A Short Essay on Syllabics by Elizabeth Darush
I have had a fondness for the poetry of Elizabeth Daryush for a long time. However, my reading of her poetry has been from anthologies and the occasional poem I found on the web. My interest in Daryush was first stimulated by coming across some of her syllabic sonnets. I found them very attractive. So, now and then, I would do a web search for her poems and was never disappointed with what I found.
Most of the poetry of Daryush is currently available only in used editions. Recently I decided to buy her Collected Poems which was published in 1976. It is a surprisingly slim volume; only 198 pages. But that has its advantages as the collection gives the reader a good overview of her poetry. I will have more to say about the poems in a future post, but what I want to highlight here is a short ‘Note on Syllabic Metres’, written by Daryush, found on pages 24 and 25. I found it to be insightful and one of the clearest presentations of syllabics in an English language context that I have run across. Here it is:
Note On Syllabic Metres
Some of the poems here re-printed are written on a syllabic system, and I should like to comment on what seems to be a wide-spread misunderstanding and under-estimate of what the principle implies: a strict syllable-count, although of course essential, is, in my view, merely the lifeless shell of its more vital requirements.
Accepting that not only a work of art but every aspect of its medium is intrinsically a contrived relation between the known and the uncomprehended, the fixed and the unpredictable, recalling, too, that in accentual verse, as in barred music, the fixed element is that of time, and the unfixed that of number (of syllables or notes) we can assess what part should be played by these factors in a truly syllabic system. Here the position is reversed: the fixed element is no longer time but number; the integrity of line and syllable is challenged by the stress-demands of sense or syntax. The aim of the artist will be so to balance these incommensurables as to reflect his own predicament of thought or feeling, thereby enhancing his consciousness of an imagined relation with the unattainable. The rules for achieving this are by their very nature unwritten ones, but a few guide-lines can be laid down.
In general, meaning should make the greatest possible use of time-variety without losing sight of the number-pattern. First, therefore, the line-ending, the highest point of emphasis and tension, being no longer led up to by steps of regular stress, must be established and maintained by other means. The first few lines of a syllabic poem should when possible be complete sentences or phrases. Rhyme is almost indispensable, but since it can be unaccented need be neither over-obvious nor monotonous. The integrity of the syllable must be ensured by the avoidance of all dubious elisions. Stress-variations are more effective in fairly short lines, and more easily obtained from those with an odd syllable-count, since here there is a choice of two equally accessible stress-counts. Full advantage should of course be taken of the release from stress-restrictions, with their often unavoidable distortions of the natural speech-rhythm. Inversions should now be used only for meaningful emphasis.
With these main principles in mind, the writer replaces the usual regular stress-waves by such other currents and cross-currents, such expectations and disappointments, as may further his purpose. He may, for instance, introduce the same irregularities into the corresponding lines of a lyric’s every stanza; or he may repeat, often with great effect, in the last line of a poem, some startling upheaval in the first; or, again, he may use a similar break in a previously established pattern to express some violent change of mood or thought. These and many similar devices will with practice become the instinctively chosen instruments of the poet whose ear is attuned to their possibilities.
Without them, there will be no poem.
Here are some comments on the essay:
“. . . a strict syllable-count, although of course essential, is, in my view, merely the lifeless shell of its more vital requirements.”
I understand this to mean that Daryush is pointing out that a method of poetic construction does not guarantee attractive, or profound, results. There is a dialectical dance between the learned constructive elements and the unpredictable elements; both of them are combined in a poem. This is true for all artistic, or craft, methods: they do not guarantee beauty, insight, or depth.
“ . . . in accentual verse, as in barred music, the fixed element is that of time, and the unfixed that of number (of syllables or notes) we can assess what part should be played by these factors in a truly syllabic system. Here the position is reversed: the fixed element is no longer time but number; the integrity of line and syllable is challenged by the stress-demands of sense or syntax.”
This is insightful and a useful analog to music. Daryush is suggesting that accentual verse resembles the regular meter of music. In a song that is in 4-4 time, the number of notes in a bar of four beats will vary: one bar might contain four notes, the next six notes, the next ten notes, etc. But each bar will contain four beats.
Similarly, in metrical verse, each line will contain the same number of beats, but the number of syllables can vary. For example, a poem written with four beats per line might have eight syllables if each beat consists of an iamb, or a combination of iambs and trochees. If, however, one of the beats contains an anapest, the line will have nine syllables. If one of the beats is a strong, single-syllable word, the line will contain seven syllables. Even though the syllable count may vary, the four beats remains constant, just like in a song written in 4-4 time.
Daryush points out that syllabic verse reverses what is constant in a line. In syllabic verse the number of syllables is constant, or determined, but the number of beats in the line can vary. Musically, this resembles a melody in which the meter changes. For example, a melody might have two measures of 4-4 time, followed by a measure of 3-4 time, then conclude with a measure of 6-4 time. However, each measure would have the same number of notes. For example, each measure could have three notes as follows: the two measures of 4-4 time would be quarter note, quarter note, half note; the measure of 3-4 time would be three quarter notes; and the 6-4 measure would be three half notes.
Music like this is not very common. But a few composers have, and do use, this kind of procedure now and then; Stravinsky and Prokofiev are two examples. I am not aware of popular songs that use this procedure, but there might be some. Musically you do hear this kind of flow, sometimes, in improvisational passages, where the musician is left to riff on a theme.
It should be pointed out that this analysis by Daryush only applies to syllabic forms that have lines that all share the same count. Her analysis would apply to my quatrain poems, the ones were the syllable count is the same for all four lines. But her analysis does not apply as well to those syllabic forms where the line count varies. In my reading of Daryush’s poetry, I have come across few poems with varied syllable count. As far as I know she did not write any cinquain or syllabic haiku; both of these forms vary the syllable count and the application of Daryush’s perspective here is more complicated.
Take, for example, the cinquain; a five-line form with a syllable count of 2-4-6-8-2. It would be possible to compose a syllabic cinquain in which the first three lines all had the same number of beats. You could do this by varying the metrics: line 1 would have two strong single syllables (something like ‘Stop! Look!’), line two could be two iambs, and line three could be two anapests. In this way you would have a steady rhythm moving from line to line, but it would apply to a varying syllabic count. This is a possibility that syllabic verse can nourish or account for, one that would not be available to a cinquain understood as a metrical form with a gradually ascending number of beats (1 beat, 2 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 1 beat).
I have seen examples in the haiku of Hackett and Wright where the three lines all share the same number of beats, three beats, but I don’t know if this is conscious or simply a result of intuitive skill. But again, there are examples found in a syllabic form, where the line count varies, in which the beats remain constant but the syllable count changes.
In spite of these limitations, I find the analysis Daryush offers to be useful and insightful. It directly applies to syllabic forms in which the count of syllables is the same for each line. This would mean forms like some syllabic quatrain forms (but not the Englyn Unodl Union, one of my favorite quatrain forms from Wales) and the syllabic sonnet. Her analysis also applies to sequences of any syllabic form; and here I think the analysis is worth pondering.
When I read a syllabic form I prefer reading a group of them, rather than a single example. My experience has been that there is a rhythm generated by the count that begins to emerge when reading a sequence of cinquain, or tetractys, or syllabic haiku, or syllabic tanka. It is a kind of pulse that is unique to each syllabic form.
Yet there is also variety to the pulse; it isn’t always a simple repetition. And Daryush’s analysis explains why that variation occurs. If you read a sequence of cinquain, the syllabic count will be the same as you read one after the other, but the number of beats will change as one moves from one cinquain to another. What I mean is, if you take line 3 of a cinquain, you will always have six syllables in the line. One cinquain might have three beats (say 3 iambs), and the next cinquain might have two beats (say 2 anapests), and other variations are possible. Thus when reading a sequence of cinquain (or syllabic haiku, syllabic tanka, or etc.) there is a constant in the number of syllables, but variation in the number of beats as one moves from poem to poem in the sequence.
The effect of this, to my mind, mimics certain natural experiences. I am thinking of watching the flow of a river as one example, where certain pulses in the stream reappear but with intriguing variations. A sequence of syllabic verse offers the listener this opportunity to experience a kind of contrapuntal effect, where variation is experienced above the constant of the syllabic count. I think this is a pleasing aspect of short syllabic forms when they are spoken aloud to an audience in sequence. I first experienced this by reading such sequences myself in collections such as the old ‘Amaze’ journal devoted to the cinquain. I also found it one of the more pleasing features of the haiku of Wright and Hackett. And, of course, syllabic tanka also has this effect. It was syllabic tanka, in translation, that really opened up this aspect of syllabic verse to me. I think that is one reason why the classic anthologies of Japanese tanka have proven so durable.
More to follow in Part 2.