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6 striking works of micro-literature

The award-winning poet and memoirist Sarah Manguso shares her favorite collections of very, very short prose

The award-winning poet and memoirist Sarah Manguso shares her favorite collections of very, very short prose:

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa edited and translated by Robert Hass (Ecco, $17)

In classical haiku, one of the most constrained poetic forms, monkeys and herons and trees and the moon can stand in for the entire world. The best of these tiny poems can be at once specific and timeless, questioning and assertive, funny and sad.

Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays by James Richardson (Ausable, $14).

This first volume in Richardson's multibook project, a cult favorite among writers, contains many exemplars of the tiny essay form. Abundantly quotable, Richardson is equal parts joker, memoirist, and oracle. Many of his one-liners could be used as lifetime mottoes, but they are not propagandistic; instead, they make suggestions, wisely and with exquisite restraint.

The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard (Univ. of Chicago, $12).

These short, haunting stories are the only works of their kind that Bernhard, a famously grouchy Austrian better known for his novels and plays, ever wrote. Each less than a page long, they read like silent Kabuki plays.

Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon (Graywolf, $15).

In this unforgettable collection, Lennon reveals that the very short story isn't just a shorter version of the conventional 5,000-word short story; it is its own thing. Omission must also be part of its machinery. The narratives must both shock and loom, and must manage both effects in a very short time.

Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon (NYRB Classics, $15).

This collection of "novels" consists of more than 1,000 three-line summaries of local crimes and odd stories that Fénéon originally published anonymously in the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Imagine a series of 10-second gesture drawings by a master artist.

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15).

I suspect that if Ruhl, an award-winning playwright, had had more time to write these essays, they wouldn't be so piquant. They read like improvised songs, not laboriously sanded-down longer essays — a rare achievement.

Sarah Manguso is an award-winning poet and memoirist whose new book, 300 Arguments, is a collection of very short prose pieces, some only a sentence long.

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