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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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!



One response

23 09 2013
The Structure and Surprise Blog Turns 100! | Structure & Surprise

[…]  It’s also been my great pleasure to publish or republish work by colleagues–such as Bradley Paul and Erin Stalcup–and former students–including Vera Miller, Emily Susina, and Anjelica […]

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