Do you remember learning about “syllables” in school? Your teacher may have begun the lesson by reminding you of those important letters in the alphabet called vowels. In English, these would be A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y. Vowels are “speech sounds” created by the free passage of our breath through our throat and mouth. We can make vowel sounds without moving our tongue or lips. (All the other letters of the alphabet are called consonants and require work by our tongue and lips.)

Every word in English must have at least one vowel, so must every syllable.

Next, your teacher probably helped you hear the different number of syllables in words by asking you to clap out the number of vowel sounds in different words. For example, she would say the word homework, and you would clap twice: home (clap), work (clap). If she said arithmetic, you would clap four times: a (clap), rith (clap), me (clap), tic (clap). She then told you that each of these “sound-claps” was called a syllable. The word homework has two syllables; arithmetic has four.

Poetry often uses syllables to make its words sing with a special kind of rhythm or music. Such poetry is called syllabic poetry. Syllabic poetry means that each line of a poem has a certain number of syllables. Sometimes each lines has the same number of syllables. Other times each line has a different but regular pattern of syllables per line. You can either write a syllabic poem that has rules or make up your own rules. Here are some examples to get you started.

Haiku was a form of poetry that started in ancient Japan. In English, the form has three lines and a total of 17 syllables: the first line has 5 syllables, the second line has 7 syllables and the third line has 5 syllables. This type of poem doesn’t rhyme, and is usually centered around nature or seasons. Here is an example for the winter season:

Moonlight shines silver
on newly fallen snow banks,
reflecting night’s stars.

Tanka is a form of poetry similar to Haiku. It also started in Japan, but Tanka has five lines with a total of 31 syllables, as follows:

Line 1 – five syllables
Line 2 – seven syllables
Line 3 – five syllables
Line 4 – seven syllables
Line 5 – seven syllables

And here’s an example of a Tanka poem:

Silently, snow flakes
fall cold and wet on my tongue,
a flavorless ice cream,
making me wish for summer
and the taste of pink lemonade.

Cinquain was a form of poetryinvented by the American poet Adelaide Crapsey. The poem has five lines with a total of 22 syllables. Originally, the cinquain only had rules about the number of lines and syllables, but later versions combined these rules with others about what the lines should contain. Simple form combines the syllable rules with

Line 1 – one word of two syllables (subject or noun )
Line 2 – four syllables (adjectives or words describing the subject)
Line 3 – six syllables (verbs or words showing an action of the subject )
Line 4 – eight syllables (a feeling or observation about the subject)
Line 5 – two syllables (another name for the subject) one word

An example of this kind of cinquain is:

Three fat ice balls
filling up our front yard.
I love your coal nose and knit cap!

The Etheree is a syllabic form named after its inventor, the Arkansas poet, Etheree Armstrong Taylor. Consisting of ten lines, the Etheree starts with a one syllable line, then adds one syllable per line, until the last line of ten syllables for an total of 55 syllables. In other words the syllabic structure is as follows:


An example of such a poem is:

flutter down
between branches
of the old oak tree.
The air smells cold and clean,
but we stand silently warmed
by thick gloves and knit caps, watching
a speckled fawn on short, shaky legs
stumble behind its mom, crossing our yard.

The winter is a great time to snuggle up with a cup of hot cocoa and write poetry. Try using some of these different forms of syllabic poetry and send your best ones into The Magic Dragon.

OPTIONAL (For further practice):

  1. Try writing a “linked cinquain.” This is a poem where each stanza is made up of a single cinquain. In order to “link the cinquain,” the first word of each stanza must be the same word as the last word in the previous stanza. (It is extra cool, if you are able to make the last word of the last stanza be the same as the first word of the first stanza.)
  2. Try writing a “double etheree.” This is a poem of two stanzas where the first stanza is a regular etheree (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 syllables), but the second stanza reverses the pattern (10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 syllable)
  3. Invent and write your own form for a syllabic poem. It could be one where all the lines have exactly the same number of syllables (e.g. 8-8-8-8) Or maybe the syllable will alternate like they do in Haiku or Tanka’s (e.g. 4-8-4-8-4-). Or perhaps you’ll invent a poem with a pattern of syllables. (e.g. 10-5-2-5-10). Give your invented form a name and send an example into The Magic Dragon.