• Pravat Kumar Padhy

Monoku: Historical Perspective and Experimenting with Structural Style

Updated: Oct 4

Pravat Kumar Padhy provides an in-depth study into the world of one-line haiku





Introduction


Monoku is a one-line poem featuring brevity and clarity of expression. The term

was coined by Jim Kacian in his essay “The Shape of Things to Come,” and weds

a Greek prefix (mono, one) with a Japanese suffix (ku, poem) to create a new

English term. The concept of one-line haiku in English developed in the 1970s.

Japanese haiku are written in a single vertical line with 17 on (sound units, not

syllables). There may be subtle pauses in monoku corresponding to speech rhythm.

(In conventional 3-line haiku, there is one pause (kireji) between the fragment and

phrase of haiku.) Monoku can be interpreted with multiple pauses (kireji)

depending on how it is parsed. Some one-breath monoku cannot be expressed in

conventional 3-line haiku. Hence a poet may opt to use monoku to create imageries

with the shortest speech.

 

Alan Summer suggests there is a white space, as though some words have been left

unsaid in monoku which readers nevertheless divine. In conventional 3-line (s/l/s)

English-language haiku, there is a single kireji, and the contrast of images is

explicit. Monoku, however, may create multiple stops. It is worth mentioning that

monoku are not sentences.


Historical Perspective


Monoku has been called monostich, one-line ku, a one-liner, one sentence ku etc.

This casual usage is often inexact if not totally wrong. The word ‘monoku’ might

have been derived from, ‘Epigram’, a Greek poetry style.


Monostich were first penned by the ancient Roman author Marcus Valerius

Martialis  (c. 38 and 41 CE–c. 102 and 104 CE). Edward Hirsh, in his A Poet’s

Glossary, states “As [per] the Greek Anthology (tenth century), it is said that the

monostich can be a proverb, an aphorism, a fragment, an image, an enigma.” Here

are some contemporary examples:


Valery Bryusov (Russian, 1894): 


Oh, cover thy pale feet! (translated by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm

Yarmolinsky)


Guillaume Apollinaire (French, Poems 1898–1913): 


And the single string of the sea trumpets (translated by William Meridith)


Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali, 1916, The Stray Birds):


If you shed tears when you miss the sun, you also miss the stars.


K. S. Venkatramani (English, 1921, Paper Boats): 


the corners cut paper boat I float again.


Ralph Hodgson (1871–1962)’s one-liner:


 ‘Skunks,’ the squirrel said, ‘are sent to try us.’ 


is an early attempt at a one-line poem. Walt Whitman included one monostich

(though with a very long line) in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In 1893 and

1894 Edith Thomas, possibly in collaboration with an amateur author Samuel R.

Elliott (1836–1909), anonymously published several one-line poems in The

Atlantic Monthly intended as a joke. Guillaume Apollinaire is known as the first

poet to write a one-line poem in his 1913 book Alcools: Poems 1898-1913 in

French. Lafcadio Hearn, one of the earliest translators of Japanese haiku into

English, published his results as one-line poems. Emmanuel Lochac published one-

liners in French under the title Monostiches in a literary magazine in 1929 and

included some in his collection with that title in 1936:

 

Schooner bearing away the sun in its arms (translated by Breunig)  


In the 1920s one-line poetry was rediscovered in the US by Yvor Winters, Edwin

Ford Piper, Charles Reznikoff and others. Later John Ashbery (“37 Haiku”), Allen

Ginsberg (American Sentences, 1995-1997; each with 17 syllables (“Death &

Fame: Last Poems”), and Ian McBryde pioneered the concept through their

published work. 

 

Jack Kerouac was the first to experiment with a single-line format in the 1950s. He

has been followed by John Wills, M. Kettner, Jim Kacian, Janice Bostok, Chris

Gordon, Scott Metz, Stuart Quine, John Barlow, and many others. William

Higginson's “Characteristics of monostichs” has enumerated the historical

perspective of one-line haiku. Michael Segers in the early 1970s and subsequently

Matsuo Allard and Marlene Mountain shaped the art of monoku writing in English.



Allan Burns in his Montage for the week of May 3, 2009 (and also as Gallery

Three in Montage: The Book) writes:


“English-language haiku tend to be written in three lines, corresponding to the

metrical division of Japanese haiku, but Japanese haiku are actually usually

printed in a single vertical column. By way of analogy with this form, poets such as

Matsuo Allard and Marlene Mountain began writing English haiku in a single

horizontal line—and thanks to their efforts that form has become established in

English as the major alternative to the typical three-liner”.


Hiroaki Sato was the pioneer of translating Japanese haiku into one line in English.

Mountain (formerly Wills) wrote collaborative linked one-line haiku sequences

(known as Mountain Sonnets, each consisting of 14 one-line haiku). 

The definition quoted in Whiptail Journal (eds. Kat Lehmann and Robin Smith):


“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.” 


Some of the memorable examples of one-line haiku:


A dandelion seed floats above the marsh grass with the mosquitos.


Allen Ginsberg, “Following haiku”, White Shroud: Poems 1980–1985

  

in the eggshell after the chick has hatched


Michael Segers, Haiku Magazine, 1971 


a dixie cup floats down the Nile.


Cor Van den Heuvel, EO7, 1964


old woodcutter rests on the rings of the oak


Marlene Mountain, the old tin roof, 1976


an icicle the moon drifting through it


Matsuo Allard, Bird Day Afternoon, 1978


cry of the peacock widens the crack in the adobe wall


Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Harold G. Henderson Haiku Awards 1981


my head in the clouds in the lake


Ruby Spriggs, Frogpond 6:2, 14. 


Some star or other went out, and you, thank you for your book and year


John Ashbery, “37 Haiku”, 1984


Kind of Blue the smell of rain


Allan Burns, Acorn 20, 2008. 


stone before stone Buddha


Karma Tenzing Wangchuk, Stone Buddha, 2009, 54. 


Schooner bearing away the sun in its arms 


Emmanuel Lochac, Monostiches, 1929


pig and i spring rain


Marlene Mountain, Frogpond 2.3-4, 1979


the thyme-scented morning lizard's tongue flicking out


Martin Lucas, Presence 39, 2009


i hope i’m right where the river ice ends


Jim Kacian, Frogpond  35.2, 2012


in the dark of the kitchen with the fridge door open winter solstice


Oliver Schopfer, Under the Basho, 2015


envelope my thumb slips open the seal of his tongue


Janice M. Bostok, Amongst the Graffiti: Collected Haiku and Senryu 1972-

2002 (2005)


dusk from rock to rock a waterthrush


John Wills, The Haiku Anthology (Ed. Cor Van Den Heuvel) 2000

Techniques of Monoku Writing


William J. Higginson, Jim Kacian, Alan Summers, Jacob Salzer, and others have

broadly dealt with the techniques and styles of monoku writing. Artful placement

of words, creating multiple options by the use of the word as verb and noun,

sometimes avoiding the use of verb and expressing in condensed form, and

resonating multiple meanings with more than one pause (kireji) are just some of

the most common techniques. The poetic use of the images, juxtaposing images of

nature and the sense of human behavior, etc constitute the art of monoku

expression.


Abruptive Techniques, as suggested by Alan Summers, is a term for sharp changes

in directing the reader. It is one method for breaking up normal syntax/semantics.

Summers writes, “Whether the author wants these monoku read rapidly or a little

slower, we touch on just some of those where velocity with quality of language as

sound, not just meaning and content, can play its part, and produce from velocity

and quality something I will call veloquality. Does one-line haiku echo the one line

image of the fragment/section and phrasal (two-line imagery) sections that creates

sparks, bringing together an altogether different and extra overall image? Or does

it do something different to the technique of juxtaposing imagery? Above all it’s

the invisible text that counts as much as the visible text, as a catalyst for

everything, including the vertical layers of alternative, additional, and

complementary meanings from the horizontal surface meaning.”  


The broad techniques of monoku writing such as haiku in one-breath, classic style

of one-line haiku and one-line haiku with classic multiple meanings have been

described by William J. Higginson. 


I. Haiku in One-breath: The poem starts and finishes in one stroke without any

pause or break in between (poetics of caesura). It has to have a vivid interplay of

image and poetic sense. Otherwise, it would appear more like a sentence or a

prosaic expression.

Jim Kacian’s Where I Leave Off is both a collection of , and a primer on the

writing of, one-line haiku (as well as one-line haibun!). Kacian illustrates with his

own monoku:


“One-line one-thought”:


“Rather than a piling up of images upon the imagination, a single image is extended or elaborated into a second context, stated or implied.”


Similarly, Jim Wilson describes, “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.”   


reading the time-travel novel into the next day


Jim Kacian, Where I Leave Off, 2012


crow caw shatters the silence between composers


Janice M. Bostok, Amongst the Graffiti, 2003 


snow on the sun navigating childhoods


Alan Summers, Yanty’s Butterfly Haiku Nook: An Anthology, 2016


Regarding the single image concept of his own monoku, Cor van den Heuvel in

‘My Haiku Path’, writes that he tried to find another element to resonate with

‘the shadow in the folded napkin’

but “finally decided, with the encouragement of Anita Virgil, that the image could

stand alone. It didn’t need anything else”. He writes “I began to think of one-image

and one-line haiku as a part of my approach to haiku. There is almost always

something else in the experience of the reader that will resonate, if only sub-

consciously, with a single image-if that image is striking and evocative enough.

One may think of it as an invisible metaphor.”

Commenting on the above one-line of Cor van den Heuvel, Robert Gilbert writes:

“It seems van den Heuvel’s “the shadow in the folded napkin” hovers in its own

shadow: as though the text shadows its representation — imagistic fusion

combines with one-line brevity to create a sense of insubstantiality in the read

text.”


Regarding short one line poem he further adds, “Imagistic fusion compresses

semantic meaning, images, rhythm, and sometimes orthography, irrupting the

reader’s habitual means of parsing phrases and images…. Imagistic fusion works

quite effectively with the single line and shorter haiku, as the velocity of the eye

scanning across the text often enhances the technique.”

leaves blowing into a sentence

Bob Boldman, Cicada 4.4, 1980


Richard writes: “…the object cannot possibly satisfy the subject. …. In Boldman,

we can see the outer reality of leaves blowing into a shape, say a line, but to

become semantic stretches the sense of subject-object agreement.”


II. Classic Style of One-line Haiku: Here the expression follows the classic

internal rhythm pattern with three phrases. It allows, unlike the three-line pattern of

haiku, to be expressed all in one breath. 

i open the door darkness letting in a strange moth

Matsuo-Allard, Bird Day Afternoon, 1978

Higginson comments: “A quick first reading suggests isolating "darkness" as the