Finding Meaning In Fewer Words

Brad Leithauser celebrates concise writing, which “in its broadest spirit encompasses far more than a stripping of verbiage,” but rather “clarifies the contours, it revels in the sleek and streamlined”:

[P]oetry remains the domain where concision consistently burns brightest. (Someone told me that Marilyn Monroe once remarked that she enjoyed reading poetry “because it saves time.” I like this quotation so much that I’ve never dared to confirm it; I’d feel disenchanted to learn it was bogus.) My little cabinet includes two six-line poems whose psychological richness surely couldn’t be duplicated in a full page of poetic prose. The first is W. H. Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection of a kind was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

We have here some Nazi monster listening to Schubert lieder at the end of a workday devoted to the Final Solution. Or Henry VIII admiring a Holbein portrait right before ordering another innocent to the executioner’s axe. Or Caligula attending a lighthearted masque on the heels of a highly productive brainstorming session with his court torturer. Here is, ultimately, the whole haunting, ever-repeating saga of the good ship Civilization foundering when a madman somehow seizes its helm.