Notes on the One-Line Poem

Updated: Jul 27


Why not a one-line poem?

Think about it:  The greatness of poetry as a medium is that it can take in anything, and anything it takes in can become good or even great poetry:  Think of the worlds of things taken in by Whitman and Dickinson, Ginsberg and Hecht and Ammons, Black Mountain, Deep Image, Auden, Gluck, Justice, Collins, Koch, Language poets…  catalogues, and mountains, galaxies of large and small, hot and cold,  and neither this nor that things…

So why not the one-line poem?  What’s the problem?

Well, says the critic in all of us, consider the objections, think of the contraries to be posited, the real distinctions to be made.

For example, consider this question:  In writing a one-line poem, how do you know when you’re done?

The easy answer is that the form tells everything you need to know: write two lines and you’ve blown your charter, and written something else; might as well go finish that sonnet.

But maybe a better answer comes from poet Marvin Bell’s wonderful statement that a poem ends when it has used up all its information.  He wasn’t specifically talking about one-line poems, but the principle applies.  Consider Ben Jonson’s beautiful and perfect

O Rare Ben Jonson

What more is there to say?  What more is needed?  Any addition would make this poem not merely different, but would lessen it, for it has in that one line used up all of its information, said as much as Jonson needed for it to say, and as much as anyone could want for it to say.

And against all arguments is the fact of the one-line poem.  That is, the fact that they exist.  Take a look at the little anthology of one line poems included at the end of this essay.  They are poems, written by poets and intended to be read as poems.  Is there any reason to think of them as not-poems?

There is of course more to discuss about this subject, about how the one-line poem is different from the aphorism, the folk-wisdom, the prophecies of bibles and men, cliches, haikus.

And it’s worth pausing for a moment to note how often we as readers treat our poems as if they were one-liners:  Slouching toward Bethlehem, Not with a bang but a whimper, The world is ugly and its people are sad, etc.  These are of course not one line poems, except by virtue of an application of memory’s razor, and except by the preference of our forms of speech and thought, which make in practice an implicit acknowledgement that the power of such lines comes not from the poem they are quoted from but from the world as it is, as we have found and live in it, which is the criteria that makes the lines detachable and great:  They touch the world, and they inform and orga