Grandmother of Form
Today is Adelaide Crapsey day, the anniversary of her passing. I think of Crapsey as the Grandmother of English Syllabic Verse. Her meticulous research into English prosody, her analyses of the syllabic structure of English, laid a foundation from which she was able to intuit a different approach to writing English poetry. Because her life was so short (September 9, 1878 to October 8, 1914) she was not able to complete her projects. But she was able to lay the foundation for a syllabic approach to English poetry. Simply by creating a syllabic form, the Cinquain, Crapsey demonstrated the efficacy of English syllabic verse.
At the time Crapsey was writing and doing research metrical poetry still dominated. The avant-garde was, however, beginning to emerge and ‘verse libre’ was making significant inroads. But Crapsey steered a course that offered a different alternative; neither a traditional metrical one nor one grounded in free verse. Evidently this was not easy for her to do. The research she did into English prosody must have been very time consuming: she literally counted all of the one and two syllable words in works like ‘Paradise Lost’ and this was long before the use of computers or other technological assists. In other words, she counted them all by hand.
Why did she do this? My sense is that she had an intuition that the predominance of one and two syllable words in English was significant for English language prosody. But she needed to feel a strong foundation for this intuition. The predominance of these short words tilts English towards a syllabic approach in the same way that a language like Chinese, consisting of one-count words, single syllables, lends itself to a syllabic approach to poetry.
There are other poets who made significant contributions towards a syllabic approach such as Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore. But neither of these poets created a specific English syllabic form, a form that others could use. This is why I consider Crapsey to be the most significant of the early English syllabic poets, because she saw the possibility of a specific syllabic form for the English language. This, I believe, is a crucial step in establishing English syllabic verse.
So let’s take a moment to express our gratitude to Adelaide, the Mother of Form.