One of the distinctive aspects of a syllabic approach to poetry is that form has meaning. That is to say, that syllabic forms have meaning that transcend the specific content of the poem being read. The different forms of syllabic verse are felt to carry a rhythmic shape and that shape itself is considered to be part of the meaning of the poem.
One way to access this form-meaning is to look at what are referred to as form analogs. Form analogs are two or more syllabic forms that have the same overall number of syllables, but those syllables are distributed differently, over a different number of lines for example. To illustrate this I will use the forms of Tetractys and the Five-Four Quatrain. Both of these forms have twenty syllables. In the Tetractys the twenty syllables are distributed over five lines as follows: 1-2-3-4-10. In the Five-Four Quatrain the twenty syllables are distributed over four lines as follows: 5-5-5-5.
The meaning of the forms can be accessed by using an example of each form where the topic of the poem is the same. I will use two examples of my own, both on the topic of a Quaker Meeting for Worship.
First, the Five-Four Quatrain:
I can feel the light
On First Day morning
When Friends are gathered
It is transforming
And now the Tetractys:
And the presence
Of the everlasting truth and essence
The Five-Four Quatrain has a regular line, five syllables per line, and proceeds at a steady pace. The Tetractys, in contrast, has a different number of syllables for each line. The first line is one syllable and feels like a kind of seed out of which the rest of the poem grows.
One way of sensing in the body the differences between the two forms is to recite the poems out loud, giving each line the same amount of time. At first, recite slowly; you might even want to clap your hands or snap your fingers to maintain a steady beat. This will sound a little artificial at first, but it helps to create a sensory awareness of the pulse of the form. In the Tetractys each pulse is gradually fuller, until the last line, which is the most dense. In the Five-Four Quatrain each line has the same density of count. After getting a feeling for the beat, try speeding it up a bit to make it more natural. There still remains the rhythmic difference between the two, even when one is speaking at a normal conversational rate. The key is to give each line the same amount of time in the reading.
The meaning of the form is a sensory meaning, not a meaning in the sense of an intellectual understanding. That is why it is a good idea to take two poems on the same topic, so that one doesn’t get sidetracked by intellectual differences. One needs to feel the pulse of the form in the same way that one feels the particular pulse of a dance.
If you are a poet one way to access these differences is to take a topic and then write poems in different syllabic forms on that topic. The moon or the seasons are good, standard, topics to work with. But any topic will do. Decide on a topic and then write a poem on that topic in two or more syllabic forms; say syllabic Haiku, Cinquain, Tetractys, and others if one wishes. This approach to understanding the feeling of a particular form is from the creator’s side. I’ve used this exercise quite a few times and I’ve found that it deepens my understanding of the meaning of the form.