milky way

Monoku: An Experiment with Minimalism in Haiku Literature

by Pravat Kumar Padhy


In the present article the poetic cadence of minimalistic expression of the art of haiku in one-line (monoku), its historical perspective and literary architecture have been dealt. During onset of human civilization, the kernel of nature had been expressed with the language of silence. Man tries to honour the tiny dust particle to the mightiest entity. The essence of poetry lies in the diligence of fragrance of flower, simplicity of flow of river, gentleness of the trees and calmness of the shadow. Brevity is the beauty of expression. In this sense, haiku, a minimalistic art , is a way of thinking to assimilate self with the divine nature and its blissful beauty. It   amalgamates the spiritual romanticism and intellectual cadence of human beings in the perennial journey along the corridor of nature. Classical haiku has been composed with 5/7/5 syllabic schemata. Writing of haiku in English has been broadly put in practice in three-line style with s/l/s format. Some adopt two-line and even four-line style. In contrast to the traditional way of writing, the one-line or monostich paints the word-images in one breath with syntactical variations and unveils the surrealistic beauty of multiple image landscapes of the haiku expression.

Haiku and Historical Perspective:

The Japanese literature is largely inspired by Chinese literature during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China. Kojiki (712) and Nihonshoki (720) are the books of the earliest Japanese mythology, history and poems. Initially the song (Uta) were written in Chinese. Later on, the Japanese created their own style and embedded the beauty of Japanese culture in literature. The classical Japanese poems were referred as waka (Japanese song) in  7th  century AD during  the Heian era. Later it is known as tanka (short song) named by Shiki in 19th century. The most ancient waka were recorded in the historical record the Kojiki and the 20 volumes of the Man'yōshū are the oldest surviving waka anthology.

The word haiku is a combination of two different words haikai and hokku. Haikai is a linked-verse (collaborative) in haikai no renga poetry style developed during the Edo period (1602–1869). Haikai, a type of renga poetry, consists of at least 100 verses in 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. Hokku is the name given to the  opening verse (5-7-5 , go schichi go) and the last two-line is known as wakiku. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)  is the pioneer of writing Hokku. Haiku poetry came into existence  from hokku of haikai and Masaoka Shiki named hokku as haiku (ha-i-ku, 3-sound in Japanese) in 1892 and subsequently, it became popular in the western world in the form three horizontal lines in s/l/s format. Haiku consists of 17 ‘on’ or ‘morae’ (sound), written in a vertical single line (top to bottom). A Japanese haiku comprises of three sections separated by kireji.
kami go (the top five section)
naka shichi (the middle seven section)
shimo go (the lower five section)
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) , Yosa Buson (1716-1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) are the Masters of the Haiku literature,   including  Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), a great women haikuist. In 1877, W G Aston, first translated haiku in English. Writing of 3-line haiku may date back to 1600s in the western language in Dutch. The first successful haiku written in English was "In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound in 1913. Initially haiku is written with 5-7-5 format (with 17 ‘on’ or ‘morae’). In Japanese literature, there is no such syllabic concept as in English. These formats are indeed the phonic or sound expression. Hence it is not possible to translate the Japanese haiku into English in the same format. For example ‘akai’ in Japanese has three sounds (a/ka/i). The word ‘akai’ means red and it is one syllable in the English. Later on, in English language, the schemata is widely kept as s/l/s form in haiku writings.

Art of haiku writing is a way of imaging around nature (kocho-fuei), behavioural sense of man, animal and non-being entities and exploring the human feeling and relationship. Haiku is unique in its form and simplistic expression with reference to season or nature as a whole. The tiniest object of nature has its genuine worth in this world and it is associated with us in different forms. I feel it is the realisation of this truth that has given rise to the genesis of Haiku poem. The haiku discovers the meaning of each entity through the aesthetic (wabi-sabi) way. This makes it a distinct style from other poetry forms. It reflects simplicity and honesty in expression without any artificiality, complexity or pretention. The image created through haiku in its brevity is undoubtedly is the spark of self-realization. The ethical self-realization (zen feeling) emblems a contemplation of spiritualism and the realization of self being a part of nature. The basic elements (teikei) of haiku such as seasonal reference (kigo), the surrealistic silence in the form of pause (kireji), depth and mystery (yugen), contained space (ma), becomingness (kokora), lightness (karumi) and creativeness (zoko) are the aesthetic assimilation of cognitive reflection of human being. The pause of silence imbued in haiku writing focuses a psychological imprint in emergent behavior. The cultural reference along with seasonal context (Kidai) is more of anthropological assemblage of human existence through time and place and is well embedded in poetry, more specifically in classical haiku writings.

The art of juxtaposition (renso) is an exploration of reasoning and a poetical logic which reside in one’s imagism sensibility processes. Precisely so, haiku writings have obvious limitation or restriction on poetic exuberance of use of similes, metaphors etc. However, subtle metaphoric expression with logical credence continues to explore the enlightened (satori) nature. Indeed it is an expression of poetic elegance (miyabi) in simplicity (iki) style.

The haiku contains two images, the “fragment” and the “phrase” while writing in English with a causer or pause  in between (Kireji). It is not a sentence, hence there is no capital letter or punctuation in haiku writing.  In Japanese, the Kireji (ya, kana, keri, nari) is expressed by syllables, but in English, it is denoted by punctuation. The “Kireji” sharpens the diamond edge of the haiku feeling in the form of juxtaposition or disjunction of the two images. If the poet thinks that the expression is explicit for the reader to understand the images without difficulty, the natural pause itself takes care of the cutting word. Haiku is an objective based expression in contrast to tanka (s/l/s/l/l) which is subjective with use of similes, metaphors and personification. Japanese haiku, without a cut and only one idea, is called ichibutsu jitate.

The fragment is written in the first line and the phrase is expressed in the remaining two lines. The fragment image could also be expressed in the third line. One can put “dash” or “dots” (ellipsis) to separate the distinct images. Personally I believe to respect the traditional rules of s/l/s schemata for haiku writing with a seasonal reference and having a fair degree of juxtaposition (syntactic pivot). Minimum use of adjective, articles, gerund, refraining from use of simile, metaphor (with exception of implied poetic predicament), adverbs and conditional clauses are some of the essential characteristics of writing haiku. In general the haiku should not be personified and it is non-rhymic. The poem should be written in the present sense. It is better to refrain from incorporating ordinary cause and effect while writing haiku. At no point should it be a sentence broken into three lines.

Monoku and its Journey:

Monoku is an one-liner poem in brevity and clarity in expression and its hybridity in origins: a Greek prefix wedded to a Japanese suffix to create a new English term as put forth by Jim Kacian. Different people named monoku or monostich as an one-line ku, one-liner, one sentence ku etc. Monoku could have been derived from, ‘Epigram’, a Greek poetry style.Besides, in English, examples of monostich were historically attempted in Russian by Bryusov and French by Apollinaire.

The Definition of one-line haiku given in e-journal ‘Under the Basho’ is as follows:

“A one-line haiku is intended to be read as an unbroken line with no specified pause indicators. While they may often be able to be broken up into a classic three-line form, they nevertheless allow for different readings depending on how the reader chooses to follow the poem’s movement through its possible syntactical variations that would be lost if not retained in its one-line form. Others embody a singular headlong movement along the line through the images it contains bridging no pause or break to carry its effect.”

Lafcadio Hearn, working in the 1890s is one of the first translators of Japanese haiku. Valery Bryusov published his translations into Russian in a single line in 1894:

О закрой свои бледные ноги.

Oh, cover thy pale feet!, as translated by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky

Guillaume Apollinaire, known as the first poet to write a one-line poem in his 1913 book Alcools : Poems 1898-1913 in French.

Et l'unique cordeau des trompettes marines

And the single string of the sea trumpets (English translation by William Meridith)

Walt WhitmanEdith ThomasGuillaume ApollinaireBill Zavatsky, Emmanuel Lochac, Matsuo-Allard are the pioneers of early monoku writers.

Emmanuel Lochac published in 1920 'one-liners' under the title 'Monostiches'. William Higginson's 'Characteristics of monostichs' has enumerated the historical perspective of one-line haiku. Later Yvor WintersEdwin Ford PiperCharles ReznikoffJohn AshberyIan McBryde's have pioneered the concept through their literary pursuits in composing monoku. Hirosaki Sato translated Japanese haiku into one-line in English.

Emmanuel Lochac published one-liners in French under the title Monostiches in a literary magazine in 1929 and included some in his collection with that title in 1936.

Voilier emportant le soleil dans les vergues

Schooner bearing away the sun in its arms (translated by Breunig in Roy Rogers 

Jack Kerouac, was the first to experiment with a single line format in the 1950s. Poets such as John Wills, M. Kettner, Jim Kacian, Janice Bostok, Chris Gordon, Scott Metz, Stuart Quine, John Barlow, and many others popularized the art of writing of monoku.

Some of the impeccable examples of one-line haiku are as follows:

A dandelion seed floats above the marsh grass with the mosquitos. By Allen Ginsberg, Following haiku in White Shroud: Poems 1980–1985, 1986 

in the eggshell after the chick has hatched By Michael Segers, one-line haiku in Haiku Magazine in 1971

a dixie cup floats down the Nile. By Cor Van den Heuvel, one –line haiku in Small letterpress chapbook, EO7, 1964

old woodcutter rests on the rings of the oak By Marlene Mountain (Marlene Morelock Wills), the old tin roof, no place, 1976

an icicle the moon drifting through it  By Matsuo Allard, Bird Day Afternoon, High/Coo Press, 1978

cry of the peacock widens the crack in the adobe wall  By Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s haiku in Harold G. Henderson Haiku Awards 1981 

my head in the clouds in the lake By Ruby Spriggs, Frogpond 6:2, 14. 

Kind of Blue the smell of rain By Allan Burns, Acorn 20, 2008. 

stone before stone Buddha By Karma Tenzing Wangchuk, Stone Buddha, 2009, 54. 

Schooner bearing away the sun in its arms By Breunig, From the Country of Eight Islands, first published in 1981

pig and i spring rain By Marlene Mountain,  Frogpond 2.3-4, 1979

the thyme-scented morning lizard's tongue flicking out By Martin Lucas, Presence 39, 2009

i hope i'm right where the river ice ends By Jim Kacian, Frogpond 35.2, 2012

Monoku sometimes contains pause like kireji of traditional Japanese haiku. Monoku represents one image, but there are more to visualise in the poetry. When the poem is short, the reader must be able to understand the silence (Edgar Allen Poe).

It is interesting to observe the wordplay in writing monoku. The one-liner can be arranged in such a way, it depicts more than one sections or multiple ways of reading with syntactical variations. Sometimes, the multi images can be expressed forthwith in a single flow. The monoku, at times, appear a bit complex and the reader is to correlate the images to bring out the essence in the realm of the poetic puzzle. One has to link the silence in between to visualize the narration of word-image. There is an element of subtle juxtaposition and poetic shift to create a literary vibration amongst readers to search the composite interpretation by jigsaw puzzling the words. 

Techniques and Style:

Techniques are often laid down in literature to differentiate the different genres. However, a strict rule in any art or literature form suppresses the intent of creativeness. A broad viewpoint of different style needs to be respected with the evolution of poetic excellence. There can be some general techniques for writing one-line poems as a broad guidance. William J. Higginson, Jim Kacian, Alan Summers, Jacob Salzer and others broadly dealt the techniques and styles of monoku expression. Two fragments or part of sentence can be artfully merged to resonate into a single line. In monoku, the concept of juxtaposition as in case of 3-line, appears to be soft or non-requirement. Artfully placement of words, creating multi options by use of the word as verb and noun, avoiding use of verb and expressing in condensed form, resonating multi meaning are some of the quite essential techniques and uniqueness for monoku composition.

The followings depict some of the examples of technique or style of monoku writing The followings depict some of the examples of technique or style of monoku writing (first three adopted from William J. Higginson, 2003-04):

Haiku in One-breath: This is indeed the real one-line haiku style. The poem starts and finishes on one stroke without any pause or break  in between. It has to have a vivid interplay of image and poetic sense. Otherwise it would appear more of sentence or prosaic expression.

crow caw shatters the silence between composers  By  Janice M. Bostok in Amongst the Graffiti, 2003

too many bones to sing a young song  by Aalix Roake, Wild Plum Haiku contest, 2018

Abruptive Techniques, as suggested by Alan Summers, is a term for sharp changes in directing the reader. It is one method  for breaking up normal syntax/semantics.

Alan says, “Whether the author wants these monoku read rapidly or a little slower, we touch on just some of those where velocity with quality of language as sound, not just meaning and content, can play its part, and produce from velocity and quality something I will call veloquality. Does one-line haiku echo the one line image of the fragment/section and phrasal (two line imagery) sections that creates sparks, bringing together an altogether different and extra overall image? Or does it do something different to the technique of juxtaposing imagery?  Above all it’s the invisible text that counts as much as the visible text, as a catalyst for everything, including the vertical layers of alternative, additional, and complementary meanings from the horizontal surface meaning”.  

I wish to cite some of the following brilliant examples of Alan Summers’s composition.

blues change the colour rainbrass bell: a haiku journal (Monday, September 1, 2014)

I once was this stone home for another , Bones - journal for contemporary haiku no. 7 July 15th 2015

meadow borders the river clouds , Presence #56 October 2016

snow on the sun navigating childhoods By, Yanty’s Butterfly Haiku Nook: An  Anthology, 2016

Classic Style of One-line Haiku: Here the expression  follows the classic internal rhythm pattern with three phrases. It allows, unlike three-line pattern, to be expressed all in one-breath.

i open the door darkness letting in a strange moth By Matsuo-Allard, Bird Day Afternoon,1978

One-line Haiku with Classic Multiple Meanings: Probably this style embodies the surrealistic beauty of monoku writing. It is written in such an artistic way, it exhibits different meanings when read in different ways. This is perhaps the unique in one-line writing with liberty of white space a reader can put more than once to evolve different interpretations by switching the different syntactic elements. Here the poetic flow follows in such a way, it appears a one-go sparkle of poetic sentence. If we systematically follow the syntactic elements, the poem depicts different meanings and it is the real beauty of this style of monoku writing.

According to Jim Kacian , "Multiple stops yield subtle, rich, often ambiguous texts which generate alternative readings, and subsequent variable meanings. Each poem can be several poems, and the more the different readings cohere and reinforce each other, the larger the field occupied by the poem, the greater its weight in the mind.”

Alan Summers opines, “I appreciate how one-line haiku can often be read differently, despite its condensed form. Double-meaning, and double-interpretation is a frequent discovery with gaps and space in between.”

The followings are some classical examples:

mallards leaving in the water rippled sky By Penny Harter, The Monkey's Face,1987

The haiku can be expressed and interpreted in the following ways to evolve different meanings:

mallards leaving
in the water
rippled sky

leaving in the water
rippled sky  
(Harter's workshop handout, "Writing Nature Poetry", 2004)

no moon last night I remembered you are gone By  Jim Wilson
The above haiku can be divided into two sections:

no moon last night

last night I remembered you are gone

The phrase ‘last night’ functions as a kind of pivot, shared by two phrases. Some more examples are enumerated below:

shadows darkening three-sevenths of her face in sunlight By Elizabeth Searle Lamb, in this blaze of sun,1975

envelope my thumb slips open the seal of his tongue By Janice M. Bostok, Amongst the Graffiti: Collected Haiku and Senryu 1972-2002 (2005) 

in the dark of the kitchen with the fridge door open winter solstice By Oliver Schopfer, Under the Basho, 2015

writing orange she peels away layers of the bitter unknown from each moon By Ken Sawitri, Under the Basho, 2015

Words Arrangements: This is a technique of writing the one-line haiku, more with mere close flow of writing of words (appears as if a single word by way of overlapping the words) embodying the poetic spell.

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  By Anita Virgil , A 2nd Flake,1974

Tryingtomakeheadortailofanearthworm by Rafal Zabratynski, 16th International Kusamakura Haiku competition

‘morningloriesky’  by Le Roy Gorman, Otata 19, July 2017

Broken Monoku: Ichthys has composed haiku, essentially, in two lines and is referred as ‘Broken monoku’. The monoku is expressed in two lines with a break or caesura in between. The following  is a line expression with a single pause with characteristic juxtaposition.

footsteps in the street - 
                                               echos of a distant youth

My Experience:

As far as technique is concerned, I feel different authors coin the one line haiku differently. A simple sentence consists of SVO (Subject, Verb and Object). The play of the words with sublime juxtaposition and if accompanies layered meanings, justifies an effective monoku. At the same time, the poetic effectiveness of the one-liner  will be diluted if the haiku is expressed in conventional s/l/s format. Based on the observations, I try to classify the following additional techniques of writing monoku. 

  1. Art of the link word: The link word acts as a media to create subtle images.

a tornado spiraling thoughts to the sky By Kala Ramesh, Under the Basho, 2013

Here, if we take out ‘thoughts’, it would be a simple prosaic sentence. The word ‘thoughts’ drives the inner urge of the reader to look up the sky and action based spiraling of tornado for detail logical deliberation. Moreover, it can be classified as a classical monoku with multiple meanings.

  1. Parts of speech and the link word: This is a beautiful technique to create multilayered meaning by using the word either as noun or as verb.

a cold moon secrets of the gallows By Yanty Tjiam, Yanty’s Butterfly Haiku Nook: An Anthology, 2016

Here ‘secrets’ can be used as noun or verb to portray different images.

  1. Fragment without verb: Interestingly, the verb can be avoided to bring out one –breath expression. However, the beauty of juxtaposition has to be present, notwithstanding in subtle form pivoting around inquisitiveness in the reader’s mind. There has to be a deep space for the readers to explore monoku.

kind of Blue the smell of rain By Allan Burn, Acorn 20 Spring 2008

crows until the world is silhouettes By Polona Oblak, Yanty’s  Butterfly Haiku Anthology, 2016.

width of a leaf between us and autumn By John Stevenson, 12th International Kusamakura Haiku Competition

between statues the rest history By Jim Kacian, 13th International Kusamakura Haiku Competition

the scent of dawn in the bouquet of lilacs By  Madhuri Pillai, Chrysanthemum #21, 2016

  1. Mono fragment with a gerund: Gerund, a non-finite verb, is used with an internal juxtaposition in writing monoku:

lilac buds growing into their scent By Adelaide B. Shaw, Under the Basho, 2014

a lone tree conducting the wind By Adjei Agyei-Baah, Under the Basho, 2014

  1. Fragments with subtle expression of relative clauses: Here the relative clauses such as who, whom, whose etc. are used in such a subtle way, it exhibits a single sentence with the element of juxtaposition.

full moon night the side we do not know By Eva Limbach, Tanty’s Butterfly Haiku Anthology, 2016.

Here, it means full moon night ‘whose’ side we do not know. By silencing the relative clause, ‘whose’, the one-line expression portrays a beautiful haiku.

  1. Two fragments with juxtaposition: Here the monoku is written with a subtle soft pause. This white pause inks the characteristics of juxtaposition. The composite subject followed by a noun or verb can make an effective monoku.

mountain without a name child gazing By Jacob Salzer, Tanty’s Butterfly Haiku Anthology, 2016.

In the above example, two fragments are ‘mountain without a name’ and ‘a child gazing’. Both merge into a monoku style with a sense of juxtaposition. Other examples such as:

where roads end the Milky Way By Sonam Chhoki, Under the Basho, 2013

pieces of me everywhere broken mirror By Pris Campbell, Under the Basho, 2013.

  1. Image within image: This is a technique to create the image within the same image by portraying or repeating the words and the haiku can be written in a single-line.

my head in the clouds in the lake By Ruby Spriggs, Frogpond 6:2, 1983

 I and I and I ripples on the river By Lorin Ford, Under the Basho, 2013

every ripple a river in the river By Aparna Pathak, Under the Basho, 2016

in and out of a cloud another cloud By Archana Kapoor Nagpal, Under the Basho, 2015

I still remember, during my school days while writing essay in my mother tongue, Odiya,  I used to write a single line proverbial poem in Odiya or in English at the end of the essay juxtaposing the essence of the essay. Later on, I composed a few one-liners with metamorphic credence (titled as ‘Flying Words’) which were published in Poet Bay, 2010 though I was not aware of monoku.

The shadow speaks the value of the treesPoetbay, 2010

Gradually I experimented writing one-liners and read scholarly articles by William J. Higginson, Alan Summers, Jim Kacian, Jim Wilson and others. Broadly my monoku falls in two categories, classic one-line haiku with a single subtle pause, is in dominance. Some of my haiku fall in the Classic one-line haiku with multiple meanings having characterized by fragments with juxtaposition. The followings are some of my published monoku :

melting away my pain-- garden dew, The Heron’s Nest, Vol. XV, No. 4, December 2013, tinywords, 18.1 2018

in front of the mirror  I repeat myself, A Hundred Gourds, 3:1 December  2013

snow fall he hardens his words, Gems : An Anthology of Haiku, Senryu and Sedoka, The Bamboo Hut Press, 2014

floating clouds  birds fly the other way, brass bell: a haiku journal, July 2014

tilted mirror I repose upright, A Hundred Gourds, 3:4 September Issue, 2014

crowing cocks reach the morning sun, EarthRise 2015: Years of Light, Haiku Foundation

for all your denials the smiling Buddha, Under The Basho, 2015

Shadows swim across a floating migrant, Asahi Shimbun, 30th Nov 2015

the moon behind the shyness your crescent smile, A Hundred Gourds, December 2015

granddaughter with office bag my half-way smile, Haiku Foundation, WorkPlace: Retirement, 18.1.2017

ink spots the colour of cleanliness Otata 14, February 2017

googled for a word full of twinkling stars, Haiku Foundation, Workplace, Theme: Lost in Translation, 8.3.2017

autumn solitude my footprints on  the desert sand, Presence, Issue # 58, 2017

obituary column messaging silence into the sky, Under the Basho, 28.8. 2017

coins our ancestors exchanged a great length of time, Under the Basho, 28.8.2017

the sound of silence into Shinto shrines, Akitsu Quarterly, Winter Issue, 2017

dune after dune the migrating songs , Presence #60, 2018

a piece of chalk in my pocket  first day of retirement, Frogpond, 41:2 Spring –Summer Issue, 2018

moonrise the sky from the oncology wing, Presence #61, 2018

what reasons for the trees aggressive  wind, Under the Basho, 2018

trash bag  the remaining chapter of my war history book, Under the Basho, 2018


Discussion on syllable count, whether to express in one, two, or three lines or as long as four lines Haiku (four lines sometimes known as haiqua or celtic haiku) , poetic sincerity and honesty (fuga no makota) as aspired by Basho need to be prevailed even  in the neo-literary revolution of writings style. Monoku needs to be stand out as an independent sub-genre of haiku expression compressing the essential haiku elements and thematic illumination of aesthetic haiku sublimity. Monoku is perhaps one of the best examples of blazing of the poetic spell in its brevity and engaging the readers to celebrate the rainbow of multiple meanings. This can sprout the new literary art in ever minimalistic expression, as rightly Jacob Salzer states:

“I find that haiku reminds us to use caution with our words, and also helps us realize the value of a single word. In terms of "economy of language", one-line haiku makes full use of very few words, even more so than three-line haiku. The depth, and layers of a single word often really comes alive in one-line haiku, as it's presented in a refined format, making familiar words both fresh and insightful…..”.