King of the One-Liners: Bill Matthews and the Volta

31 05 2012

by Bradley Paul


My students love Bill Matthews’ “One Liner” poems, especially these:



border with no country


Why I Didn’t Notice It

The moss on the milk is white


Lust Acts

But desire is a kind of leisure


or especially


Premature Ejaculation

I’m sorry this poem’s already finished


Why do they like them? “They’re witty,” “they’re smart” — interestingly, two adjectives that were commonly employed to describe Matthews himself —and, “I don’t know, there’s, like, a sort of twist at the end.”

A “twist?” Like in a movie, where the cop turns out to be the killer? No, nothing that silly. Like in a joke? well yeah, that’s closer, but not exactly a joke, because they’re still “poem-like” or “poem-y” or “poem-ish.” But in some of the poems there’s a punchline-like feel.

But how can there be a punchline in a one-line poem? Punchlines respond ironically to some antecedent in the joke: it’s funny that the secretary put Wite-Out on her computer screen because we know she’s blonde. It’s funny that there are skidmarks in front of the dead dog but not in front of the dead man, because we know the man is a lawyer.

Which brings us to a basic truth about these poems: they are not one-line poems. They’re two-line poems, because the title interacts in a specific and ironic way with the subsequent line of poetry to create the poem’s meaning and its effect, whether humorous or languorous or “poetic.” The titles do more than provide a context of setting or tell us what inspired the poem or sum up the sentiment, and they are not at all arbitrary or replaceable. They are an active part of the mechanism by which the poems operate.

And that mechanism is the volta.

Most poetry readers know the concept of the volta from studying the sonnet. The volta typically occurs between the octave and the sestet, though in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets it occurs as late as the thirteenth line, and it represents a fundamental “turn of thought”: my love isn’t so pretty, but at least she’s still precious to me. Life is sad, but when I think of you, I’m happy. It’s appropriate that the volta in many sonnets is typically signified by words like but, yet, still, then. The loudest volta one might hear is in the recording of John Berryman reading from the Dream Songs (which — don’t be fooled — are 18-line sonnets) on Halloween, 1963 at the Guggenheim. When, in Dream Song #29, he gets to the line “But never did Henry…” he pauses, then literally SCREAMS the word “but,” then pauses again, as the turn of thought, coming at a point when Henry tries to rationalize the feelings of guilt he’s just described, echoes over what we imagine is a stunned and perhaps frightened New York audience.

But the volta doesn’t always have to announce itself, and it doesn’t have to be in a sonnet. As a matter of fact, it is one of the fundamental units of poetic thought, and most of the poems where it occurs aren’t sonnets. But we typically don’t recognize the volta as such because we are trained to associate it with the change in a sonnet’s rhyme scheme or to identify it by a blatant transition like “but.” If we divorce ourselves from a formulaic definition of the term, though, and look at it just in terms of what it itself does (it “turns” as, the etymology of the word tells us, a dancer turns) and if we allow a certain amount of subtlety in the poems we read, it becomes apparent that the volta is present and necessary in a wide variety of poetry.

It is the volta that students are responding to when they say a one-liner is like a joke, but not a joke because it is “poem-like.” I believe that what they see as “poem-like” is the fact that the result of the “twist” isn’t irony, as in a joke, but emotional revelation. One could say that each one-liner is itself essentially a volta on display: say one thing, then a twist that makes it interesting. But the volta is also the source of much of what we think of as Matthew’s emotional smartness in all of his poems, his ability, after speaking casually about some topic, to suddenly end with a line that “hits home.” Matthews’ last lines typically make a sudden turn away from intellectual wordplay to clearly express a striking emotional fact. For example, at the end of “Search Party,” when, after a lot of poetic musing, we discover the basic fact that the missing child is alive, and Matthews tells us to “Admit you’re glad.” Or at the end of “Black Box,” when what has seemed like chatter about planes cruising and crashing is subverted by the doomed pilots’ simple and incontrovertible realization: “‘We’re going down.’ ‘I know.'” To read a Mattthews poem is to think one is cruising through a pleasant and witty chat and then, just as you think your host is handing you your coat, to instead get punched in the face.

It’s no surprise that Matthews was such a fan of Martial, whose epigrams rely on puns or stabs in the last line to create their humor or poignancy. I frequently show students Matthews’ translations of Martial after we’ve looked at the one-liners, then have them write their own one-liners and epigrams. Recognizing and using this little twist, this little turn, starts off as a fun exercise, but quickly gets serious, especially as students begin to write longer, more serious poems. Taking the one-liners as a starting point, they see that in their lives, as in Matthews’ poems and the poems of many great poets, there are two kinds of speaking: the articulate, stylized speech of the brain and the simple, shattering facts of the heart. And just a small dance step leads you from one to the other.

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Bradley Paul was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1972. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry ReviewBoston Review,Smartish Pace, FencePleiadesIowa Review, and numerous other journals. In 2004 his first book of poetry, The Obvious, was selected by Brenda Hillman for the New Issues Poetry Prize. His second book, The Animals All Are Gathering, won AWP’S Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, and was published in 2010 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Paul taught a variety of film, literature and writing classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Towson University before relocating to the West Coast. He has also directed, written, line produced, and edited several short and feature films and commercials. A graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the painter and writer Karri Paul.

To check out Paul’s website, click here.

This essay first appeared in Poetry International, 2005 (issue 9).  Reprinted by permission.

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For more on surprising turns in short (one- to two-lined) poems, click here.

For more on the volta, click here, and here, and here.  Aw, heck: explore this whole blog–where we aim to give the volta its star turn!

Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 05 2012

Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.

After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do.  We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet.  Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this.  We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet.  The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.

This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day.  However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.

Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly.  Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways.  With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense.  However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.



by Anjelica Rodriguez


You think only of the pain,

When there is only healing.


And now you know how it feels

To write a poem.





by Stephen Whitfield


Shining vaguely under the water,

She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic

Swimming in circles she will never understand


She cannot sit still

She cannot close her eyes

She is looking for something anonymous and vital


Something absurd and perfect

It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest

Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull


She is alive again only when released

Already semi-desperate to fight it again


I miss the urgency of my first poems.



Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad.  They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem.  But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.


My Kind of Poetry

by Brittany Gonio


My kind of poetry

is not an ornate object

on display in an upper class suburban home.

It is not the family jewels

hidden away in a safety deposit box,

for which the children

have only a false appreciation.

My poetry will never cradle me

like goose feathered bedspreads

and waterbed mattresses,

nor will it be the pillow talk

my lover whispers to me

(whether his intention be from his heart

or his groin).

It is not a hospital recovery room

with extended visiting hours

and the promise of being

“just like brand new”

in a couple of days.


My poetry is a boxing match

where I never have to look

to the jumbotron to channel

the intensity in my chaotically

coordinated opponent.

Every punch that grazes only air

depletes my resolve and loses support

of my knees.

Every jab met with hard muscle

sends a surge of endorphins

through my knuckles and veins.

I flit through the entirety

of the human spectrum of emotion

in the rounds between bell chimes,

and leave the ring

swallowing tears,

grinning through migraines.


My poetry breaks me


and I,

like a teenage lover,

consistently return to it,

because I am married to it

in a way that has nothing to do

with religion

or income laws,

but in that

“bigger than yourself”

tidal wave revelation.

My poetry has made me

an adrenaline junkie;

I dread building up tolerance,

fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,

loathe the body’s natural instinct

to protect itself.

For I yearn to sustain

and possess

the awe of aftershocks

each morning as

my fingers glide over

word-shaped bruises,

and chart muscles and flesh

I didn’t know

could feel.




Where We Sleep

by Colleen O’Connor


In the field behind his childhood home,

He buried two dogs,

A baby bird,

A stray cat,

The fish he wouldn’t flush,

A few chewed up toys,

And the rabbit

He never got to name.


It’s been thirty years.

In a different house,

A different dog skitters on the wood floors.

It growls at the rumbling washing machine,

Sleeps between him and the woman

Who reminds him of his mother.


He comes back to the field sometimes,

When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed

And the new backyard feels too small.


In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,

Shifts in the wind,

Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.


In the desk beside his end table,

He buried his poems.


He pulls them out sometimes, years later,

Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years

And the bed feels too big.


In the silence, she mumbles,

Shifts in her sleep,

A shape in the shadows.


Under the light of his end table,

He flips the pages,

Unearths six girls,

One man,

A year in Amsterdam,

A tour with the coast guard,

Four bouts of depression,

And the daughter

He never got to name.


He holds the poems gently,

Like baby birds.


Tiny coffins, they are strangely light

For how much they hold.



If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.

For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33).  In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.”  A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.


My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.