Syllabic Lineation: Part 4
I’m concluding my series on syllabic lineation with a few, short closing thoughts. These are miscellaneous observations that are relevant to syllabic lineation, but I have not focused on enough to make a full length post.
1. My sense is that syllabic verse in English has yet to establish itself as a distinct way of poetry. In a previous post I referred to a syllabic approach as a ‘third way’ of approaching English poetry. The other two are traditional metrical poetry and free verse. Both metrical and free verse have developed a secure sense of self-identity and a kind of ad hoc ‘canon’ of significant poets in their respective approaches. Syllabic verse in English has yet to do this.
2. My view is that if syllabic verse in English is to become a distinct approach to poetry the key lies in having a distinct approach to lineation. In this series I have offered several ways to go about this. Undoubtedly there are others as well. The ‘third way’ of syllabic verse is a third way of lineation. For metrical verse lineation is defined by metrical count. For free verse lineation is open; lineation is not structured according to a counting procedure. For syllabic verse lineation is based on the count of syllables. However, just having the right count does not in itself lead to the reader or hearer understanding the line as a distinct line of a poem. Other factors need to be present to secure a sense of a line. In other words, simply counting syllables is not sufficient in itself to give the reader a sense of the syllabic form.
3. It remains an open question as to whether or not English syllabic verse can generate a syllabic form which will have the same attractiveness to poets as, for example, the Tanka in Japan, the Quatrain in China, or the Alexandrine in France. On the positive side, a number of syllabic forms have appeared in the last 100 years, beginning with the Crapsey Cinquain, which have elicited interest among a wide variety of poets. I am thinking of the Cinquain, the Tetractys, the Fibonacci, and a few others. It is possible that these forms will develop widespread usage and interest. Some of these forms are introduced in grade schools which indicates a possible acceptance of these forms.
On the down side, many who approach these forms for the first time apply the tools they have learned from other approaches to poetry to syllabics and that often does not work. In particular, the mapping of a free verse approach to lineation onto syllabic forms undermines the specific form being used. This can be overcome by more clearly articulating a specific syllabic approach to lineation.
4. Interestingly, the most successful syllabic form in English seems to be the syllabic Haiku, which is a borrowed form (other borrowed syllabic forms include Tanka and Sijo, but they have not developed anywhere near the following that syllabic Haiku has). The widespread popularity of syllabic Haiku is a positive sign that a syllabic approach to English language poetry is workable and creatively rich.
5. In my posts on lineation I have often referred to East Asian models, particularly Japan and China. This reflects my own history; the fact that I studied in Japan and Korea and have had a long term interest in that cultural sphere. Unfortunately I do not know very much about French or Italian poetry. Both of these cultures write poetry syllabically. According to Alfred Corn,
“A surprising development in the modern period was the adaptation of syllable-count meter for English and American poetry, which had before then always used stress as the primary metrical base. What led to this innovation? Partly it was the result of the high regard that English and American poets felt for French poetry during the last decades of the nineteenth century. If French poetry used syllable-count meter, then English-language poets hoping to appropriate some of its strengths would use it also.”
(The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody, page 127)
I would like to learn more about how French, and Italian, poetry defines a line. Just as Japanese poetry defines a line almost entirely based on grammar, and the Chinese make extensive use of rhyme, so also I suspect that there are longstanding traditions of how to shape a line in French poetry that can contribute to an English language syllabic verse.
I am particularly interested in how French poetry establishes their longer lined forms. English language syllabic forms tend to be short line forms; e.g. the Cinquain, the Tetractys, and the Fibonacci. French and Italian poetry, in contrast, have developed longer lined syllabic forms. How have they done this? Can such an approach work in an English language syllabic approach?
6. I have not dealt with English language poets who write syllabically but have not written in definable forms. I am thinking of poets like Marianne Moore and Dylan Thomas. My focus is on syllabic forms that transcend any individual poet. Perhaps, I am beginning to think, this is a shortcoming on my part. Just as I have learned much from the metrical poet Emily Dickinson, it is likely that I could learn more from poets like Moore and Thomas, and then apply what I have learned to syllabic formal traditions.
7. A consciously syllabic approach to English poetry is new; a little over 100 years old. From some perspectives it is still nascent and rich with potential. I get the impression that syllabic verse is still feeling its way. From a different perspective, it appears that syllabics has taken root in the English language world. For example, there are magazines devoted to specific syllabic forms, a steady stream of poetry books wherein the poet demonstrates their facility with one or more syllabic form, and a growing sense of the heritage of syllabic verse. Personally, I am optimistic.