Tag Archives: Ron Padgett

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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Books with window seat

Photo: Camille Martin

         My last tour-by-train this fall will be to Bridge Street Books in Washington, DC, and Segue Reading Series in New York.
         This is the longest tour (by far) as I’m choosing to travel by train. Getting to DC will take a total of sixteen hours (interrupted by a rest-layover in New York). Even given the slower pace (and in reality, partly because of it), I’m finding that I much prefer to travel by train rather than plane.
         For one thing, I’ll have uninterrupted time to work on a couple of writing projects—an interview as well as an essay on the literariness of train travel, which I began to explore in a previous post on Fernando Pessoa.
         I’ll also continue readings that I started during my earlier trips, one of which is Bayamus & Cardinal Polatuo, two novels by Polish-British writer Stephen Themerson (with an introduction by Keith Waldrop). Come to think of it, maybe I should bring along some Kurt Schwitters, too, as a companion to this book, since Themerson and his wife, Franciszka, published his work in London.
         Another is Blaise Cendras, especially “La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France.” I can’t seem to locate my translation by Ron Padgett, but I have an en face by Dos Passos that seems quite good.
         The journey begins tomorrow morning at the entrance to the VIA Rail Station in Toronto, which is guarded by a mobile scare-owl. The pigeons nesting there are too smart to be tricked by the paper raptor twisting in the wind.

Photo: Camille Martin



Camille Martin

Part 2: “I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which the tip-of-the-tongue experience is helping cognitive scientists to learn how the mind stores and retrieves information. When we struggle to remember something, we will sometimes begin with the conviction that we remember a fragment, such as the first letter of a name.

This phenomenon demonstrates to researchers that information about a word or other kind of memory is likely to be stored in different locations in the brain: aural sound of a word in one location, meaning in another, and spelling in yet another. Somehow, they coalesce regularly and rapidly. But sometimes they don’t: we might know the meaning of a word that is trying to surface, but the word itself remains in hiding. The knowledge that our unconscious mind knows more than we consciously know, and knows it sooner than we know it, is an eerie thought. It brings to mind Antonio Damasio’s succinct statement of the tardiness of conscious knowledge: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness” (127).

And sometimes the process of remembering leaves traces, clues of its mysterious origins and ways, demonstrating the imbalance between conscious and unconscious thought and proving once more that the unconscious mind knows more and knows it sooner than the conscious mind. And this is what really fascinates me: becoming aware that some pre-conscious part of my brain seems to be trying to tell me something, to throw little hints my way until the memory surfaces and I experience the eureka moment.

“I hate my birthday!”
A memorable instance of this kind of pre-conscious associative process occurred a few years ago when I was traveling with a friend in Europe. During our stay in Italy, we visited Francesco, a friend who lived near Padua. The three of us had a terrific visit. We chatted at his apartment for a while, and then Francesco showed us a printing press where he and some friends edited an anarchist newspaper.

Our next destination was the South of France to see friends in Montpellier. As the train passed through Provence, I gazed out the window at fields of poppies and lavender. I became aware that there was a memory that was trying to surface in my mind, but when I tried to remember what it was, I drew a blank. I knew that it was something that had made an impression on me, that it was somehow important to me. And whatever it was, it was tinged with sadness.

As I watched the colourful fields pass by, wondering about the elusive memory, the following phrase occurred to me:

      heavenly fields of poppy and lavender

This phrase gave rise to this sentence:

      But the people in the sky really love /
      to have dinner and to take a walk with you.

I knew this to be from an elegy for Frank O’Hara by Ted Berrigan.

Again I made an effort to recall the mysterious memory, but no other thoughts arrived. I still had the feeling that a memory wanted to surface. Then the feeling saddened and more words arrived:

      I hate that dog.

I remembered that sentence as the last line in an elegy for Ted Berrigan by Ron Padgett. The poem describes hearing a dog bark in the night and feeling the emptiness of Ted’s absence.

I thought it curious that both lines that surfaced in my mind were elegies for poets. Somewhere in my brain there must be a file with the label “elegies for poets of the second generation New York school.”

The clues from this mental file were leading me toward my memory, and the last clue, “I hate that dog,” was the catalyst that allowed me to remember what had been trying to surface:

      I hate my birthday.

On remembering these words, I experienced a eureka moment: this was the memory that had been lurking in the depths of my unconscious! It was also a poignant moment when I remembered what had occasioned Francesco’s speaking those words.

During our visit with Francesco, I showed him a cd that I had bought in Paris of the French anarchist singer Léo Ferré. Francesco told me that Léo Ferré had died several years before, in 1993. I was surprised and saddened, because although I didn’t know much about Ferré’s life, I had come to love the music of this “anarchanteur.”

Francesco then spoke of an Italian anarchist singer, Fabrizio de André, who had died just a couple of years earlier, the date of his death unfortunately coinciding with Francesco’s thirtieth birthday. So great was Francesco’s admiration for De André that after the singer’s death, he hated his birthday.

So the original elusive memory did eventually surface, but it took a circuitous path involving lateral associations. It was as though my brain were tossing little clues along the path: it knew what I didn’t know, and it seemed to be in dialogue with me, coyly leading me in the right direction.

It seems to me that the memory that “wanted” to surface was always the same memory: Francesco telling me of hating his birthday because De André had died on that day. I felt that this was so because of the eureka moment that I experienced when the memory finally surfaced. And the various memories that surfaced along the path to remembering that event were like stepping stones leading to Francesco’s statement about hating his birthday.

The first stepping stone was gazing at fields of poppies and lavender from the train and thinking of them as “heavenly.” “Heavenly” suggests the mythical abode of the dead, and the path that led from “heavenly fields of poppies and lavender” to “I hate my birthday” follows a certain logic having to do with remembering one’s fallen friends and hating something that one associates with that friend’s death. So the associative chain might look something like this:

lavender and poppy fields desire to remember

desire to remember heavenly fields

heavenly fields heaven

heaven friend’s death

friend’s death hate things reminding me of that death

hate things reminding me of that death hate birthday

If by chance you have actually made it to this point in my little essay, you may wonder at my meditating on this memory in such detail. If I do, it is because the more I find out about the workings of the mind, the more strange and wonderful it all seems. I find it so incredible that in our daily lives we make associations without thinking about them much. But if we stop to think about how the mind actually gets from A to B, things become very complicated very quickly!

There is just one more thing I want to consider. Earlier, I characterized the unconscious as having agency: it tossed little clues in my direction and coyly led me in the right direction. I know that it’s misleading to personify my unconscious that way. After all, is it really accurate to suppose that my unconscious “knew” the identity of the memory that was “trying” to surface and “concocted” a logical path of stepping stones for me to follow? If that were true, then why would my unconscious “withhold” the memory and tease me with clues?

It seems more likely that my conscious mind started guessing about the identity of the memory, shooting out trial electrical impulses to neurons that might be associated with the memory of Francesco hating his birthday. After all, the fact that the emotional aura of the memory was present from the beginning means that I knew something about the memory, just not the memory itself (perhaps similar to knowing that a word you’re trying to remember starts with the letter “b”). As Lehrer points out in the essay that I cited in Part I, the mind “makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall.”

In other words, the meta-cognitive knowledge that I wanted to remember something was unable to link directly to “I hate my birthday.” Somehow, the direct link at that time was too weak. However, there were stronger links from “I hate my birthday” to the indirect categories that I listed above.

So perhaps my conscious mind got to “I hate my birthday” by guessing along a kind of zigzagging path. That scenario is certainly less eerie than imagining an unconscious with agency, regardless of whether it’s beneficent or malevolent! But it takes nothing away from the strangeness of the mind’s ways.

As a tribute to De André and Ferré, below are links to videos of each in concert.





Works Cited

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann: London, 1999.



Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca