Writing is Counting: Why I Tally-up Syllables to Draft a Poem
I always count syllables to write poetry. Not only when scribbling sonnets and haikus (both of which dictate a set number of syllables per line), but also when penning free verse into my notebook. At first glance, it might seem silly to return to the grade school habit of tallying 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, especially for indulging in a poetic mode that typically alludes to a lack of formal restraint. Though as Christopher Cannon once indicated, elementary practices (like literacy training) are not necessarily distinct from literary production, because, as he puts it, “the alphabet is often learned as a poem.” While numbers aren’t taught through the same rhyme and rhythm of the iconic, lullaby-like alphabet song, simple counting is inherently tied to melodious, literary acts.
My syllable counting praxis originated from Bruce Meyer, when he was my teacher for an undergraduate creative writing course at the University of Toronto. Reading Jared Carter’s poem “The Gleaning” to his students in a Northrop Frye classroom, Meyer described something called “the contract line,” or, in other words, the average syllabic length that serves as a model for each line of verse. As Carter’s poem offers about seven to ten syllables per line, Meyer described “the contract line” as a reminder of the sonic echo that stabilizes, and thus holds the potential to destabilize, the musicality of verse.
I’ve been obsessed with counting syllables ever since Meyer’s workshop class. Gripping a fountain pen or stubby pencil in my right palm, I tap the fingers of my left hand. Moving from thumb to pinky, as though I’m playing scales on my violin, I add up the rhythm of a line in my head before I scribe lyrics onto paper. I always re-read my lines over and over, drumming fingertips to add, subtract, replace words. I often write till all lines are generally the same sonic length; this process isn’t a matter of formal neatness, but rather my practical engagement with free verse’s sonic plasticity. Counting syllables helps me simultaneously establish and subvert the musicality of a poem’s voice. As G.E. Clarke once wrote, cadence “responds to the two main challenges of vers libre: Where to end a line; how to end a poem.” Counting the verse of vowels, I’ve conditioned myself to feel the elasticity of cadence: 6 syllables serve brevity, seven to nine promote ease, ten stretches your breath.
My favourite line-length to date? Eight syllables. Often writing concrete, narrative poetry, I find that eight syllables offer a balanced, un-exhaustive image of sound, a steadiness that may be thrown-off unexpectedly by either a shorter or longer line.
Hyperawareness of the number of syllables allows me to relish in the tangible musicality of free verse: words are simultaneously audible beats and visual notes. As I carve out the shape of my lines, erasing and swapping-out one word for another sound, another inkling, I re-discover the poem, the language itself. This doesn’t mean I over-edit, wringing out every last bit of mysticism from the letters. I simply use the metronome in my brain to search for poetry’s music.
It is only when I realized the alphabet’s numerical tune that I began to truly understand the liberties of lyricism: a line’s self-contained, syllabic length is what allows the poem to extend and enjamb beyond itself, to break off and start again. Free verse isn’t formless. Free verse wields the finiteness of a word, and in 1-2-3—the poem has already begun to sing.
-Antonia Facciponte, 2021