Monday, July 25, 2011

On Monostichs (expanded)

 Literally:  ‘a poem consisting of a single verse’.

Like the haiku, the monostich is Minimalist in inspiration;  but whereas a haiku practically has to be about water-lilies or something, given the restrictions of form, a monostich is more wide-ranging.  (Also, haikus are essentially syllable-timed, and don’t make sense in a stress-timed language like English.)

Monostichs are superficially similar to epigrams.    But where the epigram tries to make a point, a monostich simply is a point.

An obvious substrate for monostichs  are titles, which in our day must be short.  Successful example:

            “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me”.

Unsuccessful example:

            “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.”  Umm, right Bob.

It is tricky to sort out, just what separates a genuine monostich  from just any brevity well-expressed.   I tried here  to carve a monostich from a mass of Chesterton’s poetic prose;  yet now, hung bare upon the page, the results strike me as less than satisfactory.   Indeed, consider another well-crafted sentence from that endlessly eloquent novel, Manalive:

the sea itself looked like absinthe,  green and bitter and poisonous

This is very good stuff;  but it is not a monostich.  I cannot tell you precisely  why it is not;  certainly, that excrescent “itself”, and the preterite agnosticism of “looked like”, have a lot to do with it.  Yet that is not the whole of it.  I tried tinkering with the thing, this way and that, and by the time I had wrestled it into monostich-form, it read thus:

~           ~

green (upon green (upon green)) :    the sea

~            ~

So you see, it’s not as easy as it looks.


Another crux:  Distinguishing the monostich (which after all, can be shorter than a full sentence) from (in general) the telling phrase.

Malcolm Cowley has something interesting to say on that latter species.  Looking back (in 1968) on the work of Robert McAlmon (a writer and ex-pat of the ‘twenties, best known for his memoir Being Geniuses Together), he sums up:

From what I have read of McAlmon’s work, I should hazard what might be the true cause of his failure:  that he never in his life wrote so much as a memorable sentence.  Phrases, yes, like “being geniuses together”, but there were not many of these, and they marked the limit of his skill with words.

The description might apply equally to Gertrude Stein.


“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even “ (the original French title, “La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même”, doesn’t scan)  is the English title of an artwork by Marcel Duchamp.   The rhythm of that line  reappears in the first of my “monostichs”, and may have been their original, unconscious inspiration.


The blogspot stats inform me that people have been searching for the site with the misspelling “monostitch”. Actually the term is spelled monostich, and pronounced as though it were “monostick”.   The “stich” part means ‘verse’ (cf. stichomythia), and has nothing to do with the word stitch.  Thus, it would be very, very wrong to search, say, on

“Sarah Palin without a monostich”

Wrong on so many levels.  Very, very wrong.


Ideally, a monostich is an atom:   you cannot add to it  without changing its character as a (fundamental) element, nor take anything away  without destroying it.

Thus, consider the item with which we began this series:

~            ~

the moon in the cusp of a peach-tree,  perfect

~            ~

It is verbless;  and as an image, it is what it is to eternity, and needs no verb.  But does it really need that adjective -- might we tighten the thing up by prying that away?
At first blush, it seems likely.  Formally, the thing is hanging out as a syntactic adjunct, separated by a comma:  no structure would be disrupted  were it pruned away.   Adjectives in general and not in the spirit of minimalism.  And semantically, it looks quite vulnerable.   Words like perfect or beautiful or tragic  should amost never be used in poetry :  you’re supposed to show perfection or beauty, not to declare it to be so  like some Sotheby’s auctioneer.   And yet -- remove it, like Hawthorne’s birthmark, and the thing falls dead.  “The moon in the cusp of a peach-tree.”  O-kay-y… is that it ?   Can I have fries with that?
            Now we are perplexed.  How is this virtually idle-looking adjective able to turn dross into gold?
            Formally, with the alliteration,  it adds a bit of ‘poeticness’, a sense that we really were trying here and not just reading items off a grocery list.  Rhythmically, it creates a rhythm:  where before there essentially was none, now we have a great bounding stress-timed fragment, that might have leapt from the lips of a scald.   But most of all, the word brings the reader up short.  Only superficially does it refer back to the earlier phrase, as though we had instead added “how nice” or “yellow”.   Rather it addresses the reader directly, bidding him halt, and behold, and set aside his fretful unfocussed cravings for the stars in a thornbush or the sun atop a hill.  Behold !  -- Ecce ! --  Behold!


He said: “I’ve thought of a good line.”
Pasley grunted and said good lines were a damned nuisance  as one was always trying to write poems around them.
 -- C.S. Lewis, diary entry for 29 May 1922

A monostich may itself be enchased in a poem, which in turn has been carved out of prose.
Thus, from the autobiography of C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (1956):

~ ~

the mast unmoving   against the stars

~ ~

It stands alone, needing nothing more:  a monostich, a monolith:  like a mast.

Here is the poetic setting, from which I pried loose that jewel:

I have only to close my eyes   to see
if I choose, and sometimes  whether I choose or no,
the phosphorescence of a ship’s wash,
the mast unmoving  against the stars
though the water is rushing past us, long salmon-colored rifts of dawn …

That in turn was quarried  from a longer patch of prose, and shaped by judicious additions of extra spaces and line-breaks.

And yes, you can  try this at home !


An epigram is a rapier, and strives to make some trenchant point.
A monostich is an urn, bearing just an image, timeless.
This state of mind is described by C.S. Lewis (diary entry for 9 April 1924) in a line that is itself something of a monostich:

for the whole afternoon  I was soaked in mere seeing,
and free from all thought and wish.

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