The syllabic form known as ‘Tetractys’ was created by British poet Ray Stebbing in the late 20th century; sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s is my understanding. Every since I encountered the Tetractys online I have found it an unusual, distinctive, and attractive form. I was attracted to it for two reasons. First, the syllabic structure is unique and unusual in that the last line of the form contains as many syllables as the rest of the lines combined. This makes the last line unusually long in comparison to the previous lines.
This becomes clearer if one knows the syllabics. The Tetractys has five lines with the syllables distributed as follows: 1-2-3-4-10. The first four lines add up to ten syllables, while the last line, the fifth, has ten syllables all by itself. I was attracted by this unusual balance. In syllabic forms I have seen before the Tetractys, the ebb and flow of the syllable count is usually one or two syllables. The classic Tanka is typical with its five lines as follows: 5-7-5-7-7. Note the two syllable variation between some of the lines. This is typical of most syllabic forms I have observed.
The dramatic change in the number of syllables does have a precedent: the American Cinquain created by Adelaide Crapsey. In the Cinquain the five lines have the following syllable count: 2-4-6-8-2. The difference between lines 4 and 5 is six syllables. That is the same difference found between lines 4 and 5 in the Tetractys, but in the Tetractys line 5 increases by six syllables over line 4, while in the Cinquain line 5 decreases by six syllables. The Cinquain reduces its count in the last line, while the Tetractys increases its count in the last line, but both the Cinquain and the Tetractys do so by the same amount; six syllables.
This sudden opening up of the line to a full count of ten in the Tetractys appealed to me. I liked the examples of the Tetractys form I read and found the form a challenge.
The second reason I was attracted to the Tetractys is that the Tetractys is an analog for the Five-Four Quatrain with which I have been working for some time. Both the Tetractys and the Five-Four Quatrain contain an overall syllable count of twenty syllables, but the distribution of those syllables differs. In the Five-Four Quatrain there are four lines with five syllables per line; for a total of twenty syllables: 5-5-5-5. In the Tetractys there are five lines with an irregular distribution of syllables as noted before: 1-2-3-4-10.
I have found that using formal analogs (which in the context of syllabic poetry means two or more forms that share the same overall syllable count, but differ as to how that count is distributed) is one of the best ways of gaining clarity as to how a particular form works, its rhythm and pulse. Working with Tetractys helped me to access the Five-Four Quatrain and comprehend its specific character.
I was assisted in exploring the Tetractys by the fact that Ray Stebbing, its creator, wrote about the prosody of the Tetractys. Stebbing was a conscious creator and made efforts to communicate to other poets what he had in mind when he created the Tetractys. Here are some excerpts from his writings on the form:
A short form of verse the Tetractys
You pronounce it to rhyme with malpractice
Searching one day in the Oxford English Dictionary, I came across an unfamiliar word – ‘tetractys’. It seems that Euclid, the mathematician of classical times, considered the number series 1, 2, 3, 4, to have mystical significance because its sum is 10, so he dignified it with a name of its own – Tetractys. This gave me the idea for a new form of syllabic verse consisting of five lines, the first of which contains a single syllable, the second two, the third three, the fourth four and the last ten syllables. What better name could I give it than ‘Tetractys’? . . .
The Perfect Tetractys
The perfect Tetractys would satisfy all the following criteria:
1. the correct syllable count,
2. meaningful words (e.g. not the, a, an) in the single-syllable line,
3. line breaks that make sense, i.e. conform to normal syntax, not separating words that quite obviously form a unit of meaning.
(If 2 and 3 did not apply, writing a Tetractys would merely involve taking a twenty-syllable line and chopping it arbitrarily into the requisite lengths – it doesn’t take a poet to do that!)
In addition to these the normal criteria for good poetry apply:
4. effective use of imagery,
5. effective choice of words,
6. appeal to the ear, certainly by rhythm, possibly by use of other sound effects (rhyme, alliteration, etc.),
7. and lastly, and most importantly, appeal to the intellect and the emotions; moving the reader to laughter, tears, deep thought, anger . . .
In writing a Tetractys it is essential to satisfy at least the first and last of the criteria. To satisfy most of the rest is highly desirable. Manage to satisfy all seven – Well, we all aim for perfection, but usually have to settle for mere excellence.
End of quote
Stebbing discusses in his writing on the form reverse Tetractys (10-4-3-2-1) and two forms of double Tetractys (1-2-3-4-10-10-4-3-2-1 and 10-4-3-2-1-1-2-3-4-10). In addition there can be linked Tetractys with a series that is connected either in the original form or the reverse form. This kind of manipulation of the forms is routinely found among practitioners of specific syllabic forms. For example, the original Cinquain is 2-4-6-8-2; the reverse Cinquain is 2-8-6-4-2, and there are double Cinquain as in 2-4-6-8-2-2-8-6-4-2 and this can be reversed as well. Linked chains of Cinquain either by a single Cinquain poet or by a group, mimicking in some respects Renga, are also found.
But the original five line form of the Tetractys, 1-2-3-4-10, is the one I find most satisfying.
I have found the Tetractys to be a wonderful form. When done well it has its own unique rhythm and pulse which is attractive. Give the Tetractys a try. It is a wonderful addition to the world of English Syllabic Verse.