English syllable-counters

By and large, I don't see the point of these, other than as a refuge for people who want to write syllable-counting poetry in English without taking flak from aficionados of traditional Japanese forms like the haiku and tanka. With the unaccountable exception of the cinquain, none of these English-language forms seems to have taken off in a big way in any case.

Cinquain * Nonet * Rhopalics * Rictameter *Tetractys


There are two different verse forms called the cinquain, and one of these days I may also cover the other one.  The syllable-counting flavour of cinquain was invented by an American poet called Adelaide Crapsey. It has, unsurprisingly, five lines; the syllable counts are 2, 4, 6, 8, 2. It is popular in the USA, but I have never encountered one in the UK.

Cinquain -
Another form
For syllable counters.
Minimum-effort poetry.
Why not?

People also write cinquain chains, in which the last line of each stanza reappears as the first line of the next.

Sincere thanks to the lady who kindly contacted me with details of her site, which she hoped would change my mind about this form. Certainly the cinquains there were better than any I had previously seen, and had been written by proper poets. Even so, I was put in mind of Dr Johnson's words: "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Japan has a language well-suited to syllable-counting forms, and a vast heritage of them. America has neither.

Despite the popularity of the cinquain, there are several verse forms that seem to me to be intrinsically superior to it; these include the puSlogh vagh, the wayra, and a Lithian form called the bogato, for which see my links page.


A possibly related form is the rictameter, with syllable counts 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, and the first and last lines identical. For instance:

Are forever.
Multi-faceted ice.
Crystals of high-pressure hot rock
Matured for eons in deep dark cellars.
Mined by underpaid labourers.
Cut. Sold. Stolen. Killed for.
Only ever


Rhopalics are exempt from my general criticism of English syllable-counting forms; they're actually quite fun. The idea is that each word in a line should have one more syllable than the one before e.g.

Another Endangered Species
The horses Przewalski denominates
Graze mainly exotic Mongolia.
Dark brownish colouring predominates
But rarely, albinos Ė magnolia.
Must mankindís excesses exterminate
This species majestic? Unthinkable!
Fate isnít predestined, determinate Ė
Letís render Przewalskis unsinkable.

Or you can do the opposite, so that the words get shorter as the line goes on. Or you can alternate between the two, like this:

Bad Habit
Masticating fingernails sadly is
A common displacement activity.
Societyís affronted, finding this
A nasty, barbaric proclivity.

Although my examples rhyme, I have seen others that don't.

None of these recipes is likely to yield great art, but they do provide an entertaining challenge.


Five lines, with counts 1, 2, 3, 4, 10. The one-syllable line must be a "proper, interesting" word - nothing boring like "a" or "the". Example:

The gap
Between us.
Letís call spades spades.
Weíre both vulnerable. Letís break no hearts.


This is an easy one to remember: nine lines, with syllable counts 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

No Net
Like a man on a flying trapeze
I switch between verse forms with ease.
People tell me itís folly
But I think itís jolly.
Warnings unheeded,
Iíve succeeded Ė
Ainít needed
No net

Rhyming is optional, but the majority of nonets I have seen have in fact rhymed.

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 10/07/2005