The Humble Monostich

                                                                mono / stich

        The monostich could inspire a question for poetic Trivial Pursuit: What form (other than prose poetry and vispo) has no line breaks?
        The monostich has none because it consists of a single line. In the essay collection A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, Kimiko Hahn explores this Lilliputian form, both in its literal manifestation—a poem written and intended as a monostich—and as a “found monostich,” the idea of reading a poem with an appreciation for an individual line as “a startling fragment that [has] its own integrity.”
        For the latter, Hahn gives examples of such lines to be savoured for their poetic cadence from Denise Levertov’s “A Common Ground”:

grown in grit or fine
[. . .]
new green, of coppery
[. . .]
crumpled wax paper, cartons
[. . .]
curved, green-centered, falling

A single line within Levertov’s poem becomes an imagined monostich, suspended in its own time and space.
        Hahn points out that whereas imagery appeals to the visual imagination, cadence involves the ear attuned to the pitch and rhythm of a group of words, and she recounts that in her evolution as a poet she gradually became aware of the qualities of poetic cadence while considering such found monostiches within longer poems.
        Barbara Guest comes to mind as another poet who often sculpts her lines with a stand-alone quality, such as the following from Quilts:

where footsteps tremble on quicksand squiggly
[. . .]
third time white like autumn squash
[. . .]
minnows on muslin

        One of my works-in-progress contains a section of short poems, “R is the Artichoke of Rose.” I skimmed through it looking for monostiches, certain that there’d be a handful, but was surprised to find only one. The majority are between two and six lines. I’d forgotten that most of the ultra-short poems that were originally written as one line have since been revised into lineated poems.
        Why have I avoided the monostich, even in the case of a “flash poem” consisting of two words? I think it is because my ear—and mind—have become attuned to the argument of the sonnet. Although many of the poems in my Sonnets are far from traditional, I can see that the idea of the argument or even simply the development of an idea attracted me to that ancient form. The “if” and “then” structure had its appeal, and if the argument of a sonnet turned out to be illogical or open-ended, then that could become part of the movement of thought, the disruption of the proposition-conclusion folded into the scheme, observing itself in the act of giving the mental slip.
        My lone monostich in “R is the Artichoke of Rose” is a parody of a famous line by Emily Dickinson:

I heard a Leafblower—when I died—

If the monostich has an argument, it’s necessarily more subtle, even if it’s on the scale of subject-predicate, clause-clause, or a pithy dialogue with a predecessor.
        Below are some more true monostiches, memorable not only because their brevity makes them so easy to remember. Here’s one from Craig Dworkin’s aptly-named Motes:

WILTED TULIPS

split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew

The delicate tongue-twister of staccato plosives creates a striking image developing the title: the poetic miniature satisfies both ear and eye.
        In John Ashbery’s “37 Haiku,” each unfurls on a single line, and again, these monostiches turn on striking images, as in these two:

Night occurs dimmer each time with the pieces
        of light smaller and squarer

A blue anchor grains of grit in a tall sky sewing

In the second monostich, the final word, “sewing,” subtly echoes Lautréamont’s famous description of beauty as “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.” That statement, which became a sort of anthem for surrealists, speaks of the mysterious charm that ensues from the dialogue among disparate images. Perhaps the chance encounter involves some stitching together of such images, and Ashbery’s allusion nicely suggests the marriage of anchor and sandy grit in the sky, which might be reflected in “tall” or oceanic water.
        Many of Ron Padgett’s monostiches in “To Francis Sauf Que” exemplify his signature humour. I almost bypassed the one below, but it grew on me. (I’m finding that the effectiveness of some of the more successful monostiches increases exponentially with the thoughts they generate.)

Now I love you again because of these roosters.

Padgett’s fragment appears to be lifted from a narrative; the absence of context gives the line a twist of absurdity. But it also seems to offer a goofy explanation for the mysterious force that compels one person to be attracted to another, in this case perhaps in an on-again-off-again relationship: I’m not sure exactly why I love you again (the speaker seems to say), but these roosters are as good a reason as any. The line has the qualities of both a dramatic assertion and an aphorism.
        I don’t think the poem would work as well as a couplet:

Now I love you again
because of these roosters.

The separation of the abstraction (love) from the image (roosters) drains the poem of its humour. It’s funny and poignant precisely because of its seamless, matter-of-fact, droll delivery. The line break is overkill.
        Almost none of the more impressive one-liners survives exclusively on abstraction. In the example by Padgett, “love” is paired with a vivid image, “roosters,” which also serves as a kind of punch line to the enigma of love.
        A few years ago, issues of Peter O’Toole: A Magazine of One-Line Poems began to surface in Toronto, published by Stuart Ross. It’s the only magazine I know of that specialized in the monostich. Here’s one by Clarice Eckford that nicely captures a particular type of tedium:

WAITING FOR THE BUS

knee-deep in cement

And Dani Couture’s ear- and eye-fest:

Freezer unfrozen, slabs relax in the november electric heat.

        And Stuart Ross’s deadpan deflation of vainglory, perhaps describing the imagined triumph of a poet arriving in town for a reading versus the mundane reality:

AND THEY SHALL GREET US WITH ROSES

The cheeseburger broke out of the plastic bag.

        Steve Venright’s contributions hinge on spoonerisms:

With his long reach he pulled out the wrong leech.

        And Joel Dailey offers a sardonic take on adjusting to the end times:

CELL PHONE BITCH SLAP

The end of the world may require some lifestyle changes

        Lastly, one of my own from the magazine:

dead saints dream of the enshrined relics of their flight

        At least some of the monostiches above that have titles could arguably be called distiches. But such an argument might be putting too fine a point on the matter. Why shouldn’t monostiches be entitled to titles?
        Anyway, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m not in the mood to split hairs. So here’s a parting monostich for everyone who’s read to the end:

Happy New Year!


Camille Martin

10 responses to “The Humble Monostich

  1. How would you give a reading of a book of these poems?

    Like

  2. Interesting question, David. If they were really stand-alone one-liners, I might not read a lot of them in a row – listening to them would involve shifting gears frequently & I’m not sure how long the attention could be sustained. I don’t know but it would be interesting to try. On the other hand, I’ve heard readings of haiku in which the poet read each one twice, which gave the listeners a chance to hear it again and maybe appreciate it more. What do you think?

    Like

  3. Hugh Behm-Steinberg

    I really like one line poems. Yvor Winters wrote some great ones:

    Shadow’s Song
    I am beside you, now.

    God of Roads
    I, peregrine of noon.

    There’s a pull sometimes to have the title work as first first line. When I’m feeling austere I leave my one liners untitled.

    Like

    • Thanks for posting these, Hugh, I like these by Winters. Sometimes I waffle over the lineation of short-short poems – it helps to try different versions and in the end trust the instincts of the ear.

      Like

  4. really interesting post. very much enjoyed it and the work you shared. i edit a contemporary haiku journal called Roadrunner (R’r) [http://www.roadrunnerjournal.net/], wherein i publish quite a few one-liners (Jim Kacian, a fine English-language haiku poet, founder of The Haiku Foundation, and owner of Red Moon Press, has recently coined the term “monoku”).

    Marlene Mountain, for example, has been writing one-line haiku exclusively for over 30 years; some examples:

    out of nowhere isn’t

    carbon-eating poem evaporates

    toward old as the hills ungracefully

    and Hiroaki Sato has been translating Japanese haiku into English strictly in one line for just as long (because it is a fact that Japanese haiku are, almost exclusively, written in one line is therefore a one-line poem, not a 3 line poem as has been interpreted by the West):

    An old pond: a frog jumps in—the sound of water (Basho)

    Coolness: separating from a bell, the bell’s voice (Buson)

    Cold night: I keep a vigil on my own body (Issa)

    Rape flowers flash to brightness the edge of the town (Shiki)

    I go in I go in still the blue mountains (Santoka)

    i cough and am still alone (Hosai Ozaki)

    Covered by the sounds of insects lies a brain (Fujiki Kiyoko)

    Oh well then I’ll just turn into a snake’s heart (Kataoka Hiroko)

    I plant a cactus in my eyes and give up (Miura Iyuko)

    Running down the giraffe’s neck the orgasm (Seino Chisato)

    Plum in bloom, and all over the garden blue sharks are visiting (Kaneko Tohta)

    inspiring many, many poets who write haiku in English almost exclusively (including myself).

    also, Chris Gordon, who has been editing the journal ant ant ant ant ant [http://antantantantant.wordpress.com/] since 1994 has been publishing one-liners almost exclusively (he’s been a huge promoter of them), and writes amazing one’s himself in my opinion:

    a love letter to the butterfly gods with strategic misspellings

    things i did with my hand show up as dead skin

    my body made of accordions no sun but a little sky

    Robert Grenier wrote a great number of one-line poems in his collection entitled *Sentences* [http://www.whalecloth.org/grenier/sentences_.htm]. Some readings from that collection can be found on PennSound [http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Grenier.php]—to give you an idea of how one-line poems can be read (in his case he does them rather quickly, almost like he is delivering punchlines)—and a discussion of that collection was done on Poem Talk, episode 31 [http://poemtalkatkwh.blogspot.com/2010/04/grenier-sentences.html]. as was mentioned, many haiku poets read them 2 or 3 times to audiences.

    Allen Ginsberg had his one-line “American Sentences”, an ex.:

    Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.

    Grant Hackett, whose work i find quite interesting, has a blog called Monostich Poet [http://monostichpoet.blogspot.com/].

    and, also, here are a couple of one-liners that i feel have become classics in the English-language haiku canon are:

    in the eggshell after the chick has hatched (Michael Segers, 1971)

    leaves blowing into a sentence (Bob Boldman, 1980)

    the late William J. HIgginson did a nice write up on one-line haiku here: http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv2n5/haikuclinic/haikuclinic.html

    and, recently, an anthology i edited with Lee Gurga, *Haiku 21*, features many (what we feel are) wonderful one-line ku written and published over the last decade: http://www.modernhaiku.org/mhbooks/Haiku21.html

    anyone know how to get ahold of copies of *Peter O’Toole*? i’d love to see some.

    thanks again for the interesting post, and my apologies for being so verbose.

    Like

    • Hi, Scott, no apologies necessary – I appreciate your taking the time! Thanks for the examples & the links to websites. A wealth of great one-liners. Looking forward to listening to the Grenier recording. And good essay by Higginson. All this is jogging my memory about more poets who have written one-liners – for example, bp Nichol:

      Catching Frogs
      jar din

      And here are three by Anselm Hollo:
      ginko tree was here before dinosaurs
      and
      stop, dear Mozart: you’re making me cry
      and
      women’s laughter through crickets & tree-frogs

      As to Peter O’Toole, you could get in touch with Stuart Ross. His blog, Hunkamooga, lists his email address as

      hunkamooga AT sympatico DOT ca
      Cheers!

      Like

  5. camille, interesting essay. happy new year.

    Like

  6. Pingback: Lineation: the Knife Skills of Poetry « Editions Of You

  7. Pingback: Lineation: the Knife Skills of Poetry « Editions Of You

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s