Alfred Corn


Syllabic Verse

A consideration of poems using the syllable-count method should begin by stating what a syllable is.  It’s been defined as “an uninterrupted segment of speech, consisting of a vowel sound, a diphthong, or a syllabic consonant, with or without preceding or following consonant sounds.” The definition is clear enough, but in fact contemporary linguistics has called into question the very concept of the syllable as a distinct entity in the onward-flowing sound-stream of spoken language. My concern here, though, is the written language that precedes vocal performance; and there’s no doubt that texts for poetry have for more than 2000 years been composed with the concept of the syllable in the foreground of creative consciousness.

Returning to the definition just given, I should clarify the term “syllabic consonant.”  Our first thought is that every syllable must have at least one vowel, but the nasal and liquid consonants by themselves can in fact produce a complete syllable as, for example, “mmmm,”  “llll,” and as well in the elided negative composing the second syllable of “isn’t,” “hadn’t,” “didn’t,” “couldn’t” and “shouldn’t.”  The fused consonants “n” and “t” do form a syllable without a vowel. The youngster’s common but non-standard pronunciations “hadunt,” “couldunt,” etc., can be regarded as evidence that Anglophone speech prefers to put a vowel in every syllable. All right, but the standard “n’t” syllable and several signifying grunts common in our speech—“mm,” “hmm,” “tsk” and “shh” prove that a syllable can do without one. These have sometimes appeared in literary texts, though perhaps the “Gr-r-r–there go, my heart’s abhorrence!” that opens Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” may not qualify, considering that we do pronounce that drawn-out syllable with the schwa vowel “e”.

Most readers of poetry know that traditional English-language prosody is based on counting the verbal stress of words along with their syllables; and they may also know that Romance languages and Asian languages use only the syllable count as a poetic measure. In French and Japanese, this is inevitable because those languages do not have any fixed word stress like the those found in the Germanic languages. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese do have word stress, but poets in those traditions have followed the French model for versification and only count syllables. It’s likely that the use of syllable-count lines in English-language poetry of the early twentieth century arose in response to the prestige of French poetry of the nineteenth century as well as the discovery of the Japanese haiku.  With varying levels of success, in the 1890s English-language poets began writing haiku, a form that was favored a little later by the Imagiste movement. As for the French model, Robert Bridges was an early experimenter in his Testament of Beauty, a long poem written in lines imitating the French alexandrine (a twelve-syllable line), where only syllables and not stresses were counted. We might also cite Adelaide Crapsey, whose cinquain verseform depended at first on counting stresses, in heterometric lines containing as few as two and as many as four iambic feet. Later, the cinquain form adopted the syllable-count method as an alternative to iambic meter. Noting these precedents, it must still be acknowledged that the major pioneer in syllable-count meter was Marianne Moore. And who better than she, someone ready and willing to provide the exact number of the “eyes of Juno” on the male peacock tail feathers, to develop a method requiring patience and arithmetical rigor?

With Moore we see an intricate development of syllabic verse. She doesn’t base her syllable counts on any of the standard accentual syllabic meters, but instead devises what could be called “syllabic templates” with varying numbers of syllables for the lines in a stanza. For example, her poem “The Fish” is composed in five-line stanzas with the following syllable count:  1 – 3 – 9 – 6 – 8. After the first stanza establishes this template, all seven subsequent stanzas stick to it scrupulously. All but the last lines of these stanzas rhyme, but enjambment in several instances works to de-emphasize the rhyming.   The template approach is used in many of Moore’s syllable-count poems, notably in “The Steeplejack” and “The Mind Is an Enchanted Thing.” So far as I know, she never duplicated one of her invented templates. Each poem dictated a new format.

I earlier mentioned Robert Bridges. No one has yet claimed major status for him, but even so he was an important early influence on Auden. Bridges’s syllable-count verse inspired the younger poet to try his hand at it in the 1929 poem “Which of you waking early and watching daybreak”.  Adopting a count of twelve syllable per line, Auden stayed close to that measure but didn’t adhere to it absolutely, departing sometimes from the required count by one or two or three syllables, plus or minus. In some instances he elides adjacent vowels, counting them as one syllable; but then he sometimes does not elide them. Overall the syllable count hovers around the number twelve, departed from and then returned to. We can conclude that he regarded syllable count as a guideline, but not a straitjacket, an approach shielding him from the charge that he is using a mechanical method in for writing poetry.

About Auden’s later ventures in this direction, there is more to say. He several times referred to syllable-count poems as “quantitative verse,” misapplying the term that designates the mode of versification used in ancient Greek and Latin poetry. That classical system is based on the length of syllables, its two best-known stanzas being Sapphics and Alcaics. Of course in classical stanzaic poems, a regulated number of syllables is the rule, though the number of syllables differs according to the line in question. For example, Alcaic quatrains follow the syllable count 11 – 11 – 9 – 10, but the lines also take syllable length into account. Auden’s imitation of classical quantitative verse follows the syllable count of his models, Horace in particular, but makes no effort to regulate a pattern of stresses nor, certainly, the length of syllables.  As with his classical models, the number of syllables changes from line to line in stanzas that are often quatrains; but the pattern of variation remains constant (or nearly so) in all subsequent stanzas.  Lewis Turco terms this approach “quantitative syllabics,” but I think doing so is misleading because it conjures up the irrelevant system used in classical poetry. Less confusing is the term “syllabic template verse,” mentioned above in the discussion of Moore. Auden, after his move to the U.S.A., became familiar with Moore’s work but he didn’t adopt her approach to devising a syllabic template.  He keeps a nearly uniform syllable count per line or else bases his syllable counts on the lines and stanzas of Greek and Latin standard forms.

Richard Howard would probably cite Auden as the most immediate influence on his early poetry, and it is notable that Auden was one of the three judges on the panel awarding the Pulitzer Prize to Howard’s second book Untitled Subjects. But Howard’s first book had a rather strange and uninviting title: he named his book Quantities. The versification of the poems in it was based on syllable count, and I suggest that Howard had Auden’s designation of the syllable-count method as “quantitative verse” in mind when he chose that title. However, he didn’t follow Auden’s practice of adopting the syllable count of classical Sapphics and Alcaics but instead invented syllabic templates of his own. In that respect, his practice resembles Marianne Moore’s rather than Auden’s.  Here are the opening stanzas of “L’Invitation au Voyage,” the first poem in Howard’s first book, each consisting of six lines with a syllable count of 7 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7 – 5, with the two five-syllable lines indented as an extra signal of the differing count:

                        Wandering with you the shore

                        That parallels our river

                                    Like a second thought,

                        Singular and sad I wore

                        The habit of a lover

                                    Almost inside out.

            Night in its black behaving

            Muffled every lamp and dyed

                        The wooly season,

            Pig-iron boats were leaving

            For the lake, slowly the loud

                        Bridges had risen:

We notice that line ends are marked with rhymes or half-rhymes so that the usual objection made to syllable-count verse to the effect that it produces lines that can’t be heard as lines is overcome. Further, even though Howard uses odd rather than even numbers for his lines, they can still be scanned as being cast in iambic meter (with a few trochaic substitutions) as well as instances of initial truncation and final hypercatalexis.  Nevertheless, his syllable counts are rigorously maintained throughout the poem so that no anapestic substitutions for iambic meter appear, though perhaps at least one pyrrhic/spondee incident occurs in the first two feet of the line: “For the lake, slowly the loud…” So what we have here is a kind of hybrid: syllable-count verse that is also accentual-syllabic verse.  There should actually be no surprise in this. Marianne Moore, in her syllable template poems sometimes reverts to iambic meter while keeping the established syllable count. For example, consider the regular iambic meter of the last stanza of Moore’s “The Fish”:

               evidence has proved that it can live
               on what can not revive
                        its youth. The sea grows old in it.

In syllable-count verse there is always the possibility of incorporating, if only in one line or several lines, a regular pattern of stresses organized within the syllabic template. It’s easy to imagine expressive reasons for doing so. In the Moore stanza cited just now, description has given way to philosophic reflection. The sense of a conclusion is reinforced by a reversion to sound patterning the audience normally expected a century ago.  The stanza concludes with a rhythm associated with certainty and finality.

Howard moved away from this fusion of syllable-count and the accentual-syllabic system in later books, retaining only the syllable-count approach. After all, one justification that had been offered for this innovative system was that it could provide new rhythms for verse, while still retaining some concept of measure. Several of the Modernists wanted to “break the back of the iambic pentameter,” as William Carlos Williams put it. Howard’s later poems often devise extremely complicated syllabic templates, much like Marianne Moore’s though never rhyming, as hers sometimes do. Another difference is that he does not divide the text into stanzas but instead presents it as one flowing column, with the template repeated but even so not separated by a space from the previous one. Indentations usually signal lines of the same count, and the visual result in itself is impressive. Here is the opening, from Howard’s second volume, of a dramatic monologue or rather a letter, in the voice of Richard Strauss, titled “1907: A Proposal from Paris”:

               Herr Privatdozent, it is not my way
                                              to intervene
                    in matters of this nature:
               our livelihood
               is, after all, our very life—I know.
                                              Yet so truly
                    inviting is the venture
               I would have you
               embark upon that I must run the risk . . .
                                              As a German
                    musician, hear my offer,
               my overture, [the sentence continues]

The template here consists of four lines having the syllable count of 10 – 4 – 7 – 4. Line two has the largest indentation, with line three a smaller one. Line four reverts to the left margin. The templates are not separated by a stanzaic division but run on, often enjambing between lines as well as successive templates.  There are no rhymes, nor is a pattern of metrical feet maintained consistently, though some lines could be scanned as iambic. It’s fair to say that part of the poem’s appeal is its mise en page, the visual effect on the printed page. I once asked Howard why he devised his elaborate syllabic templates. His answer: “Not only must a poem sound like a poem, it must look like a poem.”  Certainly, his disposition of lines on the page shows the hand of conscious artistic intervention. Now, we can’t actually determine by ear alone where Howard breaks his text into lines. And that brings us again to the objection often made against syllable-count verse: Given that you can’t usually hear where the lines end or begin, what is the point of counting syllables to produce those lines?  Howard’s answer is in part the visual appeal of the poem as printed. You might make the comparison to the construction of church pipe organs: there is no auditory need to put the organ pipes in a symmetrical array, but the visual effect is pleasing. And we, like Howard, know that in the contemporary period poems come to us most often through the medium of print.

I wanted to mention, too, the work of John Hollander, who many times used syllable count as his measure, producing some very fine hendecasyllabics in shorter poems.  No doubt the most astonishing syllable-count work he did was a book-length poem titled Powers of Thirteen. The subject consisted of philosophical reflections on that superstitious number, and the form component poems took was unprecedented. They were thirteen-line sonnets, with each line containing thirteen syllables. The total number of sonnets in the book was one hundred sixty-nine—that is, thirteen times thirteen, or thirteen squared. The result is a book whose total number of syllables can be calculated. In fact, that comes to 28, 561 syllables in the entire book. Not only is Powers of Thirteen an achievement in poetry, it is also some sort of pinnacle in accounting and shouldn’t be omitted from any catalogue of literary curiosities.

Howard was one of Hollander’s closest friends, and chances are they influenced each other in the matter of using syllable count as a verse measure. Anyway, I’d like to return to Howard now. Richard was the first contemporary poet I got to know.  When I showed him my early efforts, he recommended that I divide my poems into lines with a uniform syllable count, and that is what I proceeded to do. As a novice, I didn’t try to devise complex templates like Moore’s or Richard’s, but contented myself with a single count for all the lines in a poem, most often ten per line. Then I became aware that such lines tend to gravitate toward pentameter, a result to be avoided if you are trying to “break its back” or at least shake it up a little.  Later, I introduced variations, for example, lines alternating between seven and nine syllables. Odd-numbered formats seem to produce results with a more interesting rhythm than those with even numbers. And then I sometimes allowed to the lines to fall temporarily into iambic meter for special expressive effects. Eventually a few poems were developed in stanzas having several different counts for successive lines, though none quite so elaborate as Moore’s or Howard’s, which, it seemed to me, can sometimes confuse and obstruct the reading eye.  Nor did these poems dispense with stanzaic breaks as in Howard’s Richard Strauss letter. The stanzaic divisions seemed to improve readability.

I’d like to conclude by citing a poem from my first volume, All Roads at Once, published in 1976. It’s a poem in six-line stanzas, with the syllable count 8 – 8 – 10 – 10 – 10 – 8.  In a couple of instances, I depart (as Auden did) from the required count, but never by more than one syllable. I suppose I wanted to think of the syllable-count method as heuristic, helping me find good lines, yet still not a straitjacket. It was a pattern allowing for small departures, just as clothes stretch slightly when we begin wearing them. A further result of this attitude emerged in the poem’s final stanza, where the syllable-count of each of the six lines was increased by one, giving a new count of 9 – 9 – 11 – 11 – 11 – 9. I think the meaning of the conclusion supports that departure. Here is the poem:


            It was as though I had stumbled
            On an unrecognized need, this
Rich embarrassment . . . . For once, I really looked,
Pressing the glass that defended them,
My native state, my own feelings—from what
            Source—caught up in and congruent

            To the bulge and flow of those forms,
            Splendid in unimaginable
Glazes: clair-de-lune, mirror-black, tea-dust,
Celadon, ox-blood, famille noire, peach-bloom,
Imperial yellow, café-au-lait,
            Fish-roe crackle, and blue-and-white.

            This last one was its own country—
            Silken pillars of milk dribbled
With a blue syrup that slid down those hard
White slopes, improbably assuming real
Shapes: a branch, ravaged with plum blossoms,
            A house, man, or frightened dragon.

            Then, famille noire: I was confused
            At finding myself a moment
In someone else’s dream, as a drooping
Peony explodes; spring through sunglasses,
Onyx skies, the threat of a striped wing. That
            Was plenty. I retreated to

            An unfigured vase of clear green:
            Near-real pear or ideal teardrop,
It seemed to lean up against weight, solid
Impetus, recording the smooth action
Of the potter’s wheel that hidden still whirred
            In the risen gyre of the form.

            Form and color, ancient, modern
            Captors, saying a shape in clay
Can trace the curve of largest concerns, brim
And not overflow with a full version
Of self . . . . I read the supple script of those
            Lines, poems across the trenches

            Of time: You’ve met the past and it is
            Present. The struggle has not ended,
Will not end. Meaning is only a moment
Contained; but form is legion. The rainbow lists
Go on as new invasions spin up from dream.
            Everything still remains to be done.  


Author’s Statement on Beauty

Below the incandescent stars
below the incandescent fruit,
the strange experience of beauty;
its existence is too much;
it tears one to pieces…

—Marianne Moore, “Marriage”

…its wasp-nest flaws

    of white on white, and close-

    laid Ionic chiton-folds

like the lines in the mane of

    a Parthenon horse.

—Marianne Moore, “The Paper Nautilus”

The word “aesthetics” comes from Greek “aisthese,” meaning “sensation.” The beauty I’m focusing on is the beauty of welcomed sensation, perceptions that please us and that we want to stay with. I know that many kind and generous deeds embodying a profound ethical sense can be described as “beautiful,” but I would like to reflect on aesthetic beauty, which is connected to sensation.  It’s not necessary to tell me that contemporary poets feel compelled and are very eager to include abrasive, jarring and repulsive elements in their works, and that these qualities are held to be beautiful in a wider sense.  It’s certainly true that ugliness can be an important component in a work of art, but I would not call it “beautiful.” It’s significant, dramatic, gripping, grotesque, subversive, uncensored: but it doesn’t need, in addition, to be described as “beautiful.”

An encounter with aesthetic beauty stimulates what Freud would call a “positive cathexis” in consciousness. We are drawn to beauty because it gives us pleasure. We want to get closer to beauty. It is related to the human body and face and therefore to eros. Qualities of symmetrical form, curved lines, smooth and shining surfaces, fragrance, softness, harmonized proportion: all these things lead us to prolong our exposure to beauty rather than shrink from it or cringe at its appearance or sound.

If we turn to Nature, we see that it gives us forms and colors used in the design of aesthetic ornament from prehistoric times forward. To dismiss the carefully calibrated patterning of the Ionic order in Greek architecture or the brilliant color contrasts in Native American beadwork or the subtle arrangement of dragons and flowers in Chinese ceramics as merely “decorative” attests to an enduring Puritanism in our consciousness just as it ignores the role of ornament in establishing a vital connection to Nature.  Leaf shapes, flower forms, distinctive marking on fur or wings: all these organic phenomena seem to have evolved in reciprocity with the perceptive apparatus of animals, so that two separate living organisms will be drawn into contact for some purpose or other. Beauty attracts.  And not just organic forms of beauty. The motion and reflective properties of water; the arresting formations assumed by igneous rock; the vague, protean fleece or domes of cloud, the variable and mysterious lights in the night sky, and the regular rise and fall of ocean waves approaching the shore.

Sounds in Nature are nearly always beautiful, and also in music when it sets beauty as its goal. The same for literary art, especially poetry.  Writing can be beautiful by finding verbal equivalents for pleasing visual, auditory or tactile sensations in the real world, certainly, but also in the engaging sound of words and the rhythms those words establish.  Meter in poetry analogously reproduces the rocking of a cradle, which in turn approximates prenatal sensations felt by an unborn child when its mother walks. Pleasure is the keynote, anything but trivial. One way to understand the anxiety and depression undergone by so many millions now struggling with contemporary existence is to observe that they have lost the ability to experience pleasure. Drama, acceleration, explosions and terror are available enough, but pleasure?  I say, Free Beauty. Let her emerge from solitary confinement into light and air, bringing the gifts and consolations that are hers to offer. That involves a fresh exploration of what people once meant when they characterized a person, a landscape, a symphony or a poem as “ravishing.”


Alfred Corn is the author of eleven books of poems, the most recent titled Unions (2015) and two novels, the second titled Miranda’s Book, which also appeared in 2015. He has published two collections of essays, The Metamorphoses of Metaphor and Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007.  Fellowships for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, Connecticut College, The University of Cincinnati, and UCLA.  In 2013 he was made a Life Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge. In 2015 he was a speaker at the opening of a new museum in Wuzhen, China, dedicated to the life and work of the painter and writer Mu Xin.  This past April Chamán Ediciones in Spain published Rocinante, a selection of his work translated in Spanish, and it is also scheduled for publication in Mexico. A new collection of essays titled Arks & Covenants will be published in 2017. This past October, Roads Taken, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Alfred Corn’s first book All Roads at Once was held at Poets’ House in New York City, and next year he will be inducted into the Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame.