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
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.
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
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
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-
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
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
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
“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
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