even the small poems mean something.
they are often
whales in the bodies of tiny fish.
‒ Nayyirah Waheed, salt.
In her first book of poetry, salt., Nayyirah Waheed addresses heavy and vulnerable topics using the increasingly popular short form poem. I’ll call hese types of poems—the “whales in the bodies of tiny fish” kind of poems—small poems.
Because they don’t leap from metaphor to metaphor in intricate, lyrical detail like a Plath poem or sprawl across pages in winding exploration of language like Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” small poems appear as small as they look upon first glance. But when written creatively, a small poem carries a weight of meaning without making the reader dig, decipher, and analyze to find it.
I love small poems. Working within their limitations challenges the poet’s ability to be profound while remaining concise, to make sure that every word counts. Waheed is a natural at writing small poems.
The way she expresses the magnitude of identity, grief, self love, race, depression, suffering, and resilience in the face of both personal and collective adversity with such brevity is astounding. The way she turns regular, mundane events into insightful reminders of the miracle of life in such few words is breathtaking.
do not die.
how am i
— the lie
There’s something special about poems that readers don’t have to decipher, analyze, read twenty times over to understand. Small poems are accessible. Anyone can read them and say, “Yeah, I know what you mean.” For example:
does not want me
it is not the end of the world
if i do not want me
the world is nothing but endings.
That’s not to say small poems aren’t artistic, creative, and rich with depth. Writing within constraints challenges the poet’s creativity. It’s an art form to convey a deep feeling or collective unrest, what it’s like to be an unwanted immigrant—to break “the ocean in / half to be here”—or to be black in a system built by white people for white people, in as little as 15 words:
you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you.
i am a black wave
a white sea.
— the difference
Some things are too important to require analytical and critical thinking to understand. Some poets have something so necessary to say, something so vital for the world to understand, that they want to be heard by as many open ears as possible without sacrificing their creative art. This creates a much needed space for the small poem.
There’s also something raw and intimate about a poem that is accessible to everyone. It takes vulnerability to speak heart to heart. To quote from an episode of The Office in which Michael and Jan try to land a new client over margaritas and Baby Back Ribs:
“…you put your arms out there, you slit your wrists. You said, ‘World, this is my blood. It’s red, just like yours.” – Christian, aka “the client”
Or, as Waheed puts it:
it is being honest
that makes me invincible
Reading Waheed’s salt. reaffirmed my appreciation for the small poem. As a former copywriter, I value clear, concise language. As a poet, I value accessibility and vulnerability. So it’s no surprise that I’d appreciate poetry that cuts straight to the point and speaks from the heart. What’s even more impressive about small poems, especially Waheed’s, is that they can remain clear and concise without sacrificing the creative elements that make poetry poetry.
salt. has also influenced my own poetry writing lately, and I’m all for it. I often find that my poems are influenced by another poet’s style when I’m reading a lot of her or his work. Spending time going into the depths of another poet’s or artist’s work always brings me out of a writing slump, breathing a fresh air of creativity into my own work.
While reading salt., I often found myself stepping away to try my hand at writing a poem that said a lot in a few words, taking my time to choose and arrange those words carefully. As someone who tends to write without any idea of where the initial thought that put pen to paper is going, I found that writing small poems helped me write a poem from start to finish with a solid subject matter in mind. Perhaps this lesson will extend into my longer form poetry writing, too.
If you like raw, accessible, insightful poetry that speaks soul to soul, that delves deep into love, sadness, healing, and the joys and trials of blackness and womanhood without leaving you feeling tangled in the brambles of unessential words, you’ll love Waheed’s salt.
I’ll explore the small poem a bit more in my next post through Waheed’s second book of poetry, Nejma.
*All referenced poems are from salt. by Nayyirah Waheed.