Lineation for English Syllabic Verse:
Part 1 -- Parallelism
The subject of lineation, how a line is defined and heard as a line, is central to syllabic poetry. It is through the craft of lineation that the syllabic poet communicates to the reader and listener the particular syllabic form of the poem. For example, given these three forms of poetry, the Tetractys, the 5-4 Quatrain, and the 6-line Fibonacci, all of three of these forms contain an overall syllable count of 20 syllables. However, the count per line differs. In order to clearly distinguish between such forms the syllabic poet needs to clearly indicate where a line ends and where the next one begins. If this isn’t done, readers and listeners won’t be able to feel any difference between a Tetractys and a 6-line Fibonacci.
English language poetry has roughly four means for indicating the end of a poetic line: meter, grammar, rhyme, and parallelism. In traditional English poetry, the accentual nature of the usage gives the poetic line a definite shape. In iambic tetrameter, four beats designates the end of a line. In iambic pentameter, five beats and we’ve reached the end of the line. It is the same kind of feeling people have when they tap to music or clap their hands to a song.
Syllabic Verse, by definition, does not use meter as a structural element to determine or signal when a line ends. Many poetic cultures do not use such a determination such as French, Japanese and Chinese poetry. But traditionally English poetry has used meter. A syllabic approach is something relatively new for English poetry; dating to early in the 20th century.
Without meter as an indicator of lineation that leaves three means: grammar, rhyme, and parallelism. I believe English syllabic poets can learn a lot from those cultures that have used a syllabic approach for many centuries. For example, Japanese poetic lineation rests primarily on grammar, while Chinese poetic lineation rests to a significant extent on rhyme. In both cases I am referring to their traditional approaches. I think it is useful to take advantage of what these poetic cultures have to offer and see how far it can map onto English language usage. But let’s take each of the three approaches one at a time. I’m going to start with parallelism.
Parallelism is an excellent way to communicate lineation. In my opinion the best resource for learning how parallelism works in the English language is the Book of Psalms from the King James Bible. I recommend specifically the King James Version because of its unparalleled influence on English literature, its majesterial tone, and the superior craftsmanship of its phrasing over all other English language translations. (In particular, I recommend the Book of Psalms for those composing English language free verse because the KJV Book of Psalms can be viewed as the earliest collection in the English language of free verse poetry.)
Here is a famous example of parallelism from Psalm 23:
2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3. He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Verses 2 and 3 consist of two clauses each, indicated by the use of a colon. Each clause begins with the pronoun ‘He’ followed by a verb, followed by the pronoun ‘me’ or ‘my’. The first three words of the second clauses of both verses 2 and 3 are identical: ‘He leadeth me’.
Lineation here is exceptionally clear. One of the interesting consequences of this kind of parallelism is that it increases the ability to memorize the passage. This is true even though the overall line lengths vary greatly, here ranging from 6 to 15 syllables. When parallelisms are strong they lend the poem an incantatory sense that feels musical even in the absence of a regularly recurring metrical line.
Here is another example from Psalm 82, verses 3 and 4:
3. Defend the poor and fatherless:
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4. Deliver the poor and needy:
Rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
Again we have two verses with four clear clauses. Each clause begins with a verb. There are, in addition, many crossover words. ‘Poor’ appears in 3.1 and 4.1. ‘Needy’ appears in 3.2 and 4.1. 4.1 serves to weave the two clauses of verse 3 together, tightening the overall relationship. There is also a kind of call and response structure to this parallelism. 3.2 answers how to defend the poor and fatherless; by doing justice. And 4.2 answers how to deliver the poor; rid them of the wicked.
A modern poet who uses parallelism frequently is Walt Whitman. Some of his longer poems consists of sections of parallelisms which follow one another. The 1860 edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ contains a long monologue simply titled ‘Walt Whitman’. This poem contains long examples of parallelisms which allow Whitman to elaborate his understanding of the world. Here is just one example:
Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheat-lot,
Where the bat flies in the Seventh Month eve –
Where the great gold-bug drops through the dark,
Where the flails keep time on the barn floor,
Where the brook puts out of the roots of the old tree and flows to the meadow
(Page 68, University of Iowa Edition)
This series continues for a total of 22 lines (counting each appearance of ‘Where’ as a line: at times Whitman typograpically doubles up). This is typical in this long poem. Whitman is a rich resource for how to use parallels in syllabic verse or modern free verse. Notice how the first three words of each line has identical construction, then what follows varies. Each appearance of the first three words brings us back to the previous lines, offering an overall sense of resonance and cohesion.
How do we apply these examples to syllabic verse? The irregular lineation of these examples is applicable to most English syllabic forms. What is being shown here is a way of bringing a felt sense of a line that is not specifically dependent on meter or rhyme. This can be applied to syllabic forms where the line length changes from line to line such as the Etheree, the Fibonacci, and the Rictameter. For example, Verse 3 of Psalm 23 could serve as a model for how to apply parallelism to the later lines of a Fibonacci where the count suddenly jumps: 8-13-21. Verse 3 of Psalms 23 could also serve as a model for lines 4 and 5 of the Tetractys: 4-10. And in reverse, the same could be said for lines 4 and 5 of the Cinquain: 8-2.
Parallelism is remarkably flexible in that it offers a method for communicating simply, both to the reader and listener, the presence of a line without demanding that the line feature other determinative markers such as meter or rhyme. On the other hand, most parallelisms that I have read are also reflective of a grammatical structure; indeed, in most instances, what is being ‘paralleled’ is the grammatical structure that begins each line. So there is an intimate connection between the grammar being used and the parallelism that shapes the line. (Not all grammatical usages that define a line will be parallelisms; more on that later.)
Parallelism is a widely used poetic device with a rich heritage. It is flexible enough to be easily adapted to syllabic forms. Here’s an example from an Etheree I wrote:
In the tank
A the rest’raunt
The Chinese rest’raunt
Greeting the customers
As they come in they relax
Letting go of all the day’s tasks
Leaving behind the world of brass tacks
Allowing the mind to drift where it will
An island of calm which is perfectly still
Like a glacier fed stream where one can drink one’s fill.
The three lines I’ve separated off are an example of parallelism. All three lines have a similar structure, beginning with an ‘ing’ verb. They all start with a verb clause (‘letting go’, ‘leaving behind’, ‘allowing the mind’, followed by a closing clause. Each opening clause increases by one syllable, mimicking the overall form of the Etheree itself.
Parallelisms are a way of linking disparate images together through a series of metaphors. Here is an example of mine from another Etheree:
Seem so real
Under the light
Of the rising sun
The dream which had begun
Concludes its dance, is now done,
Like a plan which has had its run,
Like a memory lost in time’s mist,
Like opportunities that have been missed.
The last three lines are a series of metaphors for a dream ending. The parallel structure serves to underline their unity even though the metaphors themselves offer varying images.
In shorter forms parallelisms are harder to integrate because of a lack of space for them to unfold. Parallelism in Haiku would, I think, be more difficult, but still possible if done well. In Tanka parallelism could serve to bring a certain unity to juxtaposed sections. Here’s an example of parallelism in Tanka from Neal Henry Lawrence’s “Shining Moments”:
The abbey bell rings
Tolling life’s passing moments
Of joy and sorrow,
Of time for meditation
And to say the rosary.
Lines 3 and 4 are a typical parallel structure; two prepositional phrases, similarly structured, but varying in line length. There is also variety in the internal structure of each line. Line 3 uses a conjunction, while Line 4 follows the opening prepositional phrase with a responding prepositional phrase. I really like the way Lawrence’s usage of parallelism in this Tanka reflects the solemn nature of the activities he mentions. I think this is a good example of how parallelism can be used in shorter syllabic forms. (As an aside, Line 5 is almost another parallel, maybe a semi-parallel. ‘To say the rosary’ would be a good standard parallel, but by adding the conjunction ‘and’ Laurence signals to us a poetic shift. In this case he’s going to close the poem with this clause. The near parallel structure of Line 5 is a gentle shift while still retaining some of the nature of Lines 3 and 4.)
In conclusion, parallelism offers the syllabic poet a way of defining a line that fits easily into a syllabic context. It is an approach that people are already familiar with, an approach that has been used effectively for many centuries in English poetry, an approach that people seem to instinctively enjoy reading and hearing.