Diary of a Poet

Syllabic Verse

I was reading my Christmas present, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963, when I came across a mention of syllabic verse. Plath’s poem “Mussel-Hunter at Rock Harbor” is written in stanzas of seven lines, each line containing seven syllables. In a letter to her brother Warren, dated June 11, 1958, she writes about the poem and the form she used:

“This is written in what’s known as ‘syllabic verse’, measuring lines not by heavy & light stresses, but by the numberof syllables, which here is 7: I find this form satisfactorily strict (a pattern varying the number of syllables in each line can be set up, as M. Moore does it) and yet it has a speaking illusion of freedom (which the measured stress doesn’t have) as stresses vary freely.” (247) 

Here’s the opening stanza to “Mussel-Hunter at Rock Harbor:”

I came before the water-
colorists came to get the
good of the Cape light that scours
sand-grit to sided crystal
and buffs and sleeks the blunt hulls
of the three fishing smacks beached
on the bank of the river’s
back-tracking tail.

The “M. Moore” Plath refers to is, of course, Marianne Moore. Here is Moore’s poem “Appellate Jurisdiction,” which uses a pattern of nine-syllable lines and a four-syllable, repeated refrain:

Fragments of sin are a part of me.
New brooms shall sweep clean the heart of me.
      Shall they? Shall they?

When this light life shall have passed away,
God shall redeem me, a castaway.
      Shall He? Shall He?

Kenneth Rexroth wrote in syllabic verse, in lines varying from seven to nine syllables, which, according to him, “mimicked the natural cadences of speech.” You see this in his poem “Parity:”

My uncle believed he had
A double in another
Universe right here at hand
Whose life was the opposite
Of his in all things – the man
On the other side of zero.
Sometimes they would change places.
Not in dreams, but for a moment
In waking, when my uncle
Would smile a certain sly smile
And pause or stagger slightly
And go about his business.

According to The Handbook of Poetic Terms(every writer should have one on her desk), “Writing in syllables is a terrific way to ‘even out’ a poem, and is useful also to writers who feel stymied when deciding where to break their lines.” 

For a poet whose “mind was brilliantly off-kilter, its emphasis falling in surprising places,” to quote Dan Chiasson’s review of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963, which appeared in the November 5, 2018 issue of the New Yorker, this “satisfactorily strict” form worked very well. 

I just tried this with a recent poem. It started as a free-verse poem, then morphed into a prose poem, but is now a series of bouncy, mostly seven-syllable lines. I like the odd breaks this form imposes, and I think it gives the poem a kind of energetic forward motion it didn’t have before.  

Give syllabic verse a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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