two letter amalgam poem. The letter L with the letter Y on top of it,
making a brand new character. Now, of course an L and a Y is a great way to make an adverb.
It’s the difference between strange and strangely. Here, in this very poem,
we have the difference between you and what you do in one simple shape.
Before they stopped tracking the record, the Guinness Book of
World Records considered Aram Saroyan the author of the world’s shortest poem. Here it is.
The letter “m” with an extra hump.
Is it a letter or an image?
Some have called it a close up of an alphabet being born. Its cells still in the process of dividing the “m” and the “n”, not quite separated.
But from what I’ve read, in my opinion, the shortest poem ever, the shortest use of language
aesthetically, arhythmically to mean more than the word itself is jwcurry’s composition of the lower case letter “i”, dotted with his own fingerprint.
The fingerprint makes it his. “I” means me but this one can only mean him. For fun, let’s talk about situations in which language isn’t even used.
We are entering the realm of poetry.
What Geof Huth calls a moment when a writer writes nothing instead of anything. R. W. Watkins composed a poem that only suggested language. In reality, it simply contained places where language could go.
There are also plenty of empty musical compositions.
Songs that are nothing, simply silence.
John Denver even composed one. His “Ballad of Richard Nixon” is silence and you can buy it in the iTunes Store for 99 cents. But who cares?
Is knowing the world’s shortest poem just a neat piece of trivia, a cool thing
to tell your friends but in the end a useless pub fact?
I mean, the Guinness Book of World Records has
stopped compiling records for artistic briefness.
What you’re about to see is possibly the shortest concert ever put on. It was done by the White Stripes
in Newfoundland in 2007. Here it comes. And there it went. That’s all. The Guinness Book of World Records
refused to recognize that concert as being the shortest
because they said, quote, “The nature of competing to make
something the ‘shortest’ by its very nature
trivializes the activity being carried, as such we have been
forced to cease listing records for the shortest song, shortest poem and indeed the shortest concert.” Trivializes?
Maybe. But we can say and sing and write and
draw a lot of powerful things, regardless of what authority recognizes its size or lack thereof.
Appreciating the power carried by even the tiniest poem is a great way to
put into perspective just how cool that is.
When he died, Fernando Pessoa left behind a chest full of his thoughts and experiences written down. Decades after his death they were
published into “The Book of Disquiet.”
His thoughts and experiences didn’t die along with him, he had written
them down, he had narrated them and in this book he discusses the power of narration compared to simply existing, living, seeing, YOLO-ing.
He said, “Direct experience is an evasion, a hiding place for those without any imagination. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.”
Anyone can live a life.
His question would be what have you said about it.
Even the world’s shortest poem is still a comment, a narration. Even the world’s shortest poem, even a silence that’s purposeful and means something can be mind-blowingly gigantic.