A Short Essay on Syllabics: Part 2
Continuing with the short essay that Daryush wrote about a syllabic approach to English language poetry, in the next paragraph Daryush focuses on lineation. Daryush writes,
“First, . . . 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.”
In metrical verse there are three means for indicating a line break: 1) the metrical beat, 2) grammar, and 3) rhyme. Daryush points out that in a syllabic approach we cannot rely on ‘steps of regular stress’ to indicate a line break. Therefore, the other two must carry the weight and be relied upon to tell us that there is a line break.
Here I would like to point out that the meaning of a line break is that there is a caesura, a pause, in the flow of words. Often it is where one would take a brief breath before continuing. It is this caesura which gives the reader/listener a sense of the shape of the poem.
This is also why, I think, in traditional English poetry a line begins with a capital letter. The capital letter functions in the way that a bar line in music functions. Technically music does not need bar lines and there are forms of notation that do not use them. When I briefly studied Japanese music I discovered that their traditional notational systems do not use them. But the bar line assists the musician by letting the musician know where the beat will fall, it is an explicit assist. Similarly, the beginning capital letter of a line of poetry reminds the reader that this is the beginning of a poetic unit; in the case of syllabics it signals the reader that this is the beginning of a group of syllables. It is simply helpful and considerate of the reader to offer this kind of assistance.
Returning to the essay, Daryush continues,
“The first few lines of a syllabic poem should when possible be complete sentences or phrases.”
The reason for this is that when grammatical structure and syllable count are coordinated the reader/listener is assisted in accessing the shape of the poem. When the two are divergent, it is difficult for the reader or listener to perceive a shape with any clarity. The effect of this is that the work drifts into ordinary speech, the essay, the diary, etc.; and the poetic effect is simply lost.
Daryush seems, as mentioned in part 1, to have in mind syllabic poetry where all the lines are the same length. And her observation about grammar and line would apply strongly to that kind of poetry; say the syllabic sonnet. Daryush, as far as I know, never wrote in forms that use a very short line. I define a very short line as four syllables or less. A remarkable number of popular syllabic forms use very short lines, including the lanterne, the tetractys, the fibonacci, and the cinquain. How would Daryush’s advice function for a very short line?
Personally, I have taken the approach of writing a list, usually of nouns, when writing very short lines. I believe this is consistent with the overall advice given by Daryush, though she does not mention it. Each item on a list has its own integrity, a wholeness; but when combined with the other items creates an overall collage of meaning. I found this especially helpful with the opening lines of the fibonacci (1-1-2-3 . . .). I have, in general, found it unsatisfying when a sentence is chopped up and distributed among very short lines. It feels forced and the specific shape of the form feels lost. There are exceptions. Dabydeen’s approach to the tetractys often takes a sentence and chops it up. But Dabydeen is careful to distribute the sentence so that it falls into clear grammatical units or phrases, so that one can still feel the sense of the shape of the tetractys. However, when, for example, a prepositional phrase is split among lines, this undermines the shape of the specific form and it is difficult for the listener/reader to comprehend what form the poem is in. I have often observed this kind of writing in short syllabic forms and in general I think poets attracted to these forms might consider adhering more closely to Daryush's advice in this matter.
“Rhyme is almost indispensable . . . “
Rhyme is the most powerful marker for communicating a line break in the English language. I think that Daryush makes an excellent point here. Personally, it was my study of Emily Dickinson that opened my understanding to the power and scope of rhyme. For the syllabic poet rhyme is an indispensable tool. A consistent use of rhyme will communicate to the reader/listener that shape of a poem. In addition, rhyme is pleasing to the ear, people enjoy its presence, and it gives the poem a musical feeling. Finally, rhyme makes the poem more memorable.
I wish I had read Darrush’s essay years ago. Perhaps the long route I took to some of these same conclusions would have been shortened. On the other hand, it is pleasing to discover that similar conclusions are reached regarding lineation when pursued independently. My own journey started out in free verse and it was a slow process to a syllabic approach. And that slow process was a gradual discovery that in order to write syllabic poetry it was necessary to put aside the norms of today’s free verse lineation.
Modern free verse typically ignores grammar in a process that is referred to as radical enjambment. This means that there is no coordination between grammatical structure and line breaks. This is not an inherent quality of free verse. For example, Whitman almost always breaks a line at a grammatical unit. But it is a very widespread usage among today’s free verse poets. I find it puzzling; it strikes me as fickle and arbitrary. In addition, it seems to be thumbing its nose at the reader, refusing to offer even minimal assistance in the communication of meaning. I’m not sure why radical enjambment is so widespread or how it started. But I have become convinced that in order to write effective syllabic verse such an approach needs to be put aside.
This short little essay by Daryush reveals a very thoughtful poet who must have spent a lot of time pondering the subtleties of English language prosody. It is filled with insight and tips which syllabic poets can apply to their own work. It is my hope that Daryush’s poetry will be reprinted and that syllabic poets will find in her work both fine poetry and a rich resource for their own efforts.