What Is a Syllable Poem?
Syllable poems, or syllabic verse, are distinct from accentual-syllabic poems and purely accentual poems. Whether you are writing syllable poems for a class, for fun, or determining whether to define a poem you’re reading as a syllable poem, a quick overview of syllabification and of poetic form will help.
To write or analyze a syllable poem, you need a basic grasp of the way words are divided into syllables. In English, syllables must have a vowel sound. For example, the word "water" has two vowel sounds, which divide it into the syllables "wa" and "ter." Some words can be pronounced with different syllabification, for instance, you could read “fire” and “poem” with either one or two vowel sounds. Dictionaries can help determine how words are divided into syllables if there’s doubt, but the pronunciation is very important for poetry.
Syllabic verse is any kind of poetry that is defined by the number of syllables in each line. It’s relatively unusual in English poetry, which is mostly accentual-syllabic -- that is, the meter and form is determined by both the number of syllables and the emphasis on each syllable, whether it is stressed or unstressed. Dylan Thomas’ poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art” is a famous example of English syllabic verse, with seven syllables to each line. It begins, “In my craft or sullen art / Exercised in the still night / When only the moon rages.” If well executed, syllabic poetry tends not to draw attention to its careful syllabification.
Haiku is an ancient form of Japanese poetry that counts sounds, as opposed to words. Its traditional form is three lines, with five sounds in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line. English composers of haiku use syllables to reflect the traditional haiku structure, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line. They frequently include a startling pairing of images, as does this haiku by Richard Wright: “I am paying rent / For the lice in my cold room / And the moonlight too.”
Another form of Japanese poetry that counts sounds is tanka poetry. Its traditional form is five lines, with a sound pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. Many English versions of tanka poetry count syllables in that pattern. However, as the English form has evolved, poets have frequently reworked each line as five syllables, moving the focus away from a strict traditional count to preserve what they see as the purpose of the form: to crystallize a moment in time. This tanka by Liam Wilkinson is an example: “like paint / off an old shed / these few flakes of memory / along the path / of my grandfather’s mind.”
Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.