Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Less is more or less (part two)

(If you've missed it, here's Part One)

One-line haiku

Since the 1960s, some poets in the English-language haiku community have experimented with so-called "one-line haiku". The first such one-liner to receive serious recognition was Michael Segers's piece that appeared in Haiku Magazine in 1971:

in the eggshell after the chick has hatched

The general rules of thumb to describe a one-line poem are:

  • A one-line poem that does not exceed one line of type on a page and is intended to be read as an unbroken line without reference to any other line that surrounds it.

  • A one-line poem does not include forced pauses, indicated by space, grammar, syntax, or punctuation.

Predictably the earliest one-liners date back well before this time.

A few examples:


Bridges of bones they have built over the centuries. (Florentin Smarandache)

My shoes have an unfaithful sole (Daniel Eatock)


A child on the beach may be important. (Joe Brainard)

To my mind that last poem so reads like a poor man's 'Red Wheelbarrow'.

This is an interesting article on the subject: From One-line Poems to One-line Haiku.

The thing of course about haiku in its original form is that there are no lines breaks and it is a Western approach to the problem of translating them that decided to treat each syllabic unit as a distinct line. Here are three rather tragic examples by Ozaki Hōsai (1885-1926):

I've become completely alone and the evening sky

In a kindling fire I can see all my furniture

All day I haven't said a word, a butterfly casts its shadow

One-word poems

In another essay by Bob Grumman, Mnmlst Poetry: Unacclaimed but Flourishing, Grumman suggests that one-word poetry probably dates back to the 1920s with the experimental poems of the Dadaists but didn't find its feet until the late sixties and early seventies with the work of Aram Saroyan and Richard Kostelanetz.

The first poem Grumman cites in his essay is 'Light', one of the one-word visual poems of Richard Kostelanetz's sequence, Genesis. In which each of his poems represents one of the seven days of Creation in a different, page-filling typography.

This is what he has to say about this poem:

"LIGHT," the first, is printed in pedestrian stencilled lettering – but dazzles because (1) it arrives on a black page immediately after a white page; (2) its letters are boldly solid rather than diffidently outlined like the smaller letters of the sequence's title on the previous page; and (3) its letters are fused, which makes them seem not a recognizable word, but light itself – until they clarify as an appropriately fully-unified, over-flowing proto-word for . . . Everything.

To be fair, the poem has the two elements I mentioned earlier – ignoring, for the moment, the peculiar graphics – in that the title of the collection grounds the work but the poem depends heavily on its special presentation. My question is how does this differ from the visual art of someone like Yves Klein? The picture at the top of this article is one of his. I'm not saying that it matters but is this poetry or art?

A true example of a one-word poem is John Byrum's 'Utter':


Again I'll leave it up to Grumman to make a case for this piece:

To state its title is to describe it completely, for it comprises just the single, normal word, "utter," in capital letters on an otherwise blank page. I have much sympathy for anyone whose response to this is consternation. What in the world is the point of it?

Well, when I first saw it, I was much helped by my previous experience with works like Kostelanetz's Genesis. I automatically thought of the opening of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word." "UTTER" thus seemed to me a command to express oneself, be an artist, climb into the grand creative power of utterance: UTTER! Such a command was particularly appropriate in the magazine where I first encountered it, a newsletter for a poets' association.

Then the idea of what "utter" means as an adjective occurred to me--and expanded into thoughts of how utterance relates to absoluteness, and how it is exclusively the act of uttering that can truly complete any part of reality, by naming it into full comprehensibility. The power of utter, the utter power of it!

Also in the poem for those who listen to it long enough are the pun, "udder," and auditory hints of "upper" and "under." For so short a work, the poem is thus extremely sensually and connotatively rich.

Now, I've got to give the guy credit. He's worked hard to make something out of nothing, well nothing much, and he's done a decent enough job but I think any one of us could take a word on a blank page, or even part of a word, and write down our deductions. Here's one I just thought of:


Knock yourselves out.

There are poems that pretend to be one-word poem like this example of 'fusional poetry', as Grumman calls it, by George Swede:


Here we have three words jammed together: "graveyard", "dusk" and "kill" with "deer" tagged on at the end. Once again I turn to Grumman for his thoughts:

Here three words are spelled together not only to produce the richly resonant "double-haiku," graveyard / dusk / killdeer // graveyard / us / killdeer, but strikingly to suggest the enclosure (like letters by a word) of two or more people (a couple--or, perhaps, all of us) by an evening – or some greater darkening.

Probably the most infamous example of this style of poetry is by Aram Saroyan:


"Even a five-word poem has a beginning, middle, and end," said Saroyan, "A one-word poem doesn’t. You can see it all at once. It’s instant." My first thought about a poem like this (I will not debate whether it is a poem or not) is, "Am I supposed to take this seriously?" and then it struck me that maybe my problem is that I'm looking for profundity where there is none. Ron Sillman said of it that it "just sits there on the page doing not much of anything" and I tend to agree with him. The best I can make of it is that it is mimicking the kind of optical effect you get when looking straight at a light source. Light can illuminate. It can also blind. Nathan Austin provides a counter-argument in his blog This Cruellest Month.


The term 'pwoermd' was coined by Geof Huth who defined it as:

PWOERMD: any one-word poem, such as Aram Saroyan’s famous 'lighght' or Jonathan Brannen's 'pigeoneon' {This word is a veritable pwoermd itself, since the "pw" at its beginning mirrors the "md" at the end, leaving the pseudo-archai-poetic "oer" in the middle of the word.}

poem + word (w/ the letters from each word alternated to produce the neologism)

Other examples of this would be:

eadacheadacheadach (Glenn Ingersoll)

th’air (Greg Wolos)

em ty (BP Nichol)

This is what Ron Sillman has to say about Geoff Huth:

Huth, if you read his work or his website, is the most serious theorist of visual poetry I’ve ever seen. He is, in a sense, exactly what the genre needs, a systematic thinker and a goad, someone who will – by example if nothing else – prod others to try harder, do better.

I have spent some time on Huth's site which I found quite a long time ago and Sillman is right, Huth is very serious about what he does but does the word "wobbly" suddenly become profound if we get James Earl Jones to intone it? I'm not sure that poems like 'em ty' are any more than a visual pun and John Brannen’s 'laugnage' simply emphasises what the psychologists have been telling us for years, that our brains can uncsrmable qutie cmopilctaed blcoks of ltetres as lnog as the frist and the last ltetres are crroect.

As an exercise for myself I've been taking part in The Unskilled Poet's daily challenge. Some of the results have been interesting in particular the fact that I wrote my first – and probably last – one-word poem, two if you count the title (I'm old-fashioned that way). It seems like as good a place to leave this. I left some notes on the site when I posted the entry if you're interested.





One-letter poems

In 1973 Joyce Holland edited a collection of 104 one-letter poems called Alphabet Anthology. That must have been hard work. (Sorry, that was bitchy). In the index she listed the totals of the individual letters chosen by contributors as their poems. The most popular was 'O'. No one submitted 'C'.

No-letter poems (The Emperor's New Clothes)

It had to happen. Blank space is what Hugh Kenner liked to call the 27th letter of the alphabet and its use in poetry is something I may come back to in the future. Rothko and Malevich did all black and all white paintings, Cage wrote music without any notes and in 1978 Richard Kostelanetz "wrote" not one but two books consisting of nothing but blank pages, but they have covers with titles: Tabula Rasa: A Constructivist Novel and Inexistences: Constructivist Fictions. Not actually sure if there's any poetry in the second one but Vsevolod Nekrasov has since published a poem with only a comma in the bottom right-hand corner of the page.

An immediate question is: "Is this a poem?" More basically: "Is it even a text?" If you found such a piece of paper on the floor or the street, you would not consider it so. It's doubtful you would even notice the comma on the page. In his interesting post What One Note Holds: The Short Poem Mark Granier cites a couple of poems, one by Don Paterson, 'On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him', and James Wright's 'In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems' where the title is all there is to the poem; not even a comma of content other than that. (That article is worth having a look at if only for Granier's own poem 'Haikush').

I think this is an important point. If we can go back to Dave's post about Duchamp's urinal in my answer I mentioned context:

Irrespective of Duchamp's motives I think Fountain did something very important, it made people re-evaluate what exactly art is. It brought into question context. When something is displayed, placed on the proverbial pedestal, it requires re-evaluation. The latrine was not being used for the purpose for which it was designed nor was it in situ in a Gents and by giving it a name Duchamp was providing a means to consider that lump of porcelain as art.

If I found a scrap of paper with 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' torn in half I would still recognise it as a poem, it wouldn’t matter how it was torn. It's not only a poem when included in a collection of poetry or in a poetry magazine.

Where now?

What will the universe do once it has imploded? The only thing left is for it to begin expanding again. It will, of course, bring the baggage of the old universe with it. If there is one thing that proponents and practitioners of minimalist poetry have taught us would be to learn to fully appreciate the word, every word.

Imagine if when you were born you were allocated a lifetime's worth of words there and then, and then one day you realise you're starting to run out and you might not make it to the end with your vocabulary intact. That's the thing about words, we never have to worry about running out and yet, just like we do, our words can get tired, especially the ones we use over and over again; they empty themselves of meanings right in front of us. Old age does that too: we can't find the right word for the job; we end up like Beckett's narrator in his deathbed poem asking over and over again, "What is the word?"

I sat down a while ago and tried to write a definition that would cover all types of poetry. Of course I was on a hiding to nothing attempting that but in preparing this entry I ran across something Robert Bly said, that he felt every effective poem should have an "ah" factor. I guess if a minimalist poem has that effect on you then it's done its job. The problem is some of them make us go "eh?" or just leave us speechless.




Canucklehead said...


i like.

Allen Taylor said...

Great post. You feel much the way I do about minimalism. "Huh?"

Although, I'd say your unfinished one-word poem is about as enlightening as anything Saroyan every did. At least I can see the point if not the purpose. And I do agree with your analysis of what the minimalists have taught us: "If there is one thing that proponents and practitioners of minimalist poetry have taught us would be to learn to fully appreciate the word, every word."

It does seem to me, however, that these guys just got tired of poetry altogether and decided to write a sort of anti-poetry. It's as if they thought everything important has been said so we'll say nothing at all and call it poetry. Like the guy who painted a dot on a blank canvas then proclaimed "It's art because I say it is."

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

That was a really fascinating pair of posts, Jim. Thank you for putting them together... Minimalist poetry isn't something I've really considered before although I was aware of the haiku form (in its Western version anyway) of course.
I really liked your unfinished one-worder... and 'Empty' was clever and simple all at the same time.

I think there's definitely a place for poetry that uses every word to convey something rather than having umpteen flowery adjectives and elaborate imagery. But from your posts, I can see that some people really do take it a bit far!

The Muse said...

I am spellbound! I used to write a lot of poetry. Just for me, as an outlet for emotional steam. However, for years there was nothing-not even one word.

Your posts have really sparked something in me. I just needed to tell you that. I actually wrote a short poem for my Easter post.

Thank you.

Jim Murdoch said...

Allan, I had to look up Kahlil Gibran. I've never read him. I think my wife might have a copy of The Prophet lying around somewhere. But I agree with you. I think with people's disillusionment with religion people are looking elsewhere for insight. I can see why you might consider some of the stuff anti-poetry but I think it was just something people needed to work out of their systems. I mean, once someone's written a book with no words that's it, everything else is imitation.

Canucklehead – always nice to see a new name – wow right back at ya.

Nice to see you too, Catherine. Glad you liked the poems.

And Muse, really glad to see that you're picking up the reins again. Short poems can contain a huge amount of emotion. As long as it's the right words.

Ken Armstrong said...

HI Jim, just to let you know that I really enjoyed both parts of this posting. Really good stuff.

The word 'Lecture' has had nasty connotations for so long but this, for me, constitutes a 'Lecture'in its most positive and enlightening sense. (ie. Not at all like mum chastening me for breaking the window with the fitba...)

If you get my somewhat obtuse but totally complimentary drift

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the compliment, Ken. The article was never planned as a lecture – actually it was more a bit of fun that got out of hand – but it does seem to have been well received.

Geof Huth said...


I've been waiting to see what you were going to say in this promised Thursday post. Interesting, as always.

A few thoughts:

I think your pwoermd "unfini" would be better if presented as


thereby providing the tension between actually being unfinished and actually being finished. Pwoermds are often about considering how words mean and how small changes to them have great effects on their meaning.

For instance, bpNichol's "em ty" is more than a pun; again, it is about how language works. Sure, it is empty in the middle, and that is part of its point: it defines itself. But say "empty" with the p and say "empty" without the p: the sound of the word doesn't change--the p isn't really there. We swallow it with the m and release it with the t, yet we never realize this. A well wrought pwoermd requires something of the reader, some attention to find its pleasures. Being one word, it makes it easier for us.

Of course, for those interested in pwoermds (and who couldn't be?), I've edited an anthology of them (and will be able to double its size with the next edition). I feel obliged to encourage everyone to buy a copy. For frequent discussions of pwoermds, literary minimalism, and visual poetry, people can check out my blog.

A little typo here: "In 1973 Joyce Holland edited a collection of 104 one-word poems called Alphabet Anthology." I'm assuming it should read be "one-letter poems."

About one-letter poems, let me assure you that there are hundreds of examples of such in poetry, literature, the arts, and regular life. It is simply an ancient figure of speech called "praecisio," which I have written about extensively. I own dozens of books that are praecisio, many of them joke books (like "The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan"). And praecisio never are nothing; they are merely the framing of nothing for esthetic effect. Every moment of silence is a praecisio, a profound acceptance that language cannot say everything we feel, that we sometimes must admit that words are nothing but inarticulate sounds.

Thanks for the mention of Vsevolod Nekrasov's punctuation poem. Punctuation poetry is but another tiny genre of poetry I have written about.

Finally, let me assure everyone that it is rare that a poet work only in minimalist poetry. Minimalism is a mode for those of us who feel language deeply, those of us the rest of the world calls poets.

Thanks for your thoughts, which I found thoughtful and better than interesting. A great job.


Asphodel said...

What an UTTERly interesting post!

I shall be back to read again another day :)

Mark Granier said...

Hi Jim,

Another interesting post. Thanks for putting in a link to my blog. If anyone clicks on it they should check out the couplet by Hulme (called simply IMAGE). Hulme, as I understand it, was the founder of the Imagist movement, which Pound helped popularise in the early 20th Century.

I don't think many good poets confine themselves solely to very short poems, but I see no reason why such forms should be dismissed (as they are, from time to time). Personally, I tend to blanch slightly at the prospect of reading a whole book of, say, haiku. Partly because so many haiku are weak and insipid. On the other hand, a poet like Samuel Manashe is consistently short AND strong.

The one-word poem only really works, as far as I am concerned, when it is balanced by a (usually much longer) title, as with Hamilton-Finlay's examples. As for the one-letter poems, these a merely visual puns. No harm in that, but I think they have missed their calling; they really want to be paintings. That 'm' with the extra arch is architectural rather than poetic.

Incidentally, I take it most have come across the British poet John Cooper Clark's haiku joke: To convey one's mood / in seventeen syllables / is very diffic.

Another haiku-jester is David Bader, who is responsible for '100 Great Books In Haiku', such as this:

The Odyssey

Aegean forecast -
storms, chance of one-eyed giants,
delays expected.

His recent one is 'Haikus For Jews'. a sample:

Cherry blossoms bloom.
Sure, it's beautiful, but is
it good for the Jews?

Jim Murdoch said...

Geof, appreciate the feedback and for letting me know about the typo which has now been fixed. It was an enjoyable article to research and write and your sites were a great help. The whole point of an article like this is to get people to investigate the topic in question further, hence the number of hyperlinks. I'd have to write a whole book to cover the topic of micropoetry and I'm not sure I'm passionate enough about it. I have always preferred shorter forms but I do like a little meat on my bones.

As for 'unfini' – it was written totally off the cuff. I haven't included it in my canon because I'd never think to submit it anywhere. That said, 'Empty' was attached to an e-mail and away within a few days of my finishing it.

Thanks for the note too about "praecisio" – I missed that term in my research – I do hope people read through these comments. I know of one woman who has been motivated to pick up a pen after reading this so that's not a bad thing at all.

Asphodel, thanks for the comment. And you're welcome back any time. We have an open door policy here. My blog is your blog. (I have no idea what that might be in Spanish).

Mark, glad we made contact before I posted this. And I really do hope some people check out your blog. I'm writing a blog at the moment about how hard it is to attract readers to a serious (or even half-serious) literary blog and I'm glad to do what I can to point people to writers who have something to say. Loved the John Cooper Clark haiku – I wish I'd remembered it but where would you draw the line. Did you read my blog about him a week or two back? I mean how many poets do you know who've done an advert for Kellogs?

Conda V. Douglas said...

I so agree with canucklehead, wow. But I disagree with geof--I think "unfini" is more, well, unfinished. Stopped me and made me think. Of course, that's just my subjective opinion about something totally subjective--loved it all the same.

J. C. said...

I enjoyed your bog thanks so much for sharing

Dave King said...

An excellent post, Jim. There is so much, it is difficult to know where to comment, but question: could a single note constitute a piece of music? Rothko's single colour paintings, by the way, are only single-coloured in reproduction. Standing in front of them the colour seems to oscillate with a variety of shades and hues. I was fascinated by
graveyarduskilldeer. I find that just beginning to take off. I have just left a comment on Lightbox to the effect that when I was a tiddly kid I wrote a no-content poem entitled On Taking My Penny Black Stamp into the Road to Show a Thief. As I have also just pointed out, I did not know at the time that I had written a no-content poem - and have never since had the nerve to write another.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dave. I loved your no content poem. I only ran into Mark Granier at the 11th hour and added in that section just prior to posting. I'm rather glad I did. As for whether a single note could constitute a piece of music, I think we have to say, "Yes," if only to cover our backs.

I think the point I was trying to make about the white and black paintings and the same would go for Cage's 3'33" and the books with no words is that now we've got it out of our systems the only way to go is up. Everything's cyclical and that's fine.

These have been a couple of fascinating posts. They were great fun to write and I half-wish I'd included more of the stuff I ran across and maybe added an extra day. Ah well. We'll have to see how my two part post on metaphors goes down when I get round to posting it.

Julie Carter said...

I'm a fan of very short poems, but I found that most of the examples you gave don't work for me as poems. As word puzzles, yes, but I want a poem to do more than be clever.

But, of course, then we start getting into really BIG issues instead of really small ones.

Greatly enjoyed.

Missy said...

Jim, wonderful post. Would you consider linking to it in the next Just Write Blog Carnival? If not this one, then any article/post you'd like to share. It's been a while since your name appeared in the carnival. I noticed! ;)

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Missy. I've posted Part One. I have a book review due tomorrow so I'll add that on too.

SB said...

I enjoyed, very much, both of these posts. And I learned from them, too.

So, thank you.

I like small poems, and have written a few: s m a l l p o e m s. You've given me much to explore.

Timely, too, as I'm hoping to write a poem a day in April.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Sharon. I've run across
s m a l l p o e m s before. It's a nice wee site. It's probably just me but I get bored with long poems very quickly. I like a poem to focus on a single thought or idea or image, say what they have to say and, as I've said before, get off the page. Nice to hear from you and I hope April works out for you. Usually I'm happy if I've written a poem a month but I've been on a bit of a roll of late. It'll end but I'm enjoying it while it's here.

Rachel Fox said...

You do give good lecture, Jim. I think I might have stayed awake more at uni if you'd been teaching.
I liked the 'ah factor' quote...simple and a possibility. Except of course one person's 'ah' can easily be another's 'euch'..

Ani said...

Superb and interesting series of posts (and also, a bit humourous in the irony of two posts and a load of comments about poems that are a word or letter in length). ;)

I think the most important thing I take away from this sort of poetry (regardless of the length of the piece I'm writing) is something I struggle with daily: that absolutely every single word has its place, makes an impact, isn't wasted, lazy, or useless. Or more succinctly, 'that every word tell,' as Strunk put it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I'm flattered. I've never lectured but I can't imagine keeping people's attention without a decent slice of humour no matter what the subject.

And, Ani, yes, I think a lot of writers could learn a lesson from the composer Gustav Holst who once observed a composer's most vital piece of equipment is an eraser.

Art Durkee said...

Your post brings out something that the poets who do this sort of thing often doesn't admit to: that it's a gimmick. As you say, once someone has done a book full of blank pages, every other attempt to do so becomes an imitation that must refer to the first instance. A lot of this stuff is clever—but cleverness lasts only as long as the gimmick is in play, then there's no more frisson. Tom Paxton was fond of writing short topical political songs every year which he "short shelf-life songs." A lot of gimmick poetry has an extremely short shelf-late (or sell-by date, if you prefer).

I want to point out one very important point about haiku as a genre, however: What David Bader and others do are technically not haiku, they are senryu.

Senryu are poems in haiku form but their subject matter is light and humorous, and is often about the foibles of human life. The form is named after Senryu Karai (18th century), the poet who initiated the genre, as a subset of haiku. But it's gone its own way.

Haiku is about a lot more than the form, then the syllable-count. (This is where 99 percent of English-language haiku writers get lost.) Without getting into a windbag lecture about it, let's just say that knowing the difference between a haiku and a senryu might be very useful. Most of what folks on this thread are calling haiku are not, although several of them are legitimately senryu. Just thought I'd mention it, that's all.

Jim Murdoch said...

Appreciate the feedback, Art, all very valid. I thought to bring up other forms of Japanese poetry when I wrote this (particularly the senryu) but the piece was getting out of hand as it was. I'm not an expert on haiku by a long chalk – I've only ever written a half-dozen – but it is a popular format. I think I'll spend some time researching Oriental poetry forms (no one ever talks about Chinese poetry for example) and maybe build up a follow-up article.

Shelly said...

Wow, Jim, you've taken such a small starting point and made such an expansive discussion of poetry. Good stuff.

Since I've been in China (about 6-7 weeks now), I've been unable to access blogspot blogs due to some proxy issues. I was talking about you in a post today (all good), and was surprised when I came here to get the link and the site actually opened up. Great to be able to read you again. I'll be off to devour more of your excellent posts now!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Shelly. Hey, why don't you write a piece on your own blog about the differences between Chinese poetry and Japanese? Most people's knowledge of Oriental poetry begins and end with the haiku.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

hi Jim,

Fun seeing my little headache piece in your essay -- fresh off the latest series (of headaches).

My own thoughts on short poems probably go on too long. I like them. As you say about the J. Mutt urinal, context is an important part of the piece. Some collections of Sappho include poems that survive only as a single word. No doubt the poet herself would be as dubious about this as a poem as Tchaikovsky would three notes being called a symphony. On the other hand fragments are fascinating. Sometimes all we know of a species (or a culture) is a worn tooth or a shard of pottery with a suggestion of paint on it. Tiny pieces can be interesting even with the most minimal context if you look & look at them.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Glenn. I'm afraid when you talk about trying to work out about an ancient society I'm reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper where they bring out items from his era for his character Miles Monroe to pass comment on. Regarding a photo of Nixon: "I'm not sure who he is, but every time he left the White House they counted the silverware". Priceless.

MusicAnthology said...


Just thought to let you know I like your blog and have put up a link to your site from ours.

May your tribe increase!


Jim Murdoch said...

Geejay, thanks for the kind words and the link. If I have a tribe, does that make me a chieftain?

Michael Segers said...

Thanks for referring to my one-line poem, which, in comparison with some of the pieces you include, seems very wordy indeed.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Michael. As you might have noticed it was a very popular post. It was also a very enjoyable subject to research. There is clearly a huge interest in short poetry forms and I was pleased the article was so well received.

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