Two Resources for Composing the Very Short Line
An aspect of contemporary syllabic forms in English which has intrigued me for years is that many of these forms require writing poetry in very short lines. I define a very short line as a line of four syllables or less. The syllabic forms which require very short lines include Cinquain, Fibonacci, Lucas, Etheree, and Tetractys. And the Lanterne form consists entirely of very short lines: 1-2-3-4-1 syllables. I am not aware of any other time in the history of poetry where the very short line was such a persistent feature of poetic form.
The very short line poses a challenge to the syllabic poet. If the very short line is written well, it functions like a seed, or a very condensed and articulate statement. If it does not function well, the very short line will lack definition and the specific shape of the syllabic structure will be lost.
Recently I have encountered two resources for composing very short lines of poetry. The two resources are: A Dictionary of Haiku by Jane Reichhold, and New and Selected Poems of Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks. Together the syllabic poet can learn much from these two works on how to construct very short lines in forms like Fibonacci and Lanterne.
Reichhold’s Dictionary was published this year. It is a huge work; about 5,000 Haiku with a page count a little over 300 pages. The work is arranged along the lines of a traditional Japanese Saijiki; that is to say that the Haiku are classified by Season, and within each season by Topic, and within each Topic by Subject. This arrangement makes the Haiku easily accessible; the reader can digest one Subject at a time.
Reichhold’s approach to Haiku is what I refer to as a ‘free verse’ approach. By that I simply mean that Reichhold does not hold to a syllabic count or structure. Her approach is a three-line, highly condensed, no wasted words, approach. It is a minimalist approach in the best sense of that word, the sense of no wasted words.
Here is an example:
meditation with my partner
This is from the New Year Season, Animals Topic, Insects Subject, and is found on page 302. For the syllabic poet, notice Lines 1 and 3. Line 1 is two syllables, Line 3 is three. In spite of the shortness of the lines, they have integrity, they feel like a line.
Here is another:
because it called to me
the moon sets
(This is from the Fall Season, Moods Topic, and ‘being needed’ Subject on Page 170.)
Notice the one syllable of Line 1. It functions like a statement and has a double meaning. It both refers to waking up, getting up, and it also refers to the fact that the moon is up in the sky. This is nicely balanced by the fact that the moon is setting. This is an excellent example of how to use very short lines effectively.
And here is one of my favorite:
on the far mountain
Riechhold’s Dictionary is an endless resource of how to shape a very short line that also has integrity. I recommend it to the syllabic poet, particularly if you have an interest in those forms like Fibonacci (which start out with the first four lines being very short [1-1-2-3]), or the Tetractys which also opens with four very short lines (1-2-3-4) or Lanterne, which is nothing but very short lines. Studying this work will be of great assistance.
The second resource I’d like to suggest is the poetry of Samuel Menashe. I had not known about Menashe until I read Sparring with the Sun Jan Schreiber. Schreiber recommends Menashe and I followed up and I’m very glad I did.
Menashe was a minimalist poet whose tight, highly regulated, verse packs a lot of meaning into very few words. Here is Menashe’s most famous poem:
by the sea
on the sands
Menashe is a metrical poet, but notice that this poem also can be understood as syllabic; a Quatrain with 3 syllables per line. It uses a standard Quatrain rhyme scheme of A-B-C-B. I have found that this rhyme scheme feels strongly cadential, an appropriate usage for a poem with this topic.
Notice how each line has integrity; there is no enjambment even though each line is very brief. Lines 2 and 3 are prepositional phrases. Line 1 is, all by itself, a sentence, which is then commented on in Lines 2, 3, and 4.
Here is another:
Ghost I house
In this old flat –
Your outpost –
The same rhyme scheme is used for this Quatrain; but the rhyme for Lines 2 and 4 is slant. Again, notice how each line has integrity, how each line holds a thought and contributes clearly to the whole.
Not all of Menashe’s poems consist solely of very short lines; but enough of them do to make this a rich resource for those composing in syllabic forms that include very short lines.
The challenge for the syllabic poet writing very short lines is to write in such a way that the linebreaks do not feel forced, artificial, arbitrary, or anorexic. By ‘anorexic’ I mean a line that lacks a sense of wholeness on its own. This sense of wholeness can be grammatical or image based, or both, but if that sense of wholeness is not present the reader will feel that the linebreak is arbitrary and meaningless and will link the line to the following line, in an attempt to create a sense of wholeness. The result will be a loss of the particular syllabic shape of the poem.
In practice what this means it that radical enjambment is put aside. Radical enjambment is a pervasive feature of free verse poetry these days. My observation has been that when poets move from free verse to syllabic verse, the greatest difficulty they have is overcoming this tendency to compose lines that spill over into the following line, without the ameliorating usage of metrics or rhyme. While radical enjambment can be effective in a free verse context, when used in a syllabic context, and in particular when used in very short lines, the syllabic shape is lost. When the syllabic shape is lost, the reader, or listener, looses the pulse of that particular form.
Generally speaking, lines that end in an article, the or a, and lines that end in prepositions, will feel enjambed and will lack a sense of wholeness. The reader/listener will feel a strong tendency to either attach the word to the next line, or to bring the following line up and make it one, longer, continuous line. A modifier, an adjective or adverb, that ends a line can also feel enjambed, but the feeling is not usually as strong. And if the modifier is rhymed, or falls on a metrical accent, that will minimize the sense of shapelessness.
Very short lines that consist of nouns often have a sense of wholeness. The template for this is the list. When writing a shopping list, for example, each item stands on its own. Or when writing a list of ‘things I like/dislike’, or ‘things that are distinctive about where I live’, the list will often consist of items that consist mostly of nouns. A list can give a lot of information. For example, a list can give the reader of a poem a sense of place and/or a sense of time/season. In my own shaping of very short lines, this is the approach I use most often.
Reichhold takes what I call a free verse approach to Haiku. And Menashe is a metrical poet. Neither of these poets write syllabics. But the syllabic poet, writing in English, has to learn to gather lessons in the craft of syllabic shaping from many different sources. This is because syllabic poetry in English has not, as yet, established a canon; either of significant works or of established procedures. This is both a plus and a minus. It’s a minus because, at times, it can leave the syllabic poet feeling a little lost. It’s a plus if the syllabic poet takes advantage of their situation and remains open to whatever can assist in the craft of shaping words into syllabic forms.
A Dictionary of Haiku: Second Edition
Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems
Christopher Ricks, Editor
Both are available at Amazon