Syllabic verse is a poetic form in which there is a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line

History of Syllabic Verse

Syllabic verse is a poetic form with a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line, as well as per stanza. The meter of syllabic verse poetry is determined based on counting the number of syllables, rather than the number of stresses, which is a term describing when a greater amount of force is used to pronounce one syllable over an adjacent, unstressed syllable. Hence, syllabic verse disregards the foot (meter system), and is common in poetic forms such as the haiku and tanka. Traditionally, syllabic verse poetry emerged in syllabic-timed languages, such as French, Japanese, Polish, and Spanish, and as opposed to stress-timed languages such as English and German. By the twentieth century, some of the English poets who pioneered the poetic form are Robert Bridges, Elizabeth Daryush, and Dylan Thomas. Among American poets who adopted syllabic verse as their standard metric system are James LaughlinMarianne Moore, and Kenneth Rexroth.

Examples of Syllabic Verse

One of the American poets who popularized and largely wrote in syllabic verse is Marianne Moore. Her poem “The Fish” is a classic example of a fixed syllable count per line (in parentheses) and the repetition of the number of syllables for the following stanzas:

         Wade (1)
         through black jade. (3)
                Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps (9)         
                adjusting the ash-heaps; (6)
                       opening and shutting itself like (8 /9)

         An (1)
         injured fan. (3)
                The barnacles which encrust the side (9)
                of the wave, cannot hide (6)
                       there for the submerged shafts of the (8)

         sun, (1)
         split like spun (3)
                glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness (9)
                into the crevices— (6)
                       in and out, illuminating… (8)

Another example is by Marianne Moore is her poem “Appellate Jurisdiction,” which uses a pattern of nine-syllable lines and a four-syllable line refrain; and In my craft or sullen art” by Dylan Thomas, where each line has seven syllables, except the last with six syllables:

         In my craft or sullen art
         Exercised in the still night
         When only the moon rages
         And the lovers lie abed
         With all their griefs in their arms,
         I labour by singing light
         Not for ambition or bread
         Or the strut and trade of charms
         On the ivory stages
         But for the common wages
         Of their most secret heart…