Some Thoughts on the Monostich





I. INTRODUCTION: THE MONOSTICH + THE AVANT-GARDE

The monostich is the most contemporary stanza. Given that most English stanzas stem from rhyme patterns, there is good reason to think that the single-line stanza only comes of age with a variety of other formal transformations that flew in the face of meter and rhyme. It was popularized during the early twentieth century (or, very late nineteenth century) in avant-garde poetry circles where suddenly even a single word could be published as a poem—or even just a series of sounds. That being said, visual and concrete poetry might be an initiator of the possibility and rising popularity of monostichs: specifically, the use of typography as a way of breaking out of conventional spacing and fragmentation of the poetic line.


Figure 1: from “Die Scheuche X Maerchen 3” (The Scarecrow Fairytale) by Kurt Schwitters, Theo van Doesburg, and Kate Traumann Steinitz.



Consider the visual, experimental, and Dada poetry found in the avant-garde magazine El Corno Emplumado. Particularly, Werner Bruenner’s work in Issue 2, the folio of Concrete Poetry of Brazil in Issue 10 (Pedro Xisto & José Paulo Paes), and the Asymmetries of Jackson Mac Low in Issue 5. Here are some examples: 



Figure 2: (untitled) by Werner Bruenner

Interestingly, “Werner Bruenner” is actually the pseudonym of the artist Mathias Goeritz whose full name was “Werner Mathias Goeritz Brunner.” It seems though his work in El Corno Emplumado was the only appearance of this pseudonym.


Figure 3: (untitled) by Pedro Xisto

Pedro Xisto along with the following poet José Paulo Paes have been seemingly neglected in English translation and scholarly work. Xisto’s visual work, “aboio (the cry of the brazilian cowboy)” can be found in The Tate’s collection.







Figure 4: “El Suicida O Descartes Al Reves” by José Paulo Paes.

“El Suicida O Descartes Al Reves,” or “The Suicide of Descartes Backwards,” uses the Latin words “cogito” (I) and “ergo” (therefore), then the Spanish interjection ¡Pum! that disrupts the Descartian phrase “[I think] therefore I am” while also disrupting the employment of the Latin language. The single word lines create the three points on a triangle making the poem appear bullet-like if read through the lens of concrete poetry.





Figure 5: “Asymmetry 199” by Jackson Mac Low

 “Asymmetries,” defined succinctly in the article Witness Jackson Mac Low and Gerhard Richter: Generating the Haphazard by Patrick Durgin as, “An asymmetry is a form based on the aleatoric, random, or ‘chance’ allotment of alphabetic units, usually phrases, along a grid from left to right, top to bottom, to produce poems with (blank) spatial cues for performance. That is, the blank space of the page cues a more or less lengthened silence. By performance is meant a whole range of treatments of any given poem, from individual oral recitation to group performance involving movement, instruments, and other media. These poems partially reinvent prosodic conventions, especially meter, where the ‘emphasis,’ or ‘stress,’ falls.” Although the monostich is less accentuated strophically in this work, the notion of emphasized (and in this case performed) space between lines classifies it, in my opinion, as an early experiment with the monostich.



Lastly, below are some poems by the Russian avant-garde poet Vsevolod Nekrasov:




Figure 6: These poems are taken from 100 Poems by Vsevolod Nekrasov (an excerpt of which can be found in I Live I See translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, published by Ugly Duckling Presse 2013). The left: the translators write, Nekrasov plays with the double meaning of the word nichego, which literally means “nothing” but also has the colloquial meaning “it doesn’t matter,” “it’s nothing,” and is often used as a consolation, as in “it’s alright,” especially when doubled. On the right: the poem translates to however.

As these poems show: the poetic line becomes a singular method of transmission, a broken stem from a branch. The line becomes not only a part of a whole, but a new meaning of what one might consider whole. Whereas poems of the past may have been a collection of lines and stanzas working together to create what we consider a poem, these avant-garde writers—from Kurt Schwitters to Pedro Xisto to Vsevolod Nekrasov—Germany to Brazil to Russia—were some of the first to start to snap the line from the stanza. The line becomes not only a source for music and information—but the line itself becomes a method for visual signifying: the once thought fixed horizontal axis gets disrupted as seen in Schwitters, Xisto, and Bruenner. This disruption creates not only new spatial dimensions for poetry, but also new dimensions of meaning. Paes and Nekrasov wittle the line into not only a monostich, but also into a single word line, single word poem—further pushing the boundaries of what a monostich can accomplish. Lastly, I included an example of Fluxus-affiliate Jackson Mac Low’s Asymmetries. Although his asymmetries don’t always employ a monostich visually, as seen in the other poems—his methodology instructs one to read the empty spaces as a silence which echoes the reading of a poem written with more emphasized spacing between stanzas. I include this work before getting into the essential mechanisms of the form in order to show one alternative look at some early examples of the monostich. An unfortunate realization of my research into the monostich is that the same example (Apollinaire’s “Chantre”) is used over and over again to reiterate a basis for this stanzaic lineage; however, as one can see there are many approaches to the monostich that can be traced through avant-garde histories. Speaking of history—


Historically, the monostich has been defined as a single lined poem. For example, the following poem by John Ashbery: 


The Cathedral Is

slated for demolition


The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics
says, “...many monostichs would be pointless or obscure without the context provided them by titles” (899). This is true of Ashbery’s case as well—the title nearly makes the poem a couplet, though, in the previously mentioned poems by Nekrasov, that “obscurity” (afforded by no title) may just be what the monostich is wont to do. However, today the monostich has been imported into many books of twenty-first century poetry. The two examples I’ll be exploring most heavily are Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Being Human and Chelsey Minnis’ Poemland. Although a single lined poem may be the traditional definition—remember that the word itself simply means “one line” coming from “mono-” (one) and the Greek “stichos'' meaning row, line, verse. Therefore, it could mean a one line poem, sure, but it's easy to understand how it could also mean one line of anything—a one line stanza, for instance: the difference being a monostich as a single-lined poem (a poem that is only one line) versus a poem of monostichs (a poem that can be many stanzas—those stanzas being single-line; therefore, monostichs).






II. STROPHIC + ASTROPHIC: A BRIEF LOOK AT SHAPE + STRUCTURES


When speaking of the monostich there is often confusion between what makes it a poem of monostichs instead of a poem with many lines. The difference, of course, is the confusion between the stichic poem and the monostich poem. The stichic poem is a poem with no stanza breaks. Take this poem by Ruth Awad as an example:


After the Argument


We blur into shapes, our bodies
like a question we keep asking each other.
My wings fold down my back, slighted.
I know somewhere in my chiseled heart
I am vicious and unlovable, that you
see me circling from an overpass and say:
Look at the bird that only eats the dead.
I dreamt of a tunnel dark as a feather.
Our bed heavy with the dream, I woke
you with my crying. I slip her name
into my beak and fly off.


This poem is stichic—there are no stanza breaks. As Edward Hirsch clearly defines it in The Poet’s Glossary, “A stichic poem is composed as a continuous sequence of lines without any division of those lines into regular stanzas. Contrasted to strophic organization, where the lines are patterned in stanzas, it is thus astrophic,” (610). Another interesting definition can be found in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics under Stichos:


Gr., “row,” “line”; pl. stichoi. In cl. prosody, the term for a line of verse. A single line (or a poem one line long) is, therefore, called a *monostich, a couplet a *distich, a half line a *hemistich, etc. Outside of cl. prosody, the noun form now used is *line, though the adjectival stichic is still common. Stichic verse—e.g., *narrative poetry—is that which is written kata stichon, i.e., in a continuous run of *isometric lines, whereas in stanzaic verse—e.g., the *lyric—a small number of lines or cola (usually fewer than ten but often four or multiples of four) are grouped together by structures such as *rhyme into integral units. Stichic arrangement is the norm for recited verse (see RECITATION )—in antiquity, the dactylic hexameter for *epic and the iambic trimeter for drama—whereas song verse (incl. the lyric) is normally stanzaic. It is not exactly true, as Maas points out, that verse forms are either stichic or strophic: there are some intermediary or transitional forms, and some of the same principles of construction apply to both types. (1359)


The stichic poem leaves no room for major pauses—it is a poem of one continuous thought. This one continuous thought is perhaps measured out in these so-called “isometric” lines—exemplified perfectly in Awad’s poem. There is a singular momentum found in stichic poems that reinforces the lack of strophic organization. Even in stichic poems that make associative leaps—these leaps are literally closer together—these smaller jumps denote more of a connection between ideas than when physically placed further apart. Using “After an Argument” as an example: one might consider a stanza break after “Look at the bird that only eats the dead.” Since the following line “I dreamt of a tunnel dark as a feather” moves spaces—from a you on an overpass seeing the I circling above, to a dark tunnel. However, by Awad maintaining these spaces in close succession the cut to the tunnel is quicker, more cinematic. The dreamscape of this poem is fluid, maintains the momentum of the poem: we’re in this dream, and then another dream. An alternative would be perhaps a poem called “two dreams,” where the dreams play out in different spaces—different stanzas. That being said, I often think of the stichic structure as a structure that lets the mind wind and wind—until the poet hits “the point.” Reading a poem like this has the eye move as such:




The eye, the reading of the poem, continues down the page without any stops other than the line breaks. Here the line break is accentuated; the line break is the only break on the page (other than the internal caesura). The line break is the loudest, the most dramatic pause.

On the other hand the monostich has both line break and stanza break in close succession: line, line break, stanza break, new line. A look at an excerpt from “Single Lines Looking Forward. or One Monostich Past 45”  by francine j. harris can provide an example of how the monostich differs from the stichic:

The sun will not always be so gracious.

From the garden poem, one line stands out.

Frank Ocean’s “Nights” is a study in the monostich.

Pace is not breathing, on and off. off.

Mildred never heard of Jneiro Jarel.

I’m afraid one day I’ll find myself remembering this air.

The last time I saw my mother, she begged for fried chicken.

My father still sitting there upright, a little high. 

Melissa McCarthy could get it.

Sometimes, I forget how to touch.


The eye continues across the page, stops, then starts over. Instead of quick curved turns as visualized above in the reading of the Awad poem, for a poem such as harris’ one’s eye moves across the page as so:


This kind of reading is emphasized in the harris excerpt by the end stops on each line/stanza. Unlike the astrophic, stichic poem like Awad’s, the monostich poem is strophic. Compared to Awad’s poem, for example, the content of harris’ stanzas take on a different kind of phenomenological momentum. Instead of curving quickly from image to image, thought to thought, harris stops the image, stops the thought—then begins again. Each line is like a planet—we live in its world then we live somewhere else.






III. CHELSEY MINNIS, DANIEL BORZUTZKY, AND KIMIKO HAHN


One epic practitioner of the monostich is poet Chelsey Minnis. Take page 23 of Minnis’ Poemland as an example:


I want to sit very calmly with my bangs curled…

But my pet monster has bitten my hand!


Life makes me sad.

So sad that I walk down the street etc.


In this poem there are obvious stanza breaks—you’ll notice between the antepenultimate and penultimate line/stanza an even wider space. Minnis’ work has been likened to that of the 20th century avant-garde—particularly her collections from FENCE Bad Bad and Zirconia—so it is not surprising that blank space is being employed in formative ways. As Hirsch also says, “A stanzaic poem uses white space to create temporal and visual pauses.” Minnis has done this: she has used white space to create temporal and visual pauses. What may feel untraditional is that the stanzas are not “groups of lines,” but instead single lines: monostichs. What is clear is that these lines are not meant to be read as a stichic poem—this is not a traditional quatrain. If it was it would look like this:


I want to sit very calmly with my bangs curled…

But my pet monster has bitten my hand!

Life makes me sad.

So sad that I walk down the street etc.


“Curled…” would run into “but,” rather than running off into the ether of the page. It’s also interesting to notice the difference between reading an ellipses, as we have here, as a pause (which collapsing the stanzas into a stichic poem would encourage) in comparison to reading the ellipses as a “trailing off” or notation of something extracted, which the stanza breaks emphasize.

Another example of monostichs in action can be found in Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Being Human. As with any poem written in stanzas these breaks are shown visually to the reader with emphasized space between those stanzas. The Performance of Being Human uses a variety of formal decisions—some are more clearly parsed stanzas such as in “Dream Song #17” (30-31); others are more vague, meaning whether the line break is intentional or a repercussion due to the page size, for example:


I stop on a bridge over the train tracks and consider the history of the

chemical-melting of my skin (12)


It seems likely “the” isn’t where a line would end naturally and if the page was wider the line might be the entire moment:


I stop on a bridge over the train tracks and consider the history of the chemical-melting of my skin


Nonetheless, a good example of a series of monostichs that avoids the question of intention or repercussion can be found on pages 51-52 in “The Privatized Waters of Dawn”:


There are holes in my arm and the appraisers put their cigarettes in them


They don’t smoke their cigarettes


They just jam them into my arm


I have a faint idea of what it means to be alive


But almost all of my feelings have been extinguished


I feel my hand at the end of my arm


It is weightless


This is a series of single lined stanzas, monostichs, that present both clear line breaks as well as stanza breaks. In this excerpt the reader is given an idea about how one might read the formal decisions through the collection. One way you might imagine the monostich working would be as an arm with a weightless hand. As Borzutzky writes in “The Devouring Economy of Nature'' on page 71:

Let’s begin at the end, she says.

The best way to end a sentence is with the word “blank.”

It is midnight and I am lonely and your blank is the blank of my blank

The monostichs throughout the book are congregating; however, they are also constantly getting truncated—even as they build in some places (such as the paragraph-looking stanzas in “Archive,” 57). It is as if the monostichs allow for these weightless hands, these blanks, to exist, while still propelling the movement of the “story” forward. It is also worth noting that the monostich, in this case, often holds a syntactic integrity: a complete sentence or thought, but leaves off the punctuation (perhaps echoing this persistent theme of “not ending” the story).

The monostich provides a form that allows for accretion while simultaneously allowing for the act of withholding, blanking, and stalling information. This is what one might consider a poetics of disclosure: a rapid transformation from one thing to the next. As a colleague of mine said when discussing this collection, “it’s as if you’re reading something, then shocked into reading something else.” The rapidity of the monostich as something constantly changing and growing is where one might consider the head of the Hydra—truncation, in all its violent implications, does not necessarily mean an ending, but instead a place to begin again (whether good or bad). The line then becomes the mythological serpent—cut off a head, two grow back in its place.





In her essay, “A Personal Response to the Line,” Kimiko Hahn considers the monostich in relation to the tanka. Hahn points out—with regards to the tanka and the sonnet—the physicality of the movements in these forms—"turns," "breaks," "pivots," etc. Which seems perhaps applicable here too—in Borzutzky's work these movements are not only physical, but anatomical. This is bringing me back to a question that a professor of mine, Harris Feinsod, invited me to consider: Would we need to start distinguishing between monostichs with an ontology of insight versus those with an ontology of violence? In Borzutzky’s case, insight and violence are inherently linked. The violence is giving way to insight, insight to violence. However, is that always true about the form of monostichs "in general" or is that a singular trait to Borzutzky? There is a brutality to the breakage of the line within the discourse of poetry—the word break is connotated with violence.

Hahn in her essay also provides a new "definition" of the monostich that she suggest lies within her poem "Just Walk Away Renée” from her book Toxic Flora:

                               
                                 The shifting 

and colliding and breaking apart alone.

The drifting. The sadness—
that marks the opening of a quest

only to discover estrangement


The sadness that marks the opening of a quest only to discover estrangement seems a very beautiful and apt way of considering how the monostichs in The Performance of Being Human might be working—as quests that keep only coming up with estrangement.






IV. CONCLUSION 


The stanza break and the line break in poems such as Borzutzky’s and Minnis’ collapse, or fuse. The stanza is the line and the line is the stanza. How might we then imagine the difference between a stanza and a line? In this case, is there one?

Hirsch definies the stanza as such:

The word stanza means “room” in Italian—”a station,” “a stopping place”—and each stanza in a poem is like a room in a house, a lyric dwelling place. “The Italian etymology,” Ernst Haublein points out in his study of the stanza, “implies that stanzas are subordinate units within the comprehensive unity of the whole poem.” Each stanza has an identity, a structural place in the whole. As the line is a single unit of meaning, so the stanza comprises a larger rhythmic and thematic sequence. (...) In written poems stanzas are separated by white space, and this division on the printed page gives the poem a particular visual reality. The reader has to cross a space to get from one stanza to another. (608-609)

Perhaps thinking about this “crossing” is the most useful way to comprehend the difference between line breaks and stanza breaks—how much space must one cross to get from one place to another? If each line is its own room then in Minnis’ book we might find ourselves standing in a mansion, or a hotel; or, in Borzutzky’s work: sometimes it’s a mountain, other times a cell; versus Ashbery, where we are standing in something like a New York studio apartment. The monostich as a stanza allows the reader, and the writer, to traverse a lot of space. It also prevents the line from hiding—each line in poems like Minnis’ and Borzutzsky’s has its own integrity. It is both unit and whole, bridge and landing.



NOTES

1To bring Kurt Schwitters back for a moment, we might consider his work The Critic (rubber stamp drawing), 1921. The head here of “the critic” is made of monostichs in a Hydra-like appearance.



WORKS CITED 

Awad, Ruth. “Poetry by Ruth Awad.” The Spectacle, December 15, 2019. https://thespectacle.wustl.edu/?p=1370.

Borzutzky, Daniel. The Performance of Being Human, Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016.

Bruenner, Werner. “untitled.” El Corno Emplumado, Issue 2, April 1962, 101.

Hahn, Kimiko. “A Personal Response to the Line.” Essay. In A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee, 114–17. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2011.

Harris, Francine J. “Single Lines Looking Forward. or One Monostich Past 45.” 2018. Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, https://poets.org/poem/single-lines-looking-forward-or-one-monostich-past-45

Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Mac Low, Jason. “Asymmetry 199.” El Corno Emplumado, Issue 5, January 1963, 70.

Minnis, Chelsey. Poemland. Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2009.

Nekrasov, Vsevolod. I Live i See: Selected Poems. Translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013.

Paulo Paes, José. “El Suicida O Descartes Al Reves.” El Corno Emplumado, Issue 10, April 1964, 75.

Xisto, Pedro. “untitled.” El Corno Emplumado, Issue 10, April 1964, 76.

Brogan, T.V.F., and R. J. Getty. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., edited by Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. Gale eBooks (accessed December 9, 2020). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2388001013/GVRL?u=northwestern&sid=GVRL&xid=0342bc84.





S. Yarberry is a trans poet and writer. Their poetry has appeared in AGNI, Tin House, Indiana Review, Redivider, jubilat, Notre Dame Review, The Boiler, among others. Their other writings can be found in BOMB Magazine, The Adroit Journal, and Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly. They currently serve as the Poetry Editor of The Spectacle. S. has their MFA in Poetry from Washington University in St. Louis and is now a PhD candidate in literature at Northwestern University. Their first book of poems, A Boy in the City, is forthcoming from Deep Vellum.