45 is the magic number for this month’s poetry slam.
45 syllables, that is: the 45 syllables, in decreasing lines, of the form known as nonet. I know this is the point where I usually get bogged down in some big long history lesson, but the fact is that there just isn’t a lot of history to the nonet. There are, however, some genuinely terrible nonets available for your reading displeasure, so I thought this month it would be fun to see if we can’t improve the overall average quality.
The good news:
No scanning! No rhyming! Heck, you don’t even have all the content rules of haiku. Just good old syllable counting.
A nonet has nine lines with decreasing syllable counts from nine to one. That’s it, that’s the rules. Your first line has nine syllables, your second line has eight, and so on down to the last line and its lone, lonely syllable.
The bad news:
45 syllables isn’t a lot of room to work. It’s even shorter than our old 42-word microstory challenge. That means to get a good poem out of a nonet you have to be able to compress images and emotions into a very small space, and that space is even more compacted when you consider line breaks.
Remember: a poem is not just a sentence with a lot of line breaks in it.
Repeat after me: a poem is not just a sentence with a lot of line breaks in it.
Line breaks in a poem are a type of punctuation. Imagine, if you will, writing out a sentence and then adding “/” throughout as a type of punctuation. The / would signal a reader to stop reading and take a deep breath. That’s what a line break does, and that’s why it’s important that you not just sprinkle them any-which-where in your writing and pretend that it becomes a poem thereby. Read your nonet out loud with a full stop at the end of each line to make sure that it’s not just a sentence with a lot of potholes in it but an actual poem.
Some tips and tricks
Confession: I’m borrowing quite a few of these from Christine’s microstory tips and tricks, because you’ll need a lot of the same tools in your toolbox as a good microstory writer.
- Title your nonet something meaningful instead of just “Yeah write #286 nonet” – why waste the chance to set the tone and subject of your poem early without wasting any of your precious syllables? If you’re that worried a reader won’t know what you’re doing, put a brief postscript after the badge like trying a nonet for the first time! and link to this help post.
- Don’t waste space on filler adjectives. Instead, select nouns and verbs with implicit descriptions. For example, use “whispered” instead of “said softly”
- Use sentence structure and line breaks to keep ideas together – or apart. Use capitals at the beginning of sentences but not every line, unless you want to add heavy weight to the beginning of every line. Watch out for word processing programs that do this automatically, and make sure it’s what you want before you hit “publish.”
- Use those line breaks. They give a “strobe” effect to your writing that can be used to either create a sense of speeding up or slowing down. Know which one you’re doing, and make sure it works with the image and feeling you’re trying to convey.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t try to retell all of Little Red Riding Hood in 45 syllables. Just focus on one clear image like the first time “Grandma” looks up from her bed and smiles.
Not all of the following examples are necessarily successful ones; I’ll give you a couple and discuss what’s working or not.
Why do dreams wither in the sunlight
Why do dreams wither in the light
Do dreams wither in the light
Dreams wither in the light
Dreamer in the light
Dream in the light
Dream the light
This nonet uses the decreasing syllable count to good advantage as it goes from question to imperative. Note the capital at the beginning of each line; personally, I think it was a mistake not to include end punctuation for the sentences, which would have added a little more tone.
Spare yourself the alliteration.
While the maids milk and the lords leap,
We’ll keep doing what we do.
The swans won’t distract us,
gold rings won’t dazzle.
Leave birds in trees.
On our toes,
This nonet uses its title very effectively to set up the retelling and twist for the reader. What it doesn’t do well is manage its syllable count and punctuation. Look at the last three lines: why is that comma there? Or the capital D in Dance? The line breaks actually hurt, rather than help, this little story-poem.
form following function – forty-five
intimate syllables having
their inexorable way
with you, leading to only
one conclusion – the
While on the surface it looks like this title was doing exactly what I said not to do, in actuality it’s setting up the subject matter of the poem-about-poeming that follows. The line breaks increase rather than decreasing tension, which leads us to the single-syllable conclusion that the poem itself warns us about. The lack of capitalization pulls the reader form one line to the next; think about what capitalizing each line would have done to the flow of the poem.
We shared our favorite time of year
Where each turn of the bend ignites
Flamboyant reds and yellows
A welcoming heart(h) glows
Silence is golden
You and I
The title here is fantastic, a play on words in either sense. Using “heart(h)” to pack extra meaning into even fewer syllables is also a great technique that doubles back to the double meaning inherent in the title. Unfortunately, the transition from actual sentence structure to broken words, chopped up with line breaks and capital letters, is not so great. This nonet is a pretty good example of how you can have a few things that really work and a few that really don’t and the overall success of the poem becomes much more hit-or-miss and dependent on the reader’s mood. A few mindful changes could have made this poem as strong overall as it is in its best moments.