"Me, we."

This is by Muhammad Ali. Upon giving a lecture at Harvard College in America, he was asked to recite a poem. He made this up on the spot, and broke the record for the shortest poem which had been "Adam had 'em." ("Fleas", by Ogden Nash, says Strawberry)

Lips, parted.

BrevityQuest 2006

all thanks, credit, and kisses to etouffee, for everything and then some

Crap. Fan.

BrevityQuest 2006

All my fault, can't blame etouffee or Mitzi.

Break the rules.

Two-word poetry: An experiment in the success and failure of a complex message delivered through simple media

The essential idea behind a two-word poem is simple enough, stick two words together in an interesting way, and the reader will either see the message you painstakingly boiled down to its barest essence, or else impose his own interpretation on it. The latter is the most likely case, as the simpler the transmission medium, the harder it is to clearly convey complex ideas. Binary data, for example, is a meaningless string of ons and offs until a very complex set of standards for interpreting them is agreed upon by all parties (have you ever seen the ISO standard for floating point notation?). A 1,000 word essay, or a picture, on the other hand, is generally intended to be as clear and unambiguous as possible (although one can make it otherwise through a great deal of effort).

Undoubtedly, the most famous two-word poem was delivered by warrior-poet Muhammad Ali: "Me. We." Simple and direct, the juxtaposition of opposite concepts (that even rhyme) brings with it a host of overwhelmingly positive messages. Although we must remember to take his message in context of who he is to understand the issue of why it was well received. Muhammad Ali was known for his eloquence and self-promotion, he brought with him a reputation for, if not brilliance, then at least competence in the art of poetry and a known background as a man of peace, despite his violent profession. His audience was expecting cleverness and was predisposed to seeing it, and therefore his powerful message, that wasted no words but spoke volumes, was comprehended and applauded.

Going beyond the threshold of the two-word poem we come to the genius of Ogden Nash, whose short, often one- or two-line poems would likely be disregarded as too easy had he not so consistently output quality through brevity, allowing meaning to radiate from his words rather than be contained by them, as I have always thought good poetry should. (Conversely, as a writer of prose, I seek to tightly contain my meaning within the words I provide, and consider my efforts to have failed should additional meaning manage to leak outside of their boundaries.)

I do not seek to imply that Muhammad Ali and Ogden Nash have "earned their bullshit", as the popular saying goes. Rather the opposite. One who has earned his bullshit can get away with spewing meaningless noise across his chosen medium, allowing the audience to add whatever meaning they so desire. When I think of this concept, I think of An Andalusian Dog, the surrealist film by Luis Bañuel and Salvador Dalí. As a rule, they insisted that "no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted" into the film, it was intentionally meaningless.

But their audience would not be dissuaded so easily. Like a man finding faces in random patterns, people shoehorned their own meaning into the film, finding signal where there was only noise. Had the same movie been made by a college film student, it would have been ignored, but the fame of the authors brought with it the expectation that it was packed with symbolism if you could only find the hidden message. They did not seek to bamboozle their audience, their audience was only too happy to do that themselves.

Likewise, had Ogden Nash written of fleas that "Adam had'em" and thus began and ended his career, the quip would have been chuckled at and quickly forgotten. Had Muhammad Ali said "Me. We." to a gathered crowd of college students without having first established his credibility as an artist, he would have been met with silence, or more likely jeers.

What we see here is that a poem is rarely, and probably should never be, considered in a vacuum. I stated at the beginning that a simple transmission medium requires that the sender and receiver agree on the rules for meaning to be delivered. In science, these rules are clearly spelled out and available to anyone who has the background to understand them. In art, these rules are often difficult to state in words, and frequently lose their impact if this is even attempted. So there is only one place from whence the audience can glimpse the context from which an artistic message is to be understood:

The poet is as much a part of the poem as the words.



Note from me: I was talking with Anna last night about the recent state of E2 and the debate that's been going on about our future and some of the other stuff we've been going through as of late. I also told her of the two word poem thing. That's what she came up with.

I wish I was as clever as her.

I did do the formatting though.

Quaerente, alamur.

Through striving for something, we may be nourished. Also, this is as close as I've ever come to doing classical meter right — through a bit of elision, this is a spondee and a dactyl, the traditional ending of a line of dactylic verse. So by the rules of Latin meter, this is a poem.


 This is the entire text of the poem "Mattina", by Giuseppe Ungaretti, subtitled "Santa Maria la Longa il 26 gennaio 1917"; the more astute amongst you will appreciate that this means that it was written in wartime, and obsessive fact checkers will be able to locate this close behind the front line - Ungaretti was a serving infantry officer at the time. It is, perhaps by virtue of its brevity but not purely so, familiar to most students of 20th-century Italian literature; Ungaretti always tended towards the concise, but this is the apogee of that tendency. It is arguable whether it constitutes two or four words, but it is certainly two lexemes.

A simple translation into English is predictably going to be completely inadequate - the first line is both "I light (myself) up" and "I am/become enlightened", and the second (which is not a common or even properly parsable structure) may be read as "with the immensity" "boundlessly" or just "a lot" - this is certainly and unapologetically a work that supports rootbeer277's thesis elsewhere in this node. The "I" in the poem can be the morning itself, or the writer as he achieves some kind of understanding of the infinite through, perhaps, finding out at daybreak that he was still alive. Or it can indeed be who/whatever you want it to be. It is worth noting that elsewhere in Ungaretti's work, light is not a positive attribute; he was brought up in Egypt where the burning desert sun was something to be fled from, and daylight was not by any means the friend of a soldier in the shallow rocky trenches of the Carso.

The poem was first published in 1919 in Ungaretti's second volume of poetry, L'Allegria dei naufragi and subsequently in the definitive 1931 collection of his early work, L'Allegria. It's not the best poem in the book by some way, but it's one of the most readily quotable...



With this short piece, the dutch poet Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) became the winner of a poetry contest in 1620. The poem is supposedly listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest dutch poem (or perhaps in any language.)


Translated in English:



There is another famous two-word poem by the same author. Van den Vondel and contemporary poet Jacob Cats were challenging each other with poems. At one point, Cats grabs a candle from the table, and spills the molten wax on Vondel's clothes exclaiming "Vet smet" (wax stains). Vondel responses by dealing out a firm punch and the words "Ik tik" (I strike). A true poetry slam avant la lettre.


I’ve got a picture of you
holding a picture of me
in the pocket of my blue jeans.


Two-Word Poem were a band out of Akron, Ohio who never made the big time as we imagine it, albums and money and touring and the girls, but they carved out a piece of my heart and took it away with them when they broke up for good in 1974. I fell in love to the sound of Two-Word Poem’s “Bring It” and made love for the first time with the slow and sly rhythm of their gorgeous ballad “Up on the High Hill” playing in the background on a portable Dansette record player that was mono and covered in red plastic.

 It was 1971 and I was 15 and the girl was a few months younger, although she seemed the more grown up. Dead within the year, in a car crashed by the supremely hip 17 year old who took her away from me and killed what was left of my heart with her. The twenty-fourth day of April. Same one that saw 500,000 people in Washington, DC and 125,000 in San Francisco march against the Vietnam War and still we’re asking; what are we fighting for, who are we dying for? Jane Hardwick was her name. A girl never to bear babies. On that same day a tsunami 250 feet high rose over the Ryukyu Islands in Japan and threw a 750 ton block of coral more than a mile inland. I dream that some day I’ll get an email from her, that she’ll track me down, explain.

Two-Word Poem were a band out of Akron, Ohio who are long gone. Four guys whose names I couldn’t tell you. A week after Jane was killed, on May 1, Violet Jessop, who’d been born in 1887 also died. She’d been a survivor of the Titanic. Led a long life and is still known for something by more folks than those she just touched or kissed or fed. In death we want to be loved, but more than anything to be remembered.

Sat here my only thought is that I wish I'd come sooner. Not a sentence that makes much sense, but what I mean is it's become clear to me that it's a hard road to be forever pursuing the past. And I know that now and I wish I'd have come to it before, would have saved myself from believing, although while I did I was happier than I am sat here, but blind. At last I can see clearly and, of course, what I see is nothing, for there is nothing here to see.

The food is terrible, the portions worse. I cannot summon thankful, the line is dead, the wire cut, the mystery become frayed. And I am afraid and there's no more time and the urge to root for myself has left me. The feeling comes straight out of one of their best and moodiest songs which closes: Rejected by the Jews and hunted down by Navaho, my girlfriend left me Wednesday and since then Hell’s been awful slow….


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