Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Adelaide Crapsey. She passed away on October 8, 1914. Crapsey is the poet who created that sparkling form, the Cinquain. The Cinquain has become a widely taught and practiced syllabic form in the English language. To celebrate this anniversary I am posting a piece I wrote for a local online community forum. This forum contains an active poetry section and I have, at times, posted poems there, as well as contributing to discussions. The post is an overall appreciation of syllabic forms in English poetry; Crapsey is highlighted as having a significance in the slow dissemination of that approach among English language poets.
Syllabics: An Appreciation
The 20th century saw many experiments in the world of English language poetry. Free verse took off, while at the same time the traditional, metric, approach to poetry continued among a large number of poets and especially song-writers. Another, much smaller, approach to English language poetry also emerged in the 20th century: the use of a syllabic approach and the emergence of short syllabic forms.
Traditional English poetry is metric, counting the stresses of a line. This is the approach used by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Browning, Millay, Frost, countless poets and songwriters down through the centuries. The free verse approach does not use counting as a method for constructing a line: I see the ‘free’ of ‘free verse’ as referring to ‘free from counting’.
The syllabic approach ignores stress and poetic feet. Instead, the syllabic approach counts only the syllables of a line. The difference can feel subtle, but there is a qualitative difference in the two approaches which the ear can hear. The syllabic approach is the standard poetic practice in a number of cultures such as France, Japan, China, and Wales. But it is new for English language poetry. I think of the syllabic approach as dating to the early 20th century. In particular, I think Adelaide Crapsey played a significant role in its emergence because she was the first poet to create a form, the Cinquain, which relied on counting syllables. Crapsey’s Cinquain is shaped by counting the syllables of each line: 2-4-6-8-2, for a total of 22 syllables. It is interesting to observe the development of the form in Crapsey’s own thought. It appears that at first she thought of the Cinquain as a metric form with the lines defined as 1 beat, 2 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, and one beat. But she soon shifted to a syllabic presentation and today it is taught as a syllabic form. For this reason I think of Crapsey as marking a transition to a possible syllabic approach to English language verse. If I had to choose a date for syllabics entering English language poetry I would choose 1915, the date her small collection of poetry was posthumously published which included a significant number of Cinqauin. That makes syllabics in English just 100 years old.
Also influential in the emergence of a syllabic approach was the adoption of haiku as a form for English language poets. In the transmission of haiku from Japan to the U.S. different schemes were used to map the haiku form onto the English language. For this reason you will find different approaches used by different haiku poets and organizations. One group chose to map the Japanese count of 5-7-5 onto the English syllable so that to construct an English haiku you have three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. This is the approach used by Richard Wright, Mary Joe Salter, Haydn Carruth, James Hackett, Edith Shiffert, Richard Wilbur and many others; it is the approach also used by what I call ‘popular haiku’. The widespread absorption of a 5-7-5 form has done a great deal to implant the legitimacy of a syllabic approach to English language poetry.
Elizabeth Daryush (who, in my opinion, is unjustly neglected these days) also took a syllabic approach to English language poetry. She was influenced by her father, Robert Bridges, an English poet laureate who preferred syllabic construction, and by Persian poetry, especially Hafez. Daryush was the first to apply syllabics to traditional English forms such as the sonnet.
Today a syllabic approach to poetry still remains a small, but growing, approach to English language verse. In the late 20th century a number of poets created syllabic forms that have developed followings. These include the Fibonacci, based on the mathematical Fibonacci Sequence; the Tetractys, a five line form of 1-2-3-4-10; the Lanterne, another five-line form of 1-2-3-4-1; the Rictameter, a nine-line form of 2-4-6-8-10-8-6-4-2; and many others. I really enjoy watching how these forms are being presented and picked up by others. Online poetry forums have facilitated the presentation and spread of these forms. Some of these forms are ephemeral; but some have developed significant followings. A few, like the Fibonacci and the Syllabic Haiku, have their own journals and forums.
I have become fond of these forms. I think what I like about these forms is that it brings out a craft approach to poetry. The basic idea is that you shape words to a pre-existing template, which in the case of syllabic poetry is the syllable and line count of the form. I think it resembles a potter making a cup. All cups have a similar form, a shape that allows them to hold liquid. But within that common shape infinite variation is possible. Similarly, all Cinquain share a common syllabic shape, but within that shape infinite variation is possible.
I also like the sense of being part of a poetic community; that is to say when I compose in a syllabic form I feel that I am connecting with others who have written in the same form. I like that sense of connection
I think of a syllabic approach to English language poetry as a ‘third way’; I mean that it is neither free verse nor metrical verse. Because syllabic poetry does not count stresses it is non-traditional. The result is that syllabic poetry often has a more conversational quality to it than traditional verse. Because syllabic poetry is shaped by counting, it differs from free verse. Syllabic poetry in English is ‘formal’, but it is non-traditional in its approach to form: hence I think of syllabics as a ‘third way’.
Personally, I started out writing free verse. But I’m the kind of person who needs a formal structure in order to maintain focus. I find that when I write free verse my poetry tends to wander and quickly become obscure. This isn’t true for everyone, but it is an aspect of my own personality. An imposed frame helps me in being more articulate and communicative. For this reason I have, over the years, become more and more immersed in the syllabic forms that have so recently emerged in English language poetry. I find that each form has its own tone, or ‘meaning’ (‘meaning’ isn’t exactly the right word, but it is in that direction). The form itself embodies a certain feeling. The Cinquain, for example, with its closing 2-syllable line, has a strong sense of closure and cadence. In contrast, the Fibonacci (with a syllable count of 1-1-2-3-5-8, etc.) opens up and has the feeling that it could continue; it doesn’t have that same sense of closure that the Cinquain has. I have similar observations for the other syllabic forms; these are subjective, but also meaningful.
These syllabic forms are fun and, at the same time, challenging. Like a potter shaping clay, or a baker shaping flour, or a gardener cultivating plants, the syllabic poet grows poems in the garden of various forms. On this upcoming 100th anniversary of syllabics in English language poetry, I am optimistic for the future of these syllabic forms and the syllabic approach in general.