One thing I have observed in contemporary English syllabic verse is a tendency to base the structure of a new syllabic form on a mathematically generated sequence. Here are three examples: the Tetractys, the Fibonacci, and the Prime.
The Tetractys has the syllabic form: 1-2-3-4-10. The first four lines when added, 1+2+3+4 equal 10. This was observed millennia ago by Pythagoras who referred to this relationship as Tetractys. It was the basis for the idea of “pyramid numbers”. So the reason the last line of the Tetractys poetic form is 10 syllables is because the first four lines add up to the number 10, and because of this ancient history regarding this relationship, going all the way back to Pythagoras.
The Fibonacci has the syllabic form: 1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21, etc. This is an open-ended mathematical sequence. In practice most Fibonacci poems use six lines for a syllabic structure of 1-1-2-3-5-8; sometimes there are Fibonacci with seven lines for a syllabic structure of 1-1-2-3-5-8-13. The syllable count of the poem is based on a mathematically generated sequence where one starts with the number 1, then adds the two numbers together to generate the next number. That number is then added to the previous number to generate the next number, etc. Here is how it works:
0 + 1 = 1
1 + 1 = 2
1 + 2 = 3
2 + 3 = 5
3 + 5 = 8
5 + 8 = 13
8 + 13 = 21
The syllabic count of the lines is determined by this mathematical sequence.
The Prime uses the sequence of prime numbers to determine the syllabic count of the lines. In the five-line Prime, the most common form, the syllable count is: 2-3-5-7-11.
Behind the syllabic count of the poem lies a mathematical construct and it is this dimension that I refer to as “number mysticism”. There is a long history in western art of this kind of number mysticism. Painters in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance often based the placement of the figures in their drawings on mathematical relationships so that, for example, figures might be placed at the points of a triangle. This was felt to add further meaning and to incorporate significant form into the painting.
In music mathematical relationships and transformative functions have been applies to music to generate formal relationships and types of variations. In the twentieth century this was taken to its greatest extreme by the short-lived serial movement. But there was some precedence for this way of approaching music in medieval isorhythms.
But to return to contemporary syllabic verse, the interesting question for me is does number mysticism have any real effect. I mean do people find the poem effective because of this hidden Pythagorean dimension?
I think the Tetractys is a good example to use to contemplate this question. When people read a Tetractys do they read, or hear, the numerical connection between the first four lines and the last line? I doubt it. The distinctive shape of the Tetractys is that it starts would with very short lines, and then in the last line suddenly there is a long line; a line of ten syllables which is a length easily recognizable as a standard line in English poetry. I think what the reader or listener encounters in this form is the unusual experience of the dramatic change in line length, of how that closing line suddenly enlarge the syllabic universe of the poem. I’m very fond of the Tetractys; I think it’s a great contribution to English syllabic verse. And it is interesting to read up on how Ray Stebbing, the inventor of this form, came up with it. But, on the other hand, one does not need to know this information in order to appreciate the Tetractys; if someone simply told you the syllabic count of the Tetractys (1-2-3-4-10) and left it at that you would be able to access the Tetractys as a form in a complete way.
I think number mysticism doesn’t tell us very much about how a particular form works, how it is or is not effective as a poetic form, as it tells us something about the creative processes of the individual who came up with the form. It tells us something about how their mind works.
One way of recognizing this is to contrast constructed forms based on number mysticism with forms not rooted in number mysticism. First, there are the traditional syllabic forms that have no specific creator; forms like Haiku, Tanka, and the Chinese Quatrain. These forms arose out of ordinary usage in their language. There is an interesting episode from the book “The Haiku Apprentice” which illustrates this point. The author, Abigail Friedman, is a diplomat living in Japan. She is studying Haiku in a traditional Japanese Haiku group under the tutelage of a Haiku Sensei, or “Master”. One day Friedman sees an ad on the side of a bus that is in perfect Haiku form; 5-7-5 syllables. She remarks on this to her Haiku teacher. Friedman’s teacher responds that the syllabic structure of 5-7-5 is natural to Japanese speech, and then goes further to explain that just because something falls into a 5-7-5 pattern does not, in itself make it a Haiku.
These kinds of forms that arise spontaneously, without authorship, are not based on number mysticism, but rather arise from the ground of linguistic usage. Like a plant emerging from a field, these kinds of forms emerge spontaneously.
The other contrast with forms based on number system is constructed forms that have a single creator, but the creation was not a product of number mysticism. Adelaide Crapsey’s Cinquain is a good example. The structure of the Cinquain was worked out by Crapsey based on her analysis of English prosody. In other words it was based on the sounds, shapes, and sonic contours of English. The Etheree is another example; with a syllable count of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, the Etheree uses the basic counting series which is so ingrained in our minds it is almost natural. In fact, I think a good case could be made for animals using a counting series that closely resembles this; at least some animals.
Both the Cinquain and the Etheree are easy to remember, easier to remember than the Fibonacci or the Prime. This ease in memory comes, I think, from the fact that there is no intermediate realm to refer to in order to comprehend why the syllabic count is what it is. The Cinquain pattern of 2-4-6-8 and then a closing 2, uses the even numbers which are also used in countless chants, schoolyard rhymes (and taunts), that it also is almost natural to our psyche. In this way they share with the traditional syllabic forms a sense of emerging from nature in a material, rhythmic, sense, rather than emerging from the realm of mathematical mind.
Personally, I do not prefer one over the other. As I mentioned I have a fondness for the Tetractys; I think it is a fertile form. And I have gradually yielded to the charms of the Etheree, that simplest of all syllabic forms. On the other hand, I would say to the degree that both the Tetractys and Etheree are successful; they are successful for the same reasons; because they are forms that a poet can use to generate successful poetry, vehicles for the shaping of words into significant form.