Creative process: Compression __the key to writing poetry: Example: the poem Ozymandias

By Dennis Mellersh

One of the most important qualities that good poetry (and other art) must possess is compression, the ability to make fewer words communicate with power.

Specifically, effective poetry requires compression of story, feelings, emotion, ideas, and other factors.

A Canadian painter once said that the quality that makes both dynamite, and art, work, is compression.

We can see an excellent example of the power of literary compression in poetry in the famous short poem Ozymandias, published in 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Within the 14-line limit of the sonnet literary form, the poet has conveyed a great deal, and with impact, using the device or technique of compression.

This poem (among other attributes):

  • Relates a story
  • Invokes a mental picture
  • Establishes a time period, setting,  and mood
  • Introduces believable characters
  • Builds a mood of irony
  • Conveys emotions such as vanity or unwarranted pride
  • Has a moral: Material things do not last

In our poetry writing, it can be a useful, practical exercise in improving our efforts to try to re-write some of our poems in a smaller number of lines and words.

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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