At least one of the virtues of poetry is economy of meaning. Packing the most power into into the fewest words. But what happens when the meaning and the format diverge wildly? When the one is seemingly infinite, the other infinitesimal?
Take, for instance, a human life. Pretty big, right? I mean, it's possible to write a seven-volume biography and still miss the point.
And then there's six words. That's barely enough to ask “May I please use the restroom?” or “Would you like fries with that?” True, there are some momentous occasions summed up in just six words—think “With this ring, I thee wed”—but by and large it's a format for the non-sequitur. Some examples:
“Golf is a good walk spoiled” –Mark Twain
“Hell is full of musical amateurs” –George Bernard Shaw
“Methinks it is like a weasel” –Hamlet
Is it possible to encapsulate a life in six words? It's a good gimmick, anyway. And the editors at SMITH online magazine
have taken it on the road. They're touring with their new book, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.
Last night (Thursday, Feb. 21) they stopped in at Powell's City of Books for a reading and a six-word poetry slam.
First, a little about the book. On the famous side of things, there are big names like Michael Eisner, Joan Rivers, Steven Colbert, and Jane Goodall. Many more. Almost uniformly, their memoirs are a disappointment. How could they not be? We already know something about these people, and so we expect a meaningful heft that, frankly, six words can't deliver.
Much more interesting are the unknowns. Speaking to the reader on the basis of virtual anonymity, they offer a six-word something, with striking results. The effect is rather like sitting in a fast-moving train, catching a glimpse of someone's apartment through a window as you pass by. Glimpses like these:
“I was never the pretty one” – Joan Nesbit Mabe
“Grading AP essays, I crave Tolstoy” – Carinna Tarvin
“I still make coffee for two” – Zak Nelson
To hear the six-word life stories of total strangers performed live was, of course, the reason I attended the event. And, when it came to strangers willing to talk about themselves, Portland amply provided. After a video presentation and a reading from Not Quite What I Was Planning's
introduction, the MC's began to pass the mic around. Here are some of the more memorable six-word combinations to come out of SMITH
's stop at Powell's.
“Robots are everywhere—get over it”
“I want to love me more” – middle-aged man in a beret
“Want the fairy-tale. Asking too much?”
“He's not even worth five words”
“Yes, I'm fifty. Shit, damn, hell.” – Susan. (Yes, she's 50.)
“Infertile. Quit sending me baby pictures.”
“Eating shit, learning to like it.”
“Still a nerd. Rich now. Ha.”
“Six colleges down. Still no degree.” – Colin, 22
“What I've forgotten is still important” – Aldo, 23
In the end, it was a bit anticlimactic. Although several of the impromptu memoirs elicited hearty chuckles or sympathetic cooing from the audience—reminiscent of the laugh track from I Love Lucy
—there was never any depth, and each person's life was over in a flash.
Why, you ask? Almost everyone in the audience had spent the entire presentation worrying over his memoir, scratching words out, making sure everything was pitch-perfect. And then, he read, and the thing he had spent so long working on—his life, for goodness' sake—was over in six words, and someone else was already reciting another.
That may have ominous implications for memoir as a genre. In a world teeming with almost eight billion autobiographers, six words is the literary equivalent of 15 minutes—it's all you'll ever see or hear of most people. That's precious little space in which to digest something as complex as a life. One could do worse than to choose, as his memoir, “Poor player that struts and frets.”
For my own memoir, I had been debating between the new-agey “Bounded in a nutshell: infinite space”, and the more honest, “Don't know much about science books”. In the end, though, I picked one that pertains to my job as a journalist: “Like history, doomed to repeat myself.” Perhaps the most salient six words came from Carolyn, age 66, who sat beside her walker. In what many of those present believed to be a prefatory remark, she said simply,
“This is a self-referencing statement.”
To find out more about SMITH magazine or to post your own six-word memoir, visit smithmag.net.