A Collection of Tetractys Poems
By Leonard Dabydeen
Published by Xlibris
English syllabic poetry has been marked by the appearance of many new forms. Ever since Adelaide Crapsey created her 'Cinquain' in the early 20th century other syllabic forms have emerged. I am referring here to forms created by native English speakers as opposed to syllabic forms borrowed from other countries like Haiku or Sijo.
One of these new forms of syllabic poetry is the Tetractys. It is a five line form with the syllable count as follows: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 10. It was created by the British poet Ray Stebbing in either the 1980's or 1990's; I'm not sure of the exact date. I have noticed the Tetractys form appearing in recent anthologies of modern poetry and in works by a single author centered on a variety of syllabic forms.
'Watching You', however, is the first collection I know of devoted exclusively to the Tetractys. (This blog, incidentally, is quoted in the 'Introduction' which makes this book of poetry a nice acknowledgement that some people really are reading this blog.) At 126 pages with 110 Tetractys poems it is a substantial collection.
The challenge of the Tetractys lies in the first four lines. I think of any line under five syllables as a 'very short line'. There are a number of forms that start with very short lines: Fibonacci, Etheree, Lanterne, and Tetractys are four such forms. There seems to be an attraction to the very short line among English syllabic poets.
My own approach to the very short line is to adopt a 'list' approach to these lines. I think of the way a shopping list works and then adapt that to the very short lines. For this reason most of my very short lines consist of nouns, with an occasional modifier like 'dark' or 'cold'.
Dabydeen takes a different approach to the very short line and I found this difference attractive. Many of Dabydeen's Tetractys start with a pronoun such as We, I, His, My, You, etc. I believe that this is Dabydeen's most common way to approach the first line of one syllable. What Dabydeen does is to use grammar to support lineation. Here's an example:
to the sound
of falling rain
music playing on the top of my van.
Line 1 is the subject, line 2 is the verb, line 3 is the direct object, line 4 is a prepositional phrase, and line 5 is a metaphor summing up the first four lines. I think this kind of construction is neat; it's almost like diagramming a sentence, except that line 5 takes us off into more poetic regions.
So Dabydeen doesn't use the list approach that I have cultivated. And one of the reasons I enjoyed this collection is that Dabydeen offers a different solution to the very short line than the one I am used to, and does it very well.
Not all of Dabydeen's Tetractys begin with a pronoun:
Like Endless Tears
like endless tears
I watch the raindrops coming to my home.
Notice that same structural pattern. Line 1 is the subject, line 2 is the verb, line 3 the direct object, line 4 a metaphor expanding on line three, and line 5 takes an introspective turn. In both of the quoted Tetractys line 5 is a turn in a different direction. The ten syllables of the last line are expansive enough to do that while at the same time remaining connected to the first four lines.
Many of Dabydeen's poems are Double Tetractys:
towards the sky
making shapes like a lonely artist.
I watch the embers of fire in silence
poking my mind
Notice that line 8 is four syllables, where strict adherence would require a three-syallble line. Dabydeen is confident enough in his approach, and has internalized the form enough, that he will, in rare instances, change the line count by a syllable. When reading this I didn't even notice the discrepancy until I actually began counting lines of poems. The overall effect of the tetractys is maintained.
The double Tetractys has a strong sense of closure, while the original five-line Tetractys has a feeling of a suddenly opened door. Dabydeen is at ease with the different effects the two forms have.
Dabydeen titles all of his poems; usually the titles are taken from the poem itself, highlighting what Dabydeen considers central.
In the 'Introduction' Dabydeen writes (referring to himself in the third person), "With free verse predominant in his creative spirit, Leonard Dabydeen strutted along the poetry path with commentaries and discussions among many top-ranking internet poets, including members of the Indian Poetry Society on Facebook. However, it was the mathematical framework of the tetractys poem that enthused his creative mind to build a collection for readers of any genre:
in deep thoughts
shaping beauty and sculptured happiness
And so in this debut collection of tetractys poems, 'Watching You', the author shares his indulgence with utmost intensity in a creative world."
I'm happy to see that the tetractys has generated such enthusiasm. I look forward to more from Dabydeen, hopefully soon.