Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes
When asked to write about a favorite poem in honor of National Poetry Month, I considered posting a rambling exposition of Beowulf or Paradise Lost. Fortunately for you, the reader, I decided to instead tackle the opposite end of the poetic spectrum and offer my exegesis of a mere four-syllable couplet, often cited as the world’s shortest poem.
On the surface, it’s a rhyme about bugs. But just below the surface is a slightly more interesting layer, in which the poem can be read as a gentle mockery of poetry itself. These pithy lines caricature several of the genre’s essential characteristics, as well as a few of the poet's common pitfalls. In them, we see the value placed on brevity and verbal precision, the importance of sound, as illustrated through the exaggerated use of rhythm and rhyme, and the poet’s lofty aim of conveying a timeless, universal theme, exemplified here through an allusion to our common ancestor, Adam, and his "lousy" condition. Perhaps more than anything, we see a reflection of the bathos sometimes found in more long-winded, high-minded poetry, in the absurd pairing of a lofty title with a banal subject.
Some will surely say that I’m reading too much into these four syllables. And they’ll probably be right. But regardless of how you read the poem, it’s certainly one that can be used to start a discussion about the poetic genre—its defining features, its diverse forms, and its occasional charming absurdities.
—Magedah Shabo, Staff Writer