Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Poetry became central to the humanities curriculum at West Point partly for a practical reason: Poems are often short. With technical studies as well as military duties, the cadets had little time for works such as Middlemarch . In his ABC of Reading , Ezra Pound quotes a foreign student as saying poetry consists of "gists and piths." Compactness may be one strength of the art.

Aside from convenience for military cadets (or air travelers), a poem's brevity can give excitement and pleasure. Prominent examples in English are William Blake and Emily Dickinson. The poems of the Korean poet Pak Chaesam (1933-97), newly published in a translation by David R. McCann and Jiwon Shin, include a sequence called "Four-Line Poems," good-humored and delicate. Here is "Four-Line Poems 3: Place":

As you play the delightful melody,

your fingers trace between where strings are or not.

At this very moment there is no tracing

if my mind is here or not.

The minute negative space traced by the musician's fingers, a graceful code of absences and presences, provides a revealing, intricate comparison for the alternately mindful or self-forgetful state of the mind in pleasure: a dance of consciousness and unconsciousness as rapid and intricate as the movement of fingertips over frets and strings. Sharply observed, small details open out into large emotions in "After an Illness":

Spring is coming.

Like hair just untied.

Savor of garlic greens

that clean the palate.

The blood has cooled, now,

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