Psycho-Syllabics / Confessing to Syllabics
from PN Review, May–June 2016
‘I, too, dislike it’, wrote Marianne Moore, referring to poetry – and she must have included syllabic poetry because she was and remains its pre-eminent practitioner. Her opinion is not unusual. My impression is that contemporary syllabics, where the organisational principle in the line is the number of syllables, never was and still isn’t popular. I hear conversations between poets about which journal editors won’t accept a submission in syllabics. I know poets who write in syllabics but hate to be asked about it and dismiss the fact. Peter Groves has listed the judgments of anti-syllabicists including Basil Bunting (‘silly’), Michael Hamburger (‘cannot see the point’), Adrian Henri (‘redundant’), Peter Levi (‘uninteresting’), and John Heath-Stubbs (‘totally spurious’). Thom Gunn, discounting his own superb examples, said he used syllabics only to get away from traditional English metre and onto free verse. Donald Hall described that process:
Syllabics was a way of holding on to number while avoiding iambic. I rhymed on the off-stress, pretending that English was French. From syllabics I took the leap to various types of free verse. I felt this necessity to break out of the cage I had made for myself […]
Even this exercise-led approach to syllabics hasn’t helped it. A creative writing MA student told me recently that her tutor had warned her against syllabics. She isn’t sure why.
I also wonder. But then I’m fascinated by the syllable and all its actions. The syllable is the conventional, language-led atom in every English-language poem. Like any atom, it isn’t the smallest bit of material, being typically a consonant plus a vowel plus perhaps another consonant. But it’s wonderfully stretchy. It can be as simple as O and as convoluted as Christ. For this reason alone, counting a syllable as one unit can’t confine a line any more than identifying a foot will straitjacket its rhythmic variety.
My fascination isn’t new. Shaping a poetic line by counting the number of its syllables has been practised in too many languages to pick any out, though I’m learning Welsh because that’s a language very close to the English border and its historic syllabic practice is clearly worth reading in the original. I don’t include these practices in my narrow definition above of contemporary English-language syllabics. Languages have different ways of using syllables: weight, duration, stress, accent. There are hundreds of years of academic discussion about the English syllable which I occasionally dip into, for sport. Robert Bridges, poet laureate from 1915 to 1930, took syllables seriously. That was a period when poets and critics battled about the syllable’s contribution to metre. Bridges tried using classical syllable effects in his major and most popular work, The Testament of Beauty. It’s numbingly hard to read nowadays despite the appealing loss of final ‘e’s for short syllabled words like ‘hav’. But Bridges’s effort had one welcome result. It influenced his daughter, Elizabeth Daryush, who understood from her father that the normal speech stresses of English syllables could offer an exciting sound, and one differing from traditional metric verse. She also realised that a breakdown in regulation could push her poems into a post-First-World-War society.
Daryush is possibly the first English poet to write in modern syllabics. She attached a note toVerses: Fourth Book (1934), a collection mixing metrical poems with syllabic poems:
The poems without line-capitals are those written in syllabic metres (by which I mean metres governed only by the number of syllables to the line, and in which the number and position of the stresses may be varied at will) and are so printed as a reminder to the reader to follow strictly the natural speech-rhythm, and not to look for stresses where none are intended.
Her most famous and attractive use of syllabics, perhaps, is ‘Still-Life’:
Through the open French window the warm sun
lights up the polished breakfast table, laid
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one –
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
butter in ice, high silver coffee-pot,
and, heaped on a salver, the morning’s post.
(Selected Poems, Carcanet, 1972)
Conversational speech rhythm fights against the memory of metre in these lines. Matthew Francis, one of the most able of contemporary British syllabicists, echoes Daryush’s reasoning: ‘Avoiding metre is part of the point, because it allows a far greater rhythmic variety than is possible in metrical verse; I found my [syllabic] lines sounded more natural and conversational.’ That’s true in Daryush’s stanza, and the sentence that composes the whole of it gains importance – but so do the less conversational end-rhymes and subtly patterned alliterations and assonances.
There is also a political point here, which Octavio Paz raised in an analysis of poetry and history: ‘The importance of syllabic versification reveals the imperialism of discourse and grammar.’ Latin languages, he said, are ‘the offspring of Rome’. Paz meant non-English, weighted-language syllabicism. But for those poets writing in a post-colonial setting, such as Zulfikhar Ghose, who supported modern English syllabics during a spat in the Times Literary Supplement in the 1960s, such formal reductionism controls the language of empire while it throws off imperialism. If Paz saw accentual poetry as rebelling against syllabically-controlled metres, Daryush and Ghose wanted to rebel against them too but used syllable count to do so. To clarify, Daryush adds a warning in her note: ‘The bulk of English “syllabic” verse is, of course, not really syllabic in the strict sense, but more truly accentual.’
Pre-twentieth-century theorists had differentiated the two.
W. H. Auden, who was influenced by Marianne Moore’s syllabics, wrote a clerihew, presumably for students:
Among the prosodists, Bysshe
Was the syllable-counting old sissy
The accentual pest.
In 1583, far earlier than Edward Bysshe (1702, The Art of Poetry) and Victorian Edwin Guest, Sir Philip Sidney said: ‘Now, of versifying, there are two sorts, the one ancient, the other modern; the ancient marked the quantity of each syllable and according to that, framed his verse, the modern observing only number (with some regard of the accent) [...]’ and, again, he didn’t mean by the latter what Daryush meant by syllabic poetry. He meant that accentual-syllabic poems count both syllables and beats. Later, accentual poems counted only beats. Free verse counts neither. Modern syllabic poems count only syllables.
To train the ear not to care that, outside a poem, you might not actually pronounce a phrase in such a way as fits a metrical pattern – to hear in your mind that phrase pronounced both ways at the same time, and without irritation – is just one of the wonders accentual-syllabic poets can perform. Free verse poets and syllabic poets must rely on unregularised speech stresses because they don’t set up a metrical pattern that can drown out everyday speech.
But syllabics offers some glories. For one thing, it can work closely with the page. Cheap paper and the digital document have encouraged an exploitation of the space around words. In her zeal to represent the actuality of contemporary speech, Daryush, in her first quote above, shows she was driven past syllabics to typography. Her father also; The Testament of Beauty does not use line-capitals, his accentual lyrics do. This unnatural stress, which tips the balance of a line, remained popular for half a century more. Other poets, such as Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore, used syllabics to dominate the page visually far more than Daryush. B.S. Johnson wrote, in his ‘Note on Metre’ in 1964:
Since most poetry reaches its audience in printed form, a metre which is easily apprehended visually, as any syllabic one is, would seem to be more appropriate than those metres which depend upon sound, like stress or quantitative ones.
In ‘Ocean’, for example, Matthew Francis creates a space suggesting both depth and surface well suited to a repeating multi-stanza of declining syllable-length lines:
The surface of the ocean. It’s too deep here for waves.
There is only the slight swell that turns into them
thousands of miles away. A bubble rises,
which you’d never notice, except this time
you’re closer to it than you might be
and have been to where it came from.
Now it’s dispersed in the air –
another ocean, or
part of the same one,
the deep blue world.
The cinquain, a much-loved syllabic form invented by Adelaide Crapsey, who died in 1914, seems to rustle the paper it’s written on:
Old winds that blew
When chaos was, what do
They tell me the clattered trees that I
This syllabic pattern is 2 4 6 8 2 and it is scenically intense. Interestingly, ‘Night Winds’ allows two meanings to emerge from the final line, governed by reading a stress on the first or second word. Is the poet being told to weep? Or told something that makes her weep? There is an iambic lilt throughout and its echo suggests the latter but the syllabic pattern, picking out the contested phrase in two confronted syllables, helps resist this. That is a strength here, in my view, and Crapsey must have intended the double effect in a poem that is wholly governed by a question asked in a reflective syntax.
A long cinquain-repeating poem, such as Rachel Wetzsteon’s ‘Commands for the End of Summer’, gives the reader an internal sense of the 2 4 6 8 2 rhythm as much as a metre could. And here is a problem: what if Wetzsteon had varied one of the stanzas to be, instead, 2 4 4 8 2? Many would denounce this. Should not simple things – and counting has a nursery plainness about it – be pure? But if lines that are iambic pentameters may be purely iambic for, say, as little as twenty-five percent of the time, because monotony is fatal and the mind establishes a pattern at the beginning of the poem and deals with variety very well thereafter, then why is it a problem that the syllabic line occasionally varies from its set pattern? Is this because the reader can’t hear most syllabic lines in the way you hear an iambic line and therefore the reader has to trust the poet to deliver the number of syllables promised – and when you find the number is out by three you feel duped? Though why should you, if the poem is successful as a whole? Many excellent syllabics-controlled poems offer occasional miscounted lines. Matthew Francis points out, ‘both Daryush and W. D. Snodgrass miscount the syllables in places, and the fact that this doesn’t make any real difference to the effect of the poem is an interesting theoretical problem’. Miscounting, anyway, is an opportunity to make a point to the reader, even if the point is not understood for a while afterwards.
But this is not, perhaps, the major source of argument between syllabics-lovers and naysayers. The question that has not, possibly cannot be answered satisfactorily, is this: how do you define or categorise contemporary syllabics? Is it, helpfully, a metre? Some say yes because metre means counting and a syllabic poet counts syllables, of course. B.S. Johnson defended what the Spectator had referred to in 1962 as a ‘new fad’:
Defining metre as the meaningful arrangement in regular patterns of one (or, rarely, more) of the constituent elements of language, it is as legitimate to use syllables as the elements from which to form metrical units as it is to use elements like stress or quantity.
But many believe such a form is not truly measured because you do not hear the count of syllables. In that case, the syllabic poem is actually free verse. At perhaps a bathetic level, which such arguments tend to reach, at least there is more measure in a syllabic line or set of lines than in prose. In fact, if you use a regular five-syllable line, you will hear a two-beat metre in the background, as many on both sides of the argument have pointed out. The ten-syllable line offers the choice of an occasional strict pentameter and it’s easy to pattern in lines with odd numbers of syllables when you want to switch off the musicality. Though, if you read enough, let’s say, thirteen-syllable lines, you will start to recognise them.
But the rhythm of syllabics is, in a way, discounted and, says critic Timothy Steele, there being no pattern of accent is a principle of syllabic verse. Steele’s point is an important one. Just when you begin to discern a regular iambic or trochaic line, you will be thrown off course. Key poets in the prehistory of modern syllabics understood this. John Donne added meaning to his critique of courtly life when he subverted the pentameter so completely that he was accused of only counting syllables, in lines worse than deficient metrically:
Then man is a world; in which, Officers
Are the vast ravishing seas; and Suiters,
Springs; now full, now shallow, now drye; which, to
That which drowns them, run. These self reasons do
Prove the world a man, in which, officers
Are the devouring stomacke, and Suiters
The excrements, which they voyd. All men are dust
Marianne Moore also knew that what you hear, together with what you see on the page, can make a pleasing and accurate dissonance. You look at her famously complex one-off stanza patterns of syllabically-counted lines while hearing natural-sounding long sentences. Here are the last three stanzas of ‘The Fish’:
marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice –
all the physical features of
cident – lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.
Moore used syllabics to whip up lines from material found in scientific prose. So does David Morley, as he explains here:
Take any good field guide you have to hand and open it at random. You will find precise, and sometimes magically incisive, description, and names that seem to fall from fairytales, and a language as precise as it is strange to the ear. In the following example, I have broken some prose verbatim into counted syllabic lines; I have placed episodes of linked description into stanzas, and lineated in a way which forces the eye to move around the page to find connections and answers. Nevertheless, it could also stand as prose given the right context; little has been changed:
The Alps –
replaced by Norway Spruce
in colder, wetter areas –
in the Tatra and Sudetan
plains and mountains of Poland.
Long cultivated and abundant:
in older plantations, shelterbeds
away from cities and the driest, drabbest areas.
tough and rot-resistant;
Tatra and Sudetan forms make
variety plantation trees.
Variants: ‘Pendula’, that
broad and depressed-looking tree displays
exaggeratedly weeping shoots;
even rarer, spectacularly weeping cultivars
Coming at that choice of syllabics for prose from another position, W. D. Snodgrass said: ‘I chose [the purely syllabic metric] for my poem, hoping it might open some new rhythmic possibilities to me, but hoping also that it would let me drop into occasional stretches of flat prose which might balance the rather “poetical” quality of the images I had collected.’
This dulling of the poetical has intrigued poets as different as W. H. Auden and Philip Levine, and has been found useful in a variety of styles, from traditional lyrics such as Simon Armitage's ‘Goalkeeper with a Cigarette’, to radical conceptual offerings such as Kenneth Goldsmith's No. 188.8.131.52 – 10.20.96/6, which arranges read and transcribed texts by number of syllables. In this poem, entries of one syllable compose chapter one, two-syllable entries compose chapter two, etc. Raymond McDaniel, reviewing Goldsmith's work, refers to this syllabic tour de force as 'obsessive'. It may be that the fact that syllabic patterns are number-based, a use of number with no other rhythmic requirement, strikes readers as obsessive. But this is an argument that could be used about the usually well-regarded approaches of Oulipo, a group that believes constraint aids creativity.
Besides, number can be poetic. A poet might want to employ the rich symbolism of number for a poem as Sylvia Plath did in ‘Metaphors’, a nine-line poem about pregnancy, with nine syllables per line. And it’s not just to accommodate number that poets drop syllables from the beginning of words (apheresis) or the end (apocope) in ways once thought beautiful but that can now sound unacceptably poetic. In a poem narrated by a pig going to the abattoir, the use Philip Levine makes of central-syllable reduction (syncope), to suggest a socio-political reality, is delicately poetic:
In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble
suffering children, suffering flies,
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see.
(‘Animals Are Passing from Our Lives')
The word ‘suffering’ can be pronounced with either two or three syllables. Given the seven-syllable repeating line, the first two uses of ‘suffering’ must be read with two syllables and the third with three syllables. The word is thus drawn out to enhance the irony on which the poem is founded: consumers/bosses, whose choice it is to eat pork and ignore animal/worker suffering, cause greater suffering than flies or children. They know dead pigs/workers suffer. The pigs suffer twice but the word ‘suffering’ for them loses a syllable, twice, and is dematerialised. It is the three-syllabled suffering of the consumers which must be borne in the market of meat-eaters to which pigs and workers must go: ‘I’m to market’, says the narrator. Thus this poem, about capital and the relations of labour to the market, evolves its metaphor through its syllabics.
Levine’s poem depicts the brio of suffering and the form supports that, as it does poems that engage with suffering only on a cognitive level. While they do not offer a guide to meaning, as heavy metrical feet do, nor autonomy to the line as free verse does, syllabically counted lines allow the qualities of hesitancy and unstated order to fit poems to our era of philosophic stress. Is truth a meaningless cultural structure, like syllabics? There are mathematical applications of syllabics, such as Tony Leuzzi’s series of poems based on Pi, but a syllabic poem is not always a wholly confident presentation of counting in the way maths is. I find that the relation of the syllabic count to lines is more like the clutch of a hand on a swaying rope bridge over a deep chasm – not sure of itself at all.
But I’m reversing roles here. The line is vulnerable while the count is remorseless. Roselle Brown says of her book Cora Fey: ‘I chose syllabics as a form partly because that meant I would have to ration my words. They would be very dear, they would be very costly. Every time I wanted an adjective I would have to beg for it in my syllabic line.’
Goldsmith’s shattering of our cultural icons by number, Moore’s cold and cutting enjambment, a line torn at ‘on’ or ‘a’, a word ripped into parts, shredded syntax bleeding down a page: these syllabic executions turn the reader’s eye toward the line ending, not away from it, and toward the night. Syllabic poems make good chillers. What is a syllabic line but an impure hybrid of irregular rhythm and ghosting metre? What does a stanza in contemporary syllabics sound like but an interstitial strophe? Monstrosities, both. Michael Waters uses his characteristic ten-syllable line to freezing effect:
The Baptist’s beheaded Arab fashion:
Throat slit with the long sword, then the gristly
Tendons of the neck severed with the knife
Still sheathed behind this executioner’s
Back – the beheading’s not quite over yet,
Like the tape loop broadcast on CNN
(‘Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio', Gospel Night)
Waters’ syllabic devices are not overdone; they stabilise horror with the dulled unemotional handcuffing of each line. The line could go on and say more but it’s not allowed. And there’s no point. Given it takes three seconds to pronounce a syllable (whatever its length by letter) and thirty seconds is the limit of our attention span, a ten-syllable line constitutes the limit of the auditory moment, as Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel have suggested. Just when a listener can’t take any more of Waters’ material, the horrified brain stops listening. But the horrifying number starts again, conscripting the reader. Syllabics is a good choice for this interplay between meaningless neural experience and the build of an uncomfortable poem. Anyway, after the first line beats a regular, breezy and short swipe of the cultural knife, and the second identical number of syllables delivers a long killing thrust ending on the almost forcefully separated syllables of ‘gristly’, the remaining lines sound too tired to be pacey. Expectation, which is delivered by metrical beat and is similar to hope, is stripped away. The last line drags its feet. It has nothing rhythmic to offer.
While here and there in quiet corners poets are keeping calm by counting, I don’t see syllabics as a peaceful practice. It is more likely the psychopathy of the line and possibly this is why so many poets dislike it.
* * *
About the Author
Claire Crowther has published three collections of poetry. The first, Stretch of Closures, was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh Prize. Her current collection is On Narrowness (Shearsman).
General Editor: Michael Schmidt
Deputy Editor: Luke Allan