Tag Archives: Lautreamont

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

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A False Start: T. S. Eliot, Snoopy, and the Art of the Artist’s Statement

Do I dare to eat a peach? Does starting a blog count as eating a peach?

The third question of the false start: for poets who also practice some other kind of art, what is the relationship between the poetry and the other discipline? In the case of my poetry and collage, are the two in dialogue? I pondered this issue as I struggled to write a meaningful statement about my collages in preparation to contact galleries about a possible exhibition. I thought it relevant to mention my work as a poet, and found myself also making connections about my readings in cognitive science. Here is what I came up with:

* * * * * * *

Artist’s Statement: Camille Martin

I am both a collage artist and a poet. The two media are not mutually exclusive; they inform one another. My approaches to language and images are closely related: I gather materials (in the case of poetry, words or phrases; in the case of collages, backgrounds and cut-out images) and try different combinations until something larger than the juxtaposed elements emerges. After creating the collages, I digitally scan them and create enlarged archival prints on fine art paper mounted on white dibond.

The startling juxtaposition of images is key to my work. Lautreamont, a nineteenth-century writer, described 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 to me of the mysterious charm that ensues from the dialogue among the images that I marry with scissors and glue. The images might start telling a narrative, or their meaning might remain mysterious and absurd.

One thing that we humans do best is to fill in the gaps of seemingly illogical juxtapositions: to “confabulate,” to tell stories in order to explain. Confronted with oddness, the mind rushes to fill the aporia between the unlike images, like water rushing to fill a depression in the earth: a snake levitates in the air, lifting with it a marble staircase; a mountain breaks apart to reveal to a climbing statue a secret city with buildings adorned with feathers; a broken puppet falls from the sky like Icarus; a naked mole rat watches enviously as two mating turtles fly across the night sky. The gaps that we fill with narratives are openings for the creation of our very selves, which is unending.

It is equally possible, confronted with the illogical, to allow the strange gaps to remain a mystery and to experience what the poet John Keats called “negative capability”: the capacity to allow the presence of uncertainties without trying to rationalize them, to allow “mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” The snake carries the staircase: that reality can exist in its own world, resistant to the attempt of any brain to reason with the oddness of it.

It’s important for me as an artist to allow both possibilities: interpretation and mystery; narrative and an irrationality that resists narrative. The interplay of these two possibilities constitutes for me the richness and playfulness of my work. There is magic and meaning—and poetry—in both states.

* * * * * * *

I recently sent a portfolio to the Women’s Art Resources Centre in Toronto in order to get a critique from a knowledgable artist and curator. I am still basking in her assessment, which was very positive in regards to the art (she writes that she is “impressed with the quality of the execution and the composition of the collage work” – woo-hoo!). Her main suggestion had to do with my artist’s statement: to situate my collages in a more contemporary context in order to place my work in the stream of a more recent tradition. Excellent advice.

Sage advice also from Snoopy, who responded to sourpuss Lucy’s refusal to dance the day away: “Four hundred years from now, who’ll know the difference?” That’s as good a response to Eliot’s weary despair as I’ve ever heard.
. . . . . .

I record here my website address, in what is probably a useless attempt to get Google to index it:

http://www.camillemartin.ca

Camille Martin