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Haiku Clinic #3:
From One-line Poems to One-line Haiku
Part One: The Invitation
William J. Higginson, Editor [email] [bio]

— Some History —

Since the 1960s, some poets in what I call the English-language haiku community have experimented with "one-line haiku". The first such one-liner to receive serious recognition that I know of was Michael Segers's piece that appeared in my own Haiku Magazine in 1971 and later in the 1974 first edition of Cor van den Heuvel's Haiku Anthology:

in the eggshell after the chick has hatched (1)

That same year, the New York poet and editor Bill Zavatsky published a large-format anthology of one-line poems called Roy Rogers. (2) As Zavatsky's compilation makes clear, one-line poems are not at all foreign to the Western poetic tradition. Nor have such short poetic utterances been absent from aboriginal/native/oral traditions, though performance variables often stretch out a seeming one-line "poem" into songs that may take scores of minutes or longer to present. Some of the items in Jerome Rothenberg's Technicians of the Sacred (first edition, 1968) reappear in Roy Rogers, most notably:

A Yuma Indian Poem about the Water-Bug

The water-bug is drawing the shadows of evening toward him across the water. (3)

This piece, of course, is a translation into English, and first appeared in Yuman and Yaqui Music by Frances Densmore, published in 1932. I have seen evidence that suggests the book is based on field work and wax cylinder recordings made by Densmore before 1915, and the poem (or line from a longer song or cycle of songs) may be an artifact of earlier oral tradition or a new work composed on the tongue of a singer involved in the ritual she observed at that time. I include it here as one of the more well known examples of haiku-like utterances in oral tradition. (4)

Classical literature abounds with fragments that seem alluring one-liners, but probably were in fact parts of longer works before their manuscripts were damaged. But in recent centuries various poetic movements have produced one-line poems quite deliberately. Perhaps the first poet to produce one-line poems that have been recognized as such by many other poets in the West is Guillaume Apollinaire, who included this poem in his 1913 book Alcools:


Et l'unique cordeau des trompettes marines (5)

. . . for which I offer the following rather literal translation:


And the single string of the sea trumpets

An article entitled "Apollinaire and the Monostich" (6) by Leroy C. Breunig in Roy Rogers, quotes the poem and goes on to cite a French critic, Michel Décaudin, who notes the pun in the original: The word cordeau (the "string" of a "stringed instrument") can be read/heard as cor d'eau, that is: "horn of water". According to one account, a trompette marine is a single-stringed instrument, not a horn at all. It seems Apollinaire loved a good joke. (Since the Petit Larousse [a common French dictionary] lists trompette de mer as a zoological term, perhaps one or another of the seaweeds or the marine univalves of the genus Triton called "sea trumpets" in English are also called trompettes marines in French.)

Further on in Breunig's article, we find a French haikai/haiku and one-liner connection in the works of one Emmanuel Lochac, who had previously published a volume of haikai after the Japanese manner. Lachac reportedly began publishing one-liners under the title Monostiches in a literary magazine in 1929, and included some in his collection with that title in 1936. Breunig includes the following haiku-like verse among a half-dozen examples (with Breunig's translation):

Voilier emportant le soleil dans les vergues

Schooner bearing away the sun in its arms (7)

Much more has been written about the French poets, from Apollinaire onward through the Surrealists, who dabbled in one-liners, but with this last example it seems to me that we have almost come full circle from Segers's broken eggshell—though that American haiku contains no anthropomorphic metaphor.

— Characteristics of the One-Line Poem, or Monostich —

While there are examples of so-called "one line poems" in Roy Rogers that include punctuation, and even demand pauses within the line as read aloud, I have chosen the examples above to illustrate the most singular attributes of what I would call, somewhat hesitantly, "true one-line poems"; such poems exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. A one-line poem does not exceed one line of type on a normal page (or computer screen), or does not exceed it by very much (if the page or screen is relatively narrow), and is obviously intended to be read as one unbroken line.

  2. A one-line poem does not include forced pauses, indicated by space, grammar, syntax, or punctuation, though it may include logical punctuation, as in the case of multiple adjectives preceding a noun.

Clearly, from the examples above, what I would call true one-line poems do not usually exhibit the poetics of caesuras and line-breaks, though Apollinaire's preferred line for the purpose was the 12-syllable alexandrine, which normally did include a caesura in the middle, breaking the poem into two equal metrical halves (after cordeau in the Apollinaire example above). Even Apollinaire's example here—and others he wrote—diminish the pause effect of the caesura, running the grammar straight through so as to nearly or completely eliminate any audible pause.

— More History: One-Line Haiku in English —

Despite Segers's early and sparkling example, one-line haiku did not take hold in English until the late 1970s, when Marlene Morelock Wills (now known as Marlene Mountain) published her first haiku book, the old tin roof, which includes many poems in one-line format, and Hiroaki Sato, a reputable translator of Japanese poetry, adopted a one-line approach for his haiku translations. Both Wills/Mountain and Sato have argued persuasively for haiku as a one-line poem with their prolific works and in convincing essays.

Sato bases his theory of one-line translation on the fact that the usual typographic form of haiku and waka or tanka in print (and in old anthology manuscripts) is one vertical column, or, if a poem is more than one column in length (as waka and tanka usually are), it is often fitted to the space without regard to metrical form. This one-line approach to presenting haiku and tanka translations becomes most evident in Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson's landmark anthology From the Country of Eight Islands, first published in 1981 and subsequently reprinted by a number of different publishers. (An essential book for those interested in Japanese poetry, it is still in print as of this writing and can also be found in hardcover at online used book stores).

When we take a close look at Sato's one-line translations, however, we discover that they are not what I am calling true one-line poems here. In fact, Sato usually marks each Japanese haiku's distinctive break with punctuation that effectively gives the poem a caesura. This accords with the traditional Japanese requirement that a haiku include a break, often marked with a kireji. For example, here are two among his versions of haiku by Issa; note the punctuation that could easily be a line-break in English:

Blow on the burnt pilings and cool them soon, autumn wind

Wait and see, the murderer too will turn into dew on the grass (8)

As becomes evident when one examines Sato's waka translations, his versions actually reduce verse to prose. Here, for example, is his version of a waka by Ki no Tsurayuki (early 10th century), the greatest poet of his generation:

About people, no, I don't know how they feel. In my home village
     the blossoms are as fragrant as they used to be

This may be poetic prose, but it is such prose as any poet might put into a letter, and a full sense of the verse of the original is almost completely lost. "Almost" because the original does indeed have a syntactic break corresponding to the end of the first sentence in the translation. I believe that, however much they may seem like prose, Sato's translations are as refreshingly accurate to the originals as any we have, with respect to the ordered meaning. His versions usually surpass those of other scholars in both literal accuracy and an overall sense of the original's swiftness and quality of language. I only wish he would present them as verse, and take advantage of the rhythmic control of emotion which verse allows. In waka, as in haiku, the language may be sparse, even swift, but the reading and recitation tend to be slow, tempting the tongue to pause as it feels its way.

Japanese practice aside, other American poets besides Segers had already experimented with one-line haiku. In 1964, van den Heuvel himself published a small letterpress chapbook called EO7, which includes this example:

a dixie cup floats down the Nile. (10)

This is certainly one of those poems that goes by so fast the reader hardly notices it, until, stopping short, one grins at the irony of the discarded cup and the great monuments of ancient Egypt juxtaposed, and laments the follies of humankind. I would almost call this a one-line senryu, rather than haiku, except for the bite of that river carrying us into deep time. Van den Heuvel experimented with all lengths of brevity, and had already written his famous poem "tundra"—the ultimate one-line haiku. (11) (Evidently, van den Heuvel did not recognize the one-line aspect of "tundra", for in a footnote in his introduction to the second edition of his Anthology, he says "The first edition had only a single one-liner, Michael Segers' 'in the eggshell.'" (12) Accordingly, I will consider "one-word poems" as a different category from "one-line poems" for the purposes of this essay.)

In 1974, Anita Virgil's A 2nd Flake delivered the following single line of equally-spaced letters:

t w i l i g h t b l u e & p a l e g r e e n l e a v e s e v e r y w h e r e s c e n t o f w a t e r m e l o n s (13)

Virgil would later contribute other striking one-line haiku, including this one laid out as a diagonal about thirty degrees off level, sloping down toward the bottom right corner of an otherwise blank page:

slant of sun across the forest floor to a partridge berry (14)

The addition of the concrete-poem aspect in that slanted line illustrates the fact that those writing one-line haiku have been among the more experimental poets in the genre.

Among experimenters, Marlene Mountain surely deserves the major credit for establishing one-liners as part of English-language haiku. And, among the many examples in the old tin roof, fully half meet the criteria for what I call a "true one-line poem"—here are two:

at dusk hot water from the hose

old woodcutter rests on the rings of the oak (15)

Mountain's diverse and exciting one-line haiku have become a trademark for her, though she also experiments with concrete haiku and many other types of writing, and with integrating writing with visual art. Her one-liners have also been a major influence on English-language haiku, a model for such poets as Janice M. Bostok of Australia and others. (I believe that many of Mountain's works involving lengthy series of lines are in fact long poems in free verse, but that's a subject for another time and place. In the case of master artists, genre distinctions are less important than the work itself.)

— Reading a True One-Line Haiku —

In reading hundreds of one-line haiku over the years, I have mentally divided the ones I really think of as haiku (16) into four groups:

1. One-Stroke Haiku. Those that seem to drive the reader instantly from one end to the other, without a pause for reflection or even noticing the grammar involved. I include Segers's "in the eggshell" and many of the other examples already cited above in this group. Here's an example by Janice M. Bostok:

crow caw shatters the silence between composers (17)

One could certainly find three lines here with ease, but the subject and the sound of the poem both drive me on to the end before I consider where it might be broken. When I do so, I find no breaks that will give a better reading, and so return to the straight-through reading I began with. (Note, however, that such a phrase as "the silence between composers" can provoke reflections on its own.)

2. Classical-Style One-Line Haiku. Those that have a classic haiku rhythm, dividing easily into three phrases, often with the middle one longer, as do traditional Japanese and three-line haiku in other languages, but which may benefit from being read all at once—as the authors apparently intend. I consider these borderline cases between one-stroke haiku and the following group, but notice that the classical style allows for more play with the internal rhythms of a haiku than may usually be found in a three-line poem. The following example is by R. Clarence Matsuo-Allard, who later called himself just Matsuo-Allard and was an early champion and practitioner of one-line haiku:

i open the door darkness letting in a strange moth (18)

A quick first reading suggests isolating "darkness" as the object encountered when the door is opened, intervening between the actions of opening the door and letting in the moth. But a haiku reading, sensitive to the normal short-long-short rhythm of a classical haiku, reforms the center of the poem as "darkness [is] letting in"—an action that certainly increases the strangeness of that moth and the poem's chill.

3. Multiple-Meaning One-Line Haiku. Those that may have a classic haiku rhythm, but which also offer the reader a number of syntactic elements, allowing for different interpretations of the poem according to how the reader decides to follow the poem's movement. In these cases, the astute reader may find that several somewhat different and overlapping meanings are present simultaneously. (Here I am not talking about punning, as exhibited in Apollinaire's poem on the sea trumpets.) Two examples may make this clear.

Here is a well known haiku by Elizabeth Searle Lamb; I wonder how many readers actually pick up on the way light and shadow move in the poem:

shadows darkening three-sevenths of her face in sunlight (19)

The process of this haiku is the progress of the shadows through the field of light made by the sun on the monumental statue, Picasso's "Bust of Sylvette"—which adorns the New York City neighborhood where Lamb lived when the poem was written. First, the shadows are darkening three-sevenths of the angular face presented by the statue. Then, in an almost unnoticed heartbeat, only three-sevenths of her face is "in sunlight"; at the beginning and through the middle of the poem, a little more than half of the face remains sunlit, but as we shift through the middle to the end, subtly but quickly, somewhat less than half of the face is lit up. So lovely a poem constructed on Cubist principles.

A brief tour-de-force by Penny Harter illustrates yet another way to expand the meaning of a short poem:

mallards leaving in the water rippled sky (20)

At first glance, this seems to belong to the one-stroke haiku group, and indeed, if read that way the other readings may follow. (These categories are in the reader's mind, after all, and certainly may overlap; the poems may be read variously as various readers approach them.) Harter actually uses this poem in workshops to prove the importance of line-breaks, and offers the poem in a couple of other versions, as well as its intended version, above:

mallards leaving
in the water
rippled sky

leaving in the water
rippled sky

Of course, a four-line version might also allow a similar range of meaning:

in the water
rippled sky

But this breaks up the fluidity of the movement too much, forcing the reader to almost hammer on single words and short phrases. And either of the three-line versions pushes one or another aspect of the experience into the foreground, diminishing the other. So, for our purposes, Harter's haiku proves the importance of one-line haiku. Here we have the mallards, the fact of their leaving, the way their very leaving causes ripples in the water, and the "rippled sky" that is all we have left when they're gone—not as a series of stopped and examined experiences, but as one unitary flow of experience.

4. Multi-Line Haiku Written on One Line. Those that include a marked stop or pause, and which therefore are not true one-line haiku in my sense of the term. They usually include extra space between two or more sections, or punctuation marking a grammatical shift, or some other substitute for a line-break. I have deliberately omitted this, the largest group of seeming one-line haiku, from the discussion. If the poem requires a visually marked break, why not a line-break? In this case, a one-line presentation may be merely responding to a fad, or simply a space-saving device, and should probably be thought through more carefully by the poet.

— The Invitation —

I invite readers of Haiku Clinic to send me one-line haiku that they believe belong in one of the first three of my categories, above, or which may actually belong in another category I have not thought of. Please include not only your one-line poem, but a description of what you see going on in it. Email me with the subject line Haiku Clinic. (Please, only one poem to a customer! Also, please avoid any HTML coding as much as possible in your reply, as it causes problems when we put the final article together. I.e., no centering, bolding, varying sizes, or similar formatting. If possible, send messages in plain text.)

I will include the best pairings of poems and discussions in the next Haiku Clinic column. Note that such poems and discussions are submissions to the magazine, and are bound by the submission guidelines to Simply Haiku.

For a more detailed introduction to the haiku clinic, please go to the haiku clinic introduction.

— Bill Higginson, Haiku Clinic Editor

Note: The previous Haiku Clinic drew relatively few responses. I will hold them and consider them for a later column that takes up the problems those responses addressed, and apologize to those who did respond for not including some of their suggestions here.

End Notes

1. The Haiku Anthology: English Language Haiku by Contemporary American and Canadian Poets, Garden City: Anchor/Doubleday, 1974, p. 131. (Return to text.)

2. Roy Rogers, Winter 1974 issue, sub-titled one line poems, one of a series of works issued "very occasionally" by Zavatsky. (Return to text.)

3. Yuman and Yaqui Music: Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution, 1932, cited in Jerome Rothenberg, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia & Oceana, Garden City, NY: 1968, p. 16. (Return to text.)

4. An aside: This one-line verse became part of a major 1970s haiku community brouhaha when Robert Spiess accused Cor van den Heuvel of plagiarizing it for his own poem on a similar theme which appeared in his book water in a stone depression (New York: Chantpress, 1969):

at sunset

water striders
draw the shadows of evening
across the quiet pond.

Notwithstanding that water-bugs and water striders are very different creatures (one lives mainly among bottom vegetation, coming occasionally near the surface to extend breathing tubes into the air; the other rides above the surface), that such phrases as "draw(ing) the shadows" and "shadows of evening" are not unusual in our literature, that van den Heuvel's poem is obviously in three or four lines (depending on whether one takes "at sunset" as a title or not), that Spiess had no proof whatsoever of his claim, and that a number of poets believed van den Heuvel's piece to represent a wholly new creation or, at an extreme, an allowable variation on the theme of the Yuma Indian piece: in a move to maintain peace in the haiku community, van den Heuvel apologized for his apparent plagiarism, though he was certainly not conscious of any attempt to plagiarize on his part. At the time, some members of the community were quite unhappy to lose van den Heuvel's excellent poem from our canon. (Return to text.)

5. My source for the original is the excellent bilingual edition with English translations by William Meridith, Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools: Poems 1898-1913, Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1965, p. 46. (Return to text.)

6. Note that the last syllable of the English word "monostich" sounds like the word "stick"; it means "single verse"—that is, a verse complete in one line. (It may also be used to mean one line of a longer poem, though not in this discussion.) (Return to text.)

7. Roy Rogers, p. 13. (Return to text.)

8. From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Seattle: U. Washington Press, 1981, pp. 392, 393. (Return to text.)

9. Eight Islands, p. 205; the poem is Kokinshû #42. The apparent line-break here accords with the original presentation: a single verse line with a hanging indent (which is controlled by the margin of the page). Watson offers an alternative, five-line translation of the same poem on p. 130 of Eight Islands, to which Sato courteously refers the reader in his footnote on the poem. (Return to text.)

10. EO7 or (christ should have carried a pearl-handled revolver), New York: Chantpress, 1964. (Return to text.)

11. Picture the word "tundra" slightly below center in an otherwise completely blank page, as it was presented in van den Heuvel's book, the window-washer's pail, New York: Chantpress, 1963. The poem also appears, similarly, in the first edition of his Haiku Anthology, 1974, p. 163. (Return to text.)

12. The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986, p. 10. (Return to text.)

13. A 2nd Flake, Montclair, NJ: privately printed, 1974. (Return to text.)

14. One Potato Two Potato Etc, Forest, VA: Peaks Press, 1991. (Return to text.)

15. From the old tin roof, no place: privately printed, 1976. (Return to text.)

16. As with any kind of genre reading, I tend to notice which poems seem to more or less fit a rather vague profile that describes the genre for me. This profile is not codified, like a definition, but grows and changes over time in response to reading. Exciting work that seems on the edge of the genre will very likely alter the profile. (Return to text.)

17. Amongst the Graffiti, Flaxton, Queensland, Australia: Post Pressed, 2003, p. 86. (Return to text.)

18. From Bird Day Afternoon, High/Coo: Battle Ground, IN, 1978. (Return to text.)

19. From in this blaze of sun, Paterson, NJ: From Here Press, 1975. (Return to text.)

20. The Monkey's Face, Fanwood, NJ: From Here Press, 1987, p. 21. (Return to text.)

21. From Harter's workshop handout, "Writing Nature Poetry", used in workshops organized by Book Passage book store, Corte Madera, California, and the Colorado Mountain Club, Golden, Colorado, June and July 2004. (Return to text.)