I am on a small journey to help me understand what the definition of a poem is to different people, what poems mean to them.

This made me wonder, some poems are longer than others, so:

How short can a poem be until it can no longer be a poem?

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    Another contender for the spot: poetry.rapgenius.com/… (Me? Whee!) Mar 25, 2014 at 20:29
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    There is another: by Joost van den Vondel reads: U NU! (translated as You Now!) Mar 25, 2014 at 20:32
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    However, I think what's answer best suits you. The claims are debatable (at least some of the above quoted). Mar 25, 2014 at 20:33
  • Ah the eternal question in all art forms. What is music? So John Cage created 4'33" What is dance? So someone I forget who, possibly Merce Cunningham, stepped on stage and didn't move, and then left. What is a painting? So many a painter put a blank canvas on the wall. What is an artist name? The artist formerly known as Prince.
    – user11053
    Oct 31, 2014 at 2:15

6 Answers 6


The shortest poems are




by Aram Saroyan.

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    Was just about to type the same answer! Mar 25, 2014 at 20:21
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    Also interesting is the poem "Fleas" which reads: "Adam <linebreak> Had'em" Mar 25, 2014 at 20:22
  • is that second one just ......Empty? Mar 25, 2014 at 20:22
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    Yes, it is a poem. It is a "minimalistic" poem. "Saroyan's four-legged "m" has been cited in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's shortest poem. Admirer Bob Grumman has written that the poem plays on formation of an alphabet, as if 'm' and 'n' are in the process of separating. It can also be understood as a pun on "I am", implying the formation of consciousness itself." - Wikipedia Mar 25, 2014 at 20:27
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    @SaberWriter The meaning of a work of art can only become apparent if you familiarize yourself with the artistic discourse that it is a part of (see my previous comment). Or to use an analogy: you won't be able to understand Chinese unless you learn Chinese. How well Chinese (or art) can be translated into common English is a matter of intense debate. There are those that hold that you must learn Chinese to grasp the richness of meaning of a Chinese text. Similarly, don't expect to grasp art without "speaking" art. Art is elitist and not for the masses.
    – user5645
    Dec 26, 2014 at 9:08

Unlike a work of prose, which has a generally accepted predefined length (be it a short story, novella, novel, etc.) poetry is not governed by such precepts. Poetry is akin to art. A white canvas with a single stroke of paint on it can be a painting, if that is the intention of its creator. A poem can be any number of words, or just one, or even one letter, if that is the intent of its author. Public acceptance of such a work as a poem, however, is another matter entirely. Nearly 100 years ago, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal labelled "R.Mutt" to an art exhibition, and people have been arguing "Is it art?" ever since.



A poem is made of words, whether spoken or written. Words are made of sounds that are conventionally accepted by two or more people.

So, while sound/s articulated and conventionally accepted by two or more people can be considered words... whether they are considered poems depends on both the creator and the recipient, speaker and listener.

Here's my example poem(?) for you:



I know.

So go.

Doesn't that qualify? It rhymes, keeps a meter, and "says" more than it says. That's pretty much my definition of poetry. Not saying it's any good, though. Even more minimal:



(Wow, that's soooo deep. The minimalism powerfully evokes the impoverishment of social interactions in a technological society, especially with regard to oppressed minority groups.)

  • Not the shortest but +1 for expanding the discussion, and nice explanation :) Mar 25, 2014 at 20:37
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    BTW, those are my original poems, copyright 2014. So from now on, anytime two people say Hi/Bye, they must pay me a royalty. (Actually, even just Hi or Bye would be 50% of my poem, which exceeds fair use.) Email me for terms.
    – dmm
    Mar 26, 2014 at 4:05
  • I like the way you've made the point of poetry and minimalism. +1 And I actually think your statement "minimalism powerfully evokes the impoverishment..." is thought provoking and meaningful and yet it all wraps around with / is tinged by sarcasm. It feels like True Art of Poetry.
    – raddevus
    Jan 2, 2015 at 17:33

Since asking the question, I stumbled across another single-letter poem.


I was skeptical about accepting such poems as true poems, but this is a rather neat one I have to say:

enter image description here


The letter i with the author's own unique thumbprint to complete it. The thumbprint is the most meaningful symbol that can express the meaning of the object it labels - more so than a name (names rarely are unique, at least in English).

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    I do not like minimalism so much because it often feels like laziness by the author. However, in this case I think that is a brilliant piece of art.
    – raddevus
    Oct 31, 2014 at 12:04

Here's the dictionary.com definition of poem:

a composition in verse, especially one that is characterized by a highly developed artistic form and by the use of heightened language and rhythm to express an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject.

The problem, which everyone is indicating with their answers is the portion that states:

highly developed artistic form

That's so open to interpretation that poem is hardly defined any more. Instead of being a specific form it seems to be defined only by consensus. The difficulty with consensus is that if you are not on the inside then your work simply will not be considered.

I think the definition helps to put some boundaries on what a poem might be.

Particularly this part of the definition shows you what to aim for:

use of heightened language and rhythm to express an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject

With that, I do not know how a single letter or word could really achieve that.

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