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.”