Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Syllabic Quatrain Day

Syllabic Quatrain Day

Greetings Poetry Friends.  Today is Syllabic Quatrain Day.  I have chosen April 4 to celebrate the Syllabic Quatrain in English poetry.  April is the 4th month, and choosing the 4th day of the 4th month felt like a good day for celebrating the four-lined form.

The word ‘Quatrain’ in English can refer to stanzas in a longer poem (longer than four lines) or to a four line poem.  I use ‘Quatrain’ here to refer only to the four-line poem.  A specifically Syllabic Quatrain would, then, be a four line poem where the individual lines are defined by syllable count, rather than by stress.  The most common Syllabic Quatrain has all four lines having the same count.  But there are types of Syllabic Quatrain where the count varies from line to line.

The Quatrain is, I suspect, a universal poetic form.  It is found from Wales to Persia to China.  In each culture the Quatrain takes on peculiarities that are often derived from the specific language in use.  Thus the Syllabic Quatrain is often embedded in additional rules governing rhyme, caesura, internal rhyme, and consonantal placement.  It can become very complex.

For example, the Chinese Quatrain is a syllabic form that breaks down into two major types consisting of four five-syllable lines or four seven-syllable lines.  In addition to this, there are rules regarding the placement of caesurae and the distribution of tones. 

In the Welsh Englyn, there are rules governing end-rhyme, internal rhyme, the interplay of internal and end-rhyme, the relationship between true rhyme and slant rhyme, line count, consonant placement, and others as well.  I have not attempted to compose Englyn myself, having only recently become aware of this tradition.  But from what I have read the form poses quite a challenge.

One thing I have noticed is that in contrast to these heavily rule bound Quatrain traditions, the English language syllabic Quatrain seems to be relatively open-ended.   There aren’t many regulations beyond the syllable count and, often, rhyme scheme which is always, as far as I have observed, end rhyme. I think one of the reasons for this is that syllabic poetry in general is fairly new to the English language and so syllabic poets writing in English are still testing the field.  A second reason, I suspect, is that contemporary poets view poetry as a highly individual art and tend to resist the weight of tradition and highly regulated types of poetry which are thought of as impinging on self expression.

In those cultures where the Quatrain is highly developed, and has a long history, one can see what I think of as the poetry-as-craft approach.  One of the reasons for all of these regulations in the Englyn, the Persian Rubai, and the Chinese Quatrain, is the same as the kind of rules that evolve around any craft.  In sewing or quilt making certain kinds of patterns and stitching have emerged over time.  In the craft of bonsai certain techniques have developed over the years.  In woodworking types of tools and ways of turning and shaping the wood have been elaborated.  It is a natural tendency for human beings to generate these kinds of formal challenges.

Another reason for these kinds of developments in poetry is that they are fun, both for the poet and the audience.  An elaborated form is a challenge to the poet and part of the fun for the audience is simply to see if the poet can accomplish the task of meeting all the parameters of the form.  There is something genuinely satisfying, as a poet, to be able to write a strictly Shakespearean Sonnet, or an elegant Villanelle.  Similarly, I suspect poets have been attracted to these elaborate Quatrain forms because adhering to them yields a sense of satisfaction.

There is also a sense of connection generated with past poets and contemporaries using the same form.  I have read how the great Quatrain poets of China knew each other, referred to each other and enjoyed the works of poets from the past writing in the same form.  Adhering to a formal structure creates a sense of community and embeds the poem in a history.

I also suspect that part of the elaboration of regulations surrounding Quatrains has to do with the brevity of the Quatrain form.  Given such a brief poem, it seems natural to me that poets would look for ways to deepen the meaning and texture of the poem through the use of these kinds of regulations.

Personally, it was the Chinese Quatrain that opened up the form for me.  My attempt initially was to imitate as closely as possible the Chinese model.  It was a good starting point.  Since then, my efforts at Quatrain composition have branched out.  I have, for example, experimented with line length.  Some of my Quatrains use a shorter line than the Chinese Quatrain forms, while others use longer lines, some much longer as in 20 syllables per line.  I have also opened to additional rhyme schemes and, on a few occasions, Quatrains without rhyme, although I have to say I have not found the rhymeless Quatrains to be satisfactory. 

It was after my engagement with the Chinese Quatrain tradition that I became aware of other cultures and their Quatrain traditions, such as the Rubai and the Englyn.  I think these traditions have much to offer an evolving syllabic approach to English Quatrain poetry.

But I’ve also discovered that many of the regulations of these Quatrain traditions are language specific.  The placement of tones in Chinese Quatrains is a good example, and some of the regulations for the Englyn, I am told, reflect the structure of the Welsh language.  These regulations that are specific to non-English languages often are not transferrable to an English language context.  There is a kind of sifting that takes place as one attempts to apply the structures of the root language to a different language.  Some of it comes through and some of it falls away.

Finally, and I find this humorous, I discovered the great trove of English language Quatrains.  Most of these are metrical, yet for an evolving syllabic approach to Quatrains I have found them helpful.  Emerson wrote some wonderful Quatrains.  Among modern poets, J. V. Cunningham is skillful in Quatrains.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.  Here’s one by Emerson:


Boon nature yields each day a brag which we now first behold,
And trains us on to slight the new, as if it were the old:
But blest is he, who, playing deep, yet haply asks not why,
Too busied with the crowded hour to fear to live or die.

This was the poem which started me thinking of the potential for longer lined Quatrains.  Each line here is 14 syllables.

Here’s another by Emerson:


He took the color of his vest
From rabbit’s coat or grouse’s breast;
For as the wood-kinds lurk and hide,
So walks the woodman, unespied.

This Quatrain is more of a picture, less of a thought piece than most English language Quatrains I have read.  A lot of English Quatrains are self-labeled ‘Epigrams’, meaning brief, sharp (possibly witty, possibly acerbic) observations.  Here’s an example from Dorothy Parker:

The Actress

Her name, cut clear upon this marble cross,
Shines, as it shone when she was still on earth;
While tenderly, the mild, agreeable moss
Obscures the figures of her date of birth.

This is a strong image, painted clearly for the reader.  The title makes the Quatrain a commentary on the folly of fame and the vanity of life in general.

Here is ‘Epigram 76’ from J. V. Cunningham:

Good fortune when I hailed her recently,
Passed by with the intimacy of shame
As one that in the dark had handled me
And could no longer recollect my name.

Here we have a thought piece centered on the personification of Good Fortune.  We have moved away from image into Epigram more narrowly conceived.

Finally, here’s a Quatrain from a series called ‘Sad Epigrams’ by Timothy Steele:

A Short History of Post-structuralism

Words don’t match things, and authors are erased;
Reality reflects the theorist’s taste.
Yet, to the grief of all, the text fights back,
Whether it’s ‘Hamlet’, ‘Emma’, or Iraq.

This epigram is rich in reflection both esthetic, in terms of literary criticism, of modernism, and finally a political dimension.  And all this is contained in a four lined poem; very impressive.

Again, it has been my observation that, for the most part, Quatrains in English tend to be epigrammatic and thoughtful.  This is in contrast to the picture-painting found in many Chinese Quatrains.  I suspect, though, as the English language Quatrain evolves that the range of topics and types will increase.  The syllabic Quatrain has a rich, international, heritage for us to draw on.  Over time I suspect that the English Syllabic Quatrain will develop its own types, additional rules, and traditions, thereby enriching this form.

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