Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

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

The Fledgling Book Flies the Nest

          This post is more meditative and personal than most of my literary musings, but I’ve been thinking about various reactions to some of the poems in Sonnets.
          As I was putting together the final manuscript of Sonnets, naturally I made certain decisions about which to include and which to put on the back burner, perhaps for future revisions. As well, in the final, published, version, there are some sonnets that I feel closer to than others.
          But once my book goes out into the world, I have no control over which poems, to quote Dickinson, make readers feel physically as if the top of their head is coming off, and which, not so much.
          For example, one friend named a sonnet that he particularly enjoyed. It was one that in the editing stage I had seriously considered tossing. This has happened often enough to bring home the point that after a work is released into the world, the author becomes largely irrelevant, unless biographical information contributes to the meaning of a poem (my Katrina poems, for example)—and even then. Unmoored from the intentions and contextual significance in the mind of the poet, readers become, to use Barthes’ term, writerly. I might not share a certain predilection for or interpretation of a poem, but who am I to say? And it’s a pleasure for me to know how others are reading my work.
          At a reading, I sometimes find myself about to start talking about what the poem means to me and then catch myself, so as not to impose a set of significations to the poem.
          And in the editing stage, when I had trusted friends help me to edit the manuscript, one editor felt that a certain sonnet should be dropped, while another felt it absolutely must be included. I hated to be the one to break the tie, but more often than not, iI decided to include it, since at least one seasoned poet felt strongly about it, and I didn’t want to deny the little sonnet its chance to shine, even if only for a minority of readers.
          It can be illuminating and broadening to read other’s interpretations of particular poems. Not long ago, Bill Knott wrote a sensitive and insightful analysis of one of the sonnets, “comatose in paradise,” in which he gave it a depth of meaning and pointed out interconnected ideas that I hadn’t noticed before. As much pleasure and satisfaction as I derive from writing, it’s at least as gratifying to hear others’ take on the poetry. Perhaps it’s true that poets are the worst interpreters of their own poetry.
          I’m wondering what others think when they hear such unexpected feedback from others.

Camille Martin
http://www.shearsman.com/pages/books/catalog/2010/martin.html