Sunday, January 2, 2022

Sticks! - For The Love of the Syllabic

This is another essay taken from my 2nd year degree.

I was initially nervous after making the decision to take Poetry. I have never read poetry and till this point, had little time to waste deciphering the author’s intent, and quite what she meant by “the heart beats at morning breeze.[1] I had already convinced myself that this would be a dry class, one that I would probably lose interest in very quickly. I was also scared that it was beyond my reach, that I wasn’t intellectually strong enough to tackle the subject.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong – on all counts. 

I quickly became enthralled by how important poetry, both the understanding and writing of, could impact my prose fiction. In a search for better clarity about poetry, I came across a wonderous explanation of the poem. In his note to Louis Untermeyer, Robert Frost describes a poem in such a vivid, visceral way, that I could see how just how important this class could be to my prose fiction[2]. The small exercises we were tasked to do thrilled me and I found my prose fiction growing stronger as word use, language, rhythm and pacing all took on new, unexplored meanings in my own search for fulfilment, “the emotion finding the thought and the thought finding the words” as Frost put it.

The Syllabic Poem

I have fallen in love with the Syllabic poem, and the act of creating it from a piece of prose. My first attempt at this, Bilbo, received some very encouraging feedback, which actually surprised me, but has spurred me on to continue this style, which is a blend of my fiction writing and my growing love for the poem as form.

DiAmaya Dawn, in her article Syllables and Syllabic Verse[3] discuss the many varieties of syllabic poem, showcasing the extreme versatility of this form, and the near limitless ways it can be applied. From the Haiku, Senryu and Cinquain form to the Tanka, Dodoitsu and Etheree, there are many variations the form can take, each with their own unique limitations and requisites.

What really appealed to me was the way in which the syllabic poem would emerge. Taking a piece of prose fiction, we were to identify strong lines, and then impose the syllabic structure upon it. I found this intriguing and extremely rewarding as it had a very clear schedule I could apply to further exercises outside the classroom.

Starting with the piece of fiction itself, I would then spend time finding those lines that told the story or moved the plot forward. Once isolated it was the next task to start editing these down into the line/syllable/stanza form as decided upon.

This had the feel almost of screenwriting, breaking the piece down into acts, scenes and beats, finding a unique rhythm to the story within a set sequence of guidelines.


Sticks! is a syllabic poem taken from a section of a short story I’ve written, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (CLICK TO READ THE STORY).

What I love about this form of writing poetry is the merging of fiction and poem to create a new narrative within several constraints of syllable count per line, and line count per stanza. To limit the length of the piece in order to focus the power of the story, I will also limit the number of stanzas. Being a tabletop gamer for many years, I roll dice to generate these randomly – D6 (six sided)+6 for number of syllables; D6+2 for number of stanza lines. A D20 (twenty sided) will determine the number of stanzas, totally throwing myself into a structured chaos of creativity or childlike play, to paraphrase Hemingway[4].

For Sticks! I will create a poem of 8 syllables per line, 4 lines per stanza and a total of nine stanzas.

What I love about this style is looking at prose in a new way, with an extremely restrictive structure imposed on the piece to come. This really focuses me on word choice, the power of the sentence and conjured imagery, while maintaining a cohesive narrative that remains true to the original piece of writing. It is a fine juggling act which can be overwhelming at times as I try to get the balance between all the needs of the poem just right.

This is a great exercise to invoke when it comes to writing longer pieces, as the same factors can be considered. I really believe that this has helped my prose writing immensely and it will be an exercise I continue to repeat on each new piece of work.

Finding the Rhythm

In an online article by BBC Bitesize, they discuss the rhythm of poetry, taking what I had already learned and expanding this into areas of iambic pentameter and metrical patterns of dimeter, trimeter and tetrameter, all multiples of the standard metrical foot[5].

At one time I would have found such discussion irrelevant and dull, but with this new appreciation of the form, I can look at this and apply it to my prose fiction.

Moving Beyond

These exercises have been extremely challenging, and the reason I took this module – to stretch myself beyond what I feel comfortable with in terms of my writing. To that end I have started to research syllabic-timed languages (Japanese initially as this also ties into my growing interest in Japanese folktales and short fiction) as well as poets who have dabbled with the syllabic verse such as Dylan Thomas (In My Craft or Sullen Art), Marianne Moore (No Swan So Fine) and Robert Bridges’ (Testament of Beauty).

As I move into my third and final year, I will be taking Advanced Poetry, once again stepping outside my comfort zone. Or as Japanese poet Basho, says:


“On a journey, ill;

my dream goes wandering

over withered fields.”[6]



Wow. He stands on the garden path

The hastily thrown newspaper

still in the flower bed beside

Gamma Jacobs, face down. Crooked.


Her head up. Disjointed angle.

Arm outstretched. Wrinkled skin. Fingers

slick with gathered dew. Skirt hem high.

Black slipper hung. Desperately.


Dead old woman. Silent and still,

eyes never moved from the body.

Sally gasped. Karl’s soft sigh of worry.

The silent street. They were alone.


Ian so captivated by

Gamma Jacobs head. Sightless eyes,

Shapeless form on hazel surface.

Ian smiled with truth. “Get a stick.”

[1] Mousumi Guha Roy, The Morning Breeze. Best Poems Encyclopedia [Last Accessed: 17/4/2021]

[2] Robert Frost, The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer. Holt Reinehart, 1963. “A Poem… begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfilment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”

[3] DiAmaya Dawn, Syllables and Syllabic Verse. 2020. Lit Up. [Last Accessed: 14/4/2021].

[4] Quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”

[5] BBC Bitesize, How To Understand Rhythm in Poetry [Last Accessed: 10/4/2021]

[6] Basho. Taken from Hoffmann, Y. (1986). Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing

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