A monostich, according to Wikipedia, as good a place as any to start, is a poem which consists of a single line. It goes on to attempt to define the form: A monostich has been described as ‘a startling fragment that has its own integrity’ and ‘if a monostich has an argument, it is necessarily more subtle.’ A monostich, it continues, could be also titled; due to the brevity of the form, the title is invariably as important a part of the poem as the line itself. Some one-line poems, we are told, have ‘the characteristics of not exceeding one line of a normal page, to be read as one unbroken line without forced pauses or the poetics of ceasura’, and others having ‘ a rhythm, (as with one-line haiku), dividing easily into three phrases’.
Some examples of monostich (one-line poems) were created by such classic ancient authors as Martial in Latin. According to Edward Hirsh in his A Poet’s Glossary, “As the Greek Anthology (tenth century) illustrates, the monostich can be a proverb, an aphorism, an enigma, a fragment, an image, an enigma.” Modern monostich was started in Russia in 1894 when Valery Bryusov published this single line of pretty absurd poetry :
О закрой свои бледные ноги.
(Oh, cover your pale legs.)
The first poet to produce monostich in the modern Western tradition was Guillaume Apollinaire, who included this poem in his 1913 book Alcools:
Et l’unique cordeau des trompettes marines (5)
And the single string of the sea trumpets)
An early English example is a one-line poem without a title by Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962):
‘Skunks,’ the squirrel said, ‘are sent to try us.’
A monostich can, however, be titled; due to the brevity of the form, the title is invariably as important a part of the poem as the line itself, as in this example from A. R. Ammons:
Bravery runs in my family.
Yvor Winters may be well-known as a formal and conservative poet, but he began his career as an experimental poet, influenced by American Indian songs, imagist poetry and Japanese haiku. He told his friend, Kenneth Fields, “I was trying to beat the haiku poets at their own game.” Many of his early poems are examples of monostich. A sample is included below. More are available on the Yvor Winters Brief Poems post.
John Ashbery has been attracted to the monostich in two of his collections. In A Wave (1984) he has a poem or, more likely, a sequence of individual and individuised poems called “37 Haiku” . Of more interest to me are a few monostiches with capitalised titles contained in an earlier collection, As We Know (1979). Samples from both collections are included below.
William Matthews’ collection, An Oar in the Old Water (1976) contains a few poems in the monostich form that are witty and bounce off their titles. See below.
Allen Ginsberg, in the mid-1980′s, created his own version of the monostich as a response to the Japanese form, the haiku. He called these poems American Sentences. If haiku involved seventeen syllables down the page, he reasoned, American Sentences would be seventeen syllables across the page. It was his attempt, successful at times, to “Americanize” a Japanese form. Like (rough) English approximations of the haiku, American Sentences work closely with concision of line and sharpness of detail. Unlike its literary predecessor, however, it is compressed into a single line of poetry and often included a reference to a month and year (or alternatively, a location) rather than a season. Some of his more interesting examples are posted below.
Ian McBryde, an avant-garde, Canadian-born poet who lives in Melbourne, Australia, has a collection called Slivers (2005) which consists almost entirely of one-line poems. See below for a few examples.
Whether a textless poem, a poem with a title and no text, can be called a monostich is a moot point. I have come across two interesting examples, one from the American poet, James Wright, and one from the Scottish poet, Don Paterson. I include them in a final, separate section below.
Monostich – Yvor Winters
Thin air! My mind is gone.
My doorframe smells of leaves.
God of Roads
I, peregrine of noon.
Did you move, in the sun?
Monostich – John Ashbery
THE CATHEDRAL IS
slated for demolition.
I HAD THOUGHT THINGS WERE GOING ALONG WELL
But I was mistaken.
OUT OVER THE BAY THE RATTLE OF FIRECRACKERS
And, in the adjacent waters, calm.
WE WERE ON THE TERRACE DRINKING GIN AND TONICS
When the squall hit.
These four poems are from As We Know (1979)
from 37 HAIKU
Night occurs dimmer each time with the pieces of light smaller and squarer
A blue anchor grains of grit in a tall sky sewing
The wedding was enchanted everyone was glad to be in it
Monostich – William Matthews
border with no country
“To Thine Own Self Be True”
As if you had a choice
I’m sorry this poem’s already finished
Is death curved, like the universe?
All bells hate their clappers
The dead are dreaming of breathing
Monostich – Allen Ginsberg
Tompkins Square Lower East Side N.Y.
Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.
Taxi ghosts at dusk pass Monoprix in Paris 20 years ago.
Crescent moon, girls chatter at twilight on the bus ride to Ankara.
Put on my tie in a taxi, short of breath, rushing to meditate.
That grey-haired man in business suit and black turtleneck thinks he’s still young.
Rainy night on Union Square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till I’m dead.
Monostich – Ian McBryde
White noise carries too many messages.
Night gathers across the river.
Relax. I kept my word, burned the negatives.
Memories of the bomb still mushroom within us.
Somewhere in Texas, farmhouses are burning.
I have climbed inside Siberia, and now await you.
Hours later, the ashes stirring by themselves.
There are more than fourteen stations of the cross.
Ravens outdate us, but we still forget.
Monostich – Assorted Examples
Bravery runs in my family.
A. R. Ammons
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Streamers of crepe idling before doors.
The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water.
Someone I tell you will remember us.
Sappho (translated by J. V. Cunningham)
Ian Hamilton Finlay
my lost lamb lovelier than all the wool.
SIESTA OF A HUNGARIAN SNAKE
s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs Zs zs zs z
split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew
Now I love you again because of these roosters
If only you knew how to ignore me.
The clanking and wanking of Her Majesty’s Prison.
THE LOVER WRITES A ONE-WORD POEM
All that’s left of coherence.
EPITAPH ON A SCHOOL OF FICTION
They wrote about what they knew. It didn’t take long.
Bees to the Flowers, Flies to Shit.
A LONG FAREWELL
Goodbye, said the river, I’m going downstream.
Who would I show it to
W. S. Merwin
CELL PHONE BITCH SLAP
The end of the world may require some lifestyle changes
a dixie cup floats down the Nile
Cor van den Heuvel
All that’s left of coherence.
this book has been removed for further study
8.06pm June 10 1970
These sleeping tablets may cause drowsiness.
t w i l i g h t b l u e & p a l e g r e e n l e a v e s e v e r y w h e r e s c e n t o f w a t e r m e l o n s
He was at the airport when his ship came in.
shadows darkening three-sevenths of her face in sunlight
Elizabeth Searle Lamb
Forgive these words, they are not birds.
‘Listen hard enough and you wake the dead.’
after the garden party the garden
swans stir of his breath against my hair
What do I want? Well, I want to get better.
BLISS AND GRIEF
No one is here right now.
ON THE INEVITABLE DECLINE INTO MEDIOCRITY OF THE POPULAR MUSICIAN WHO ATTAINS A COMFORTABLE MIDDLE AGE
O Sting, where is thy death?
Textless Poems – Two Examples
IN MEMORY OF THE HORSE DAVID, WHO ATE ONE OF MY POEMS
ON GOING TO MEET A ZEN MASTER IN THE KYUSHU MOUNTAINS AND NOT FINDING HIM (FOR A.G.)
Camille Martin’s interesting and informative article on The Humble Monostich from her Rogue Embryo post.
Some monostich from Yvor Winters on the Brief Poems site.
“Short Poems: Mini, Micro and Nano” from the Illustrated Poetry blog.
“From one line poems to one line haiku” on the Simply Haiku site.
Paul E. Nelson’s site, created to present and foster a poetic form created by Allen Ginsberg, known as American Sentences.