Alan Summers (@haikutec) recently retweeted a post from the Whiptail Journal that said, “Write single-lines poems about birds”.
Normally an announcement about submissions for a journal wouldn’t grab my attention. But a single-line poem, now that was interesting!
So what is a single-line poem, and how do you write something like that? Well, It turns out that in order to understand this form, we need to look at the foundations of haiku.
Traditional Japanese haiku were written in one column. They are single-line poems.
The Whiptail Journal explains that this form of poetry is “not a new technique, but a traditional presentation of haiku made new again in English.” The Journal continues, “Unlike poetry with line breaks, single-line poetry does not rely on physical enjambment to enhance the meaning of the poem. As such, one-line poetry can have more than one break in syntax to create multiple meanings. Single-line poetry can be a slippery lizard or a long-necked swan.”
A slippery lizard or a long-necked swan indeed! But, I am not sure I fully understand the comparison. I needed to do some more research.
Describing a Single-line poem
Single-line poetry can also be classified as monoku, monostich haiku, one-line tanka, poetic fragments, and one-line micro poems.
A commonly referenced article by Pravat Kumar Padhy titled “Monoku: An Experiment with Minimalism in Haiku Literature” provided me with my first definition of this form.
“The one-line or monostich paints the word-images in one breath with syntactical variations and unveils the surrealistic beauty of multiple image landscapes of the haiku expression.”
Padhy also refers to the Under the Basho e-journal definition of:
“A one-line haiku is intended to be read as an unbroken line with no specified pause indicators. While they may often be able to be broken up into a classic three-line form, they nevertheless allow for different readings depending on how the reader chooses to follow the poem’s movement through its possible syntactical variations that would be lost if not retained in its one-line form. Others embody a singular headlong movement along the line through the images it contains bridging no pause or break to carry its effect.”
From this point, I think I get what a one-line poem is. But how does it work?
Padhy explains that the monoku should be “one stroke without any pause or break in between. It has to have a vivid interplay of image and poetic sense. Otherwise it would appear more of [a] sentence or prosaic expression.” Padhy also states that the monoku should have different meanings depending on how you read it. “The play of the words with sublime juxtaposition and if accompanies layered meanings, justifies an effective monoku.” This type of wordplay seems really important for the monoku.
Some other monoku traits that Padhy mentions are words that represent both verbs or nouns depending on how the line is read, and the ability to hold images within images within a single line. My favorite example of the image within the image is:
every ripple a river in the river -Aparna Pathak, Under the Basho, 2016
Padhy provided me a fairly good start towards understanding the single-line poem. However, I felt like I still needed more information.
What some others say about the monoku
Johannes S. H. Bjerg
Johannes S. H. Bjerg wrote an editorial about the monoku for Under the Basho. In this editorial, Bjerg says the “one-line haiku seems to be a discipline of its own. What I have discovered is that it represents another way of thinking, perceiving (sensing), of “speaking” than a three-line haiku and often with more energy in it as it’s even more condensed in thought and sensing than a three-line verse.” Bjerg also states, “Normally we in the haiku world say that haiku is condensed poetry. I would argue that one-line haiku is (or can be) a condensed version of an already condensed poetry; one that challenges the reader further – but maybe reflects our thought patterns more correctly.” What all this means is “that language is the foremost tool of one-line haiku, language, syntax, ways of speaking, ways of thinking.”
Alan Summers also defines the monoku on his website Area 17. In a post titled “all those red apples | traveling the monorail” Summers explains, “Sometimes one-line haiku are, or appear to be, a little subversive in order to tell a greater truth. If it’s too smooth it could be just a line of poetry, or a statement.” Summers also suggests using “Abruptive techniques” to change the direction of the reader. These “abruptions” break up the text and can lead to that greater truth. A favorite monoku from Summers is:
under and over the river crossing bridges -Alan Summers, Honorable Mention, 2018 Monostich Haiku Poetry Contest
Jim Wilson from Shaping Words describes the monoku this way, “What distinguishes the monoku from the haiku is that the single line of the monoku has no breaks; it just goes from the first to last syllable.” The monoku is instead one “complex statement with overlapping parts forming a complex whole.” Wilson also says the “monoku has the ability to play on ambiguities which three line lineation would make problematic and thus there is often in the monoku a deliberate use of wordplay.” Here again, is the mention of wordplay and a sense of ambiguity is part of the definition of the monoku. These seem to be vital traits of this form. Wilson provides an example of this with one of his monoku:
July late morning fog slowly lifting the pink camellias -Jim Wilson, 2010
My reflection on the monoku
My initial reaction to this form of poetry is that it seems very challenging. However, what I like about it is its attempt to push the reader to a greater level of understanding. It makes me think a little bit about Foster’s article about the challenge of words in nature writing. Part of Foster’s argument was that sometimes words limit our ability to experience nature, it is the spaces and the sounds that let the experience shine through. I hear something similar in Summers’ comment about the monoku being subversive in order to tell a greater truth. Or Bjerg’s comment that perhaps the monoku better represents our thought process. This also makes me think about a recent article written by Dan Beachy-Quick about the genre of poetry.
“Poems might be understood as regions of intense becoming, spaces of encounter and relations in which–impossibly enough–for a brief while a kind of metamorphosis occurs and, as Arthur Rimbaud so succinctly put it, ‘I am other.’ That otherness isn’t an escape from, but an entrance into.”Dan Beachy-Quick
Perhaps this is a suitable description of the monoku. It is the entrance into “otherness”.
- Pravat Kumar Padhy; “Monoku: An Experiment with Minimalism in Haiku Literature”. Under The Basho
- Johannes S. H. Bjerg; “Editorial-One Line Haiku”. Under the Basho
- Alan Summers; “All those red apples traveling the monorail”. Area 17
- Jim Wilson; “Haiku Analogs”. Shaping Words
- Dan Beachy-Quick; “Oxygen In Ash”. Poets And Writers, Jan/Feb 2022
Alan Summers is also the lead tutor at Call of the Page. Call of the Page is “a small creative writing, literature and literacy organization with an international outlook, based in Wiltshire in the South West of England.”
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My first thought on seeing your post’s title was my comment on your previous post on how 2 lines from a William Carlos Williams poem could’ve been a complete poem by themselves. Beauty in brevity that speaks volumes. My second thought is that single-line poems seem ideal for short communication of texting and tweeting. How short can pack a punch. Similar to 6-word stories. And I thought about your posts of micro-seasons, and how single-line poems could be lovely partners for those micro-seasons. So thank you for inspiring several thoughts 🙂 I’m going to send the link to Whiptail Journal to my two daughters, as they are huge fans of birds.
Hi Dave, Yes! There is so many places where these ideas are starting to converge. Mini-seasons, micro-poetry, short stories, haibun, and haiku. I think there might be a chapbook in here somewhere. I think I need to write more so that I can distill this down to fewer words. — Are you daughters writers? Will they be submitting some poetry?
My daughters used to enjoy writing more. One put together several comic strips, and I still have hopes that she will someday put together a graphic novel. They have plenty of time, as they are 18 years old (twins). I have my fingers crossed that they will submit poetry, as that would be really neat!
That is cool. Maybe having something like that might be a fun project. Good luck to both of them if they choose to write something. I am working on a few lines right now. We will see what happens.
oh Mark, you excel again. Wonderful
Let me try…
owl echoes only during winter
Hi Barbara, well done!
Is your owl friend still around?
😃 maybe – I am not, am in Ger at the mo and she did not follow me here, that much I know. Was silent during last 2 months in England/from Oct. PS – didn’t do this intentionally, but is the owl echo a bit like one hand clapping? 😛 no?
Oh yes! To sit and ponder the sound of an owl echo.
A considered approach well put together. I especially like your last thought – an entrance into “otherness”.
Here’s a couple of mine which you may like …
sunshine filling every room the cuckoo’s call
Presence Issue 68
above the river beat the sound of drumming snipe
Accepted for the Blo͞o Outlier Journal #3 (Winter 2021) Edited by Alan Summers
Hi Clive, Thank you for the comment and sharing your work. I really like the snipe one. I keep rereading it!
Clive is mentioning the first issue:
Blo͞o Outlier Journal #1 (Winter 2020)https://bloooutlierjournal.blogspot.com/2020/12/the-bloo-outlier-journal-winter-issue.html
The 3rd issue of Blo͞o Outlier Journal is both only haiku and main theme is birds, whether 1, 2, 3, or 4 line haiku. It’s due out Summer 2022.
editor-in-chief, Blo͞o Outlier Journal
founder, Call of the Page
Hi Alan, so much going on over there at Call of the Page! Thanks being so generous with your knowledge and work.
grey sky, bare tree, red cardinal.
Very nice! Thanks for adding to the conversation. A red Cardinal against a grey sky is one of those moments that make winter special.
This has certainly set my thinking gears in motion – in a good way. Thank you for posting.
Hi VJ , thanks for the comment and I am glad that you enjoyed the post! Feel free to share your poem.
Thanks Mark. I went a step further and shared this with the coordinator of our local poetry club. There may be many resulting poems.
Very exciting! If we get pieces selected we will have to share.
Nicely researched, Mark. I wonder where The American Sentence fits into the mix:
Hmmm. I may have to do more research! Thanks for sharing the link.
You’re very welcome.
Just loved this post, both informative and inspiring, I will have to give it a go, thanks 🙂
That is great to hear! I hope you will share your poem and maybe even enter it into the journal.
Hi I did have a go at the one-line poem, more difficult than I imagined 🙂 :
‘content the perched pigeon coos above the wind’
Very nice! These poems are difficult. Do you think you try and submit one for the journal?
Yes I had a look and will submit 3 one line poems worth a shot!
That is what I thought! Good luck.
This is a really well-researched essay on a unique subject. I’m aware of the American Sentence that msjadeli mentioned above (David over at https://skepticskaddish.com/ posts American Sentences once or twice a week and has also written about micropoetry). The examples you’ve listed here are interesting and contain that hint of ambiguity that makes short verse so intriguing. Maybe I’ll give this format a go at some point. I seem to be writing nothing but haiku recently (as my brain recharges between longer poetry). This was a delightful read and so informative. Well done, good sir! 🙂
Hi Mike, I have read some of David’s stuff. There is a similarity there between the American Sentence and the monoku. I could be wrong, but I think one of the big differences is the seasonal or nature connection. The other thing that seems a challenge is to get the line to have various meanings depending on how you read it. It’s fun! I look forward to seeing what you write. Thanks for comment and I hope you are well.
Very interesting topic. Thank you for sharing.
Hi Tammie, I am glad that you enjoyed this article. I hope you had a good New Year!
Thanks for the wonderful shout-out of Whiptail’s bird-themed issue! We love to hear about the growing interest in single-lined poems. May I add Whiptail’s recent article on single-line haiku that was published in the December 2021 Haiku Society of America newsletter? Here’s the link, now re-published on the Whiptail site. Happy writing! https://www.whiptailjournal.com/haiku-walking-the-fine-line.html
Hi Kat, thanks so much for adding to this! I am very much looking forward to the bird issue! I hope to do some sort of review when it comes out. Thanks for adding to the conversation!
Thank you, Mark, for your wonderful essay. The essence of poetry nestles in the diligent fragrance of the flower, simplicity of flow of the river, the gentle spread of leaves, calmness of the ocean, and the embellishment of soothing shadow.
Monoku is perhaps one of the best examples blazing the poetic spell in its brevity and engaging the readers to celebrate the rainbow of multiple meanings. This can sprout the new literary art in ever minimalistic expression, as rightly Jacob Salzer states:
“I find that haiku reminds us to use caution with our words, and also helps us realize the value of a single word. In terms of “economy of language”, one-line haiku makes full use of very few words, even more so than three-line haiku. The depth, and layers of a single word often really comes alive in one-line haiku, as it’s presented in a refined format, making familiar words both fresh and insightful…..”.
More on Monoku:https://youtu.be/GsrrH4gKVSE
Hello Pravat, Thank you so much for sharing this! Wonderful reflection on the power of language and great quote from Salzer. Thanks again for adding to the conversation.