“On Stars” by Nancy Callahan (published in Volume IV Issue 1 of The New Formalist) is a very minimalist piece of formal poetry, written in iambic trimeter with rhyme scheme of abacdc. At a mere six lines, it has to be pretty packed if it is going to say anything, and it is. There are two problems that seem to me to be pretty common in minimalist poetry. The first is minimalist poetry that doesn’t have anything to say. You see this in a lot of modern Haiku. I’m not bashing Haiku per se, as I have seen Haiku that was poignant and perfect, both traditional and non-traditional Haiku. But we’re not talking about Haiku here, as much fun as that might be.
This poem does seem to have a close relationship with Haiku that might be worth exploring further. Besides its brevity, it also has the natural theme, and the enclosing structure that it shares with Haiku. In the case of “On Stars” the enclosing structure is generated by rhyme rather than syllable or word count. Each of the tercets can be easily said in a single breath. The natural theme, a comparison of the sun and the stars, is not quite at the imagistic moment level of Haiku, but is still piercing in its specificity and insightful in its description. It has the typically English device of a twist at the end, where the poem is wrenched into a new direction that transforms it from simple imagery to full fledged commentary.
I love the phrase “pinpricked night.” I love the twist from contemplation of the heavens to the backlash against science and scientificism towards a more spiritualistic view of nature. I love the em-dash, but I hate the commas. I don’t want to be slowed down ’til I hit the full stop of that dash, proper punctuation be damned. I’m not fond of the title, but at least it is appropriate. I love “half a cosmos” vs. the whole cosmos. I love the “warmth of one”, separated from “or shine.” I originally read one as representing a person, and perhaps that’s what we’re really talking about, the sun is a personal thing, while the stars are remote. Whatever the case the poem is beautiful, and enjoyable, and a nice break from all the longer poetry that runs so rampant these days.