Why would a poet deliberately restrict their options by writing in verse forms where syllabic restrictions define the form? Why would a poet want to write a syllabic Tanka in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7, or a Tetractys in five lines of 1-2-3-4-10, or a Cinquain in five lines of 2-4-6-8-2 or a 100 Friends form consisting of fifteen lines of 2-4-2-4-6-4-6-8-6-8-10-8-10-12-10, or a syllabic Quatrain consisting of four lines, each line containing five syllables?
In an era where free verse dominates the official poetry scene, at a time when for many poets free verse IS poetry, what is the attraction of composing a poem in a pre-set form?
There are a number of reasons, but I’d like to point to one aspect of syllabic verse which, I think, is a pervasive reason for the syllabic poet’s commitment to form. It is this: composing a poem in a specific form focuses the mind. For example, if someone is composing a Cinquain, then the first line consists of only two syllables. That formal consideration eliminates a huge range of possibilities which simply fall away from the poet’s consideration. Instead, various two syllable possibilities arise. The mind of the poet, then, becomes focused through the lens of the syllabic contours of the particular form.
What I’d like to suggest is that this focusing of the mind feels good. A scattered mind is frustrating and people often complain about “feeling scattered”. In free verse there is a tendency to scatter the focus precisely because there is no regulation of the line. The regulation of the line in syllabic verse is an objective device, that is to say it is not a device chosen by the poet. If I am writing a Cinquain that means I am going to follow the formal parameters of the form which are shared by all Cinquain poets. Like a meditator counting breaths, and knowing that this counting of breaths is an experience shared by countless other meditators, the syllabic poet shares with a community of other practitioners a method for focusing the mind. This allows the syllabic poet to feel connected to an extended community that includes poets never met.
In this sense, then, syllabic poets dwell in an extended community of people who also write in the same form. I think this combined sense of focus and community is inherently pleasing both to the mind and to the soul.