What is a Monostich?

An examination of the history, form and use of Monstich, a short style of written poetry.

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A Monostich is a single-line poem which expresses a complete thought.

History

Single-line poetry has existed in some variation for a long while, however it is perhaps in Russia that we find the first examples of it as a modern form, in 1894, when Valery Bryusov published a single line of near-nonsense. In fact, most modern examples of Monostich actually come from outside of English-language tradition, with many originating from Russia and France.

Though ancient poets had written single line poems, it is perhaps Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Chantre,’ first published in his landmark 1913 collection Alcools, which re-introduces Monostich to the Western tradition (this excludes the rather lengthy single line poem by Walt Whitman in his 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, rediscovered by Dmitry Kuzmin in his 2016 book-length study of the Monostich, and several single-line poems produced by Edith Thomas around 1893, intended as jokes).

The Monostich took off in American literature in the 1920s, often in response to haiku and the poets championing this form. Yvor Winter, for example, is best known as a formalist, however he began as an experimental poet influenced by Imagism and haiku, once referring to his work Brief Poems as “trying to beat the haiku poets at their own game.” In the 1980s, Allen Ginsberg produced a range of single-line poems, referring to them as ‘American Sentences,’ and Americanising the traditional haiku by transforming seventeen syllables down the page into seventeen syllables across the page, as a reference to the difference in writing methods inherent to the two languages.

Form

The Monostich is simply a single-lined poem, however that line should stand by itself. It should express a complete idea and it should contain as much depth as a longer piece.

Use

There’s a lot of technical mastery to be learned from micro-poetry. With the rise in Instapoetry and its reliance on certain tropes, it’s easy to forget the joy behind ideas like six-word stories. To convey a complete thought in a single sentence, or to build a world inside so few words, takes a measure of focus.

I believe brevity is a skill valuable to most poets, especially those looking to move into performance. By trusting the audience to build more information into the poem, you encourage repeat listens or readings, and invite the audience to find their own stories within your words. The danger, however, is that one becomes vague and meaningless, and this is a constant struggle with micro-poetry as a whole.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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