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Tetractys, the New Haiku of England


A new form of poetry is burgeoning in the world. Based on the tetractys, a Pythagorean figure, it is inspired by the emphatic and ephemeral nature of the haiku.

The tetractys or Tetoraukutes is a rectangular figure made of ten points ordered in 4 lines, with one, two, three or four points per line. Within the Pythagorean School, it held a great importance as a mystical symbol, since they considered it to be the number of the universe —because it includes all the geometric dimensions. Euclid, the classical mathematician, believed that the series 1,2,3,4 had a mystical meaning because the result of adding the numbers is 10, the number of everything. He dignified the figure with its own word: tetractys.

Throughout history there have been few instances when a poetic form worth studying was invented. This is one of them. Based on this Pythagorean figure, British Ray Stebbing came up with a new syllabic composition. Just like the tectractys, the verse consists, in the first place, of a single syllable; the second has two, the third three, and the fourth four and so on until the last has ten syllables. If it is centered (in the fashion of concrete poetry) then the shape is that of a triangle.




on tiny feet -

as any ballerina, light and neat

If you turn it upside down, then you create the reverted tetractys:

As windblown, random, as subject to chance,

our short days drift

- on thin threads



These examples belong to the work of Stebbling himself. Due to obvious syntax and formal matters, translating them is somewhat problematic. But it would be interesting to create a tectractys in other languages, Spanish for example (which considering how hard it is to find single syllable adjectives poses its own challenges, among others). Stebbling notes:

The tetractys could be the British answer to the Haiku. Its challenge is expressing a complete thought, profound or cosmic, witty or wise, en the narrow space of twenty syllables.

This format can also contain forty syllables, if you put two word triangles together:



on a strand

as frail as fine

as a migrating spider’s silken line

. As windblown, random, as subject to chance,

our short days drift -

on thin threads



In fact, there are many possible combinations that can be explored, to pass the time lost in a mystical format that plays with different possibilities.

According to the author, the perfect tetractys would satisfy the following criteria:

1. the correct syllable count,

2. meaningful words (e.g. not the, a , an) in the single-syllable line,

3. line breaks that make sense, ie. conform to normal syntax, not separating words that quite obviously form a unit of meaning.

(If 2 and 3 did not apply, writing a tetractys would merely involve taking a twenty-syllable line and chopping it arbitrarily into the requisite lengths – it doesn’t take a poet to do that!)

In addition to these the normal criteria for good poetry apply:

4. effective use of imagery,

5. effective choice of words,

6. appeal to the ear, certainly by rhythm, possibly by use of other sound effects (rhyme, alliteration etc),

7. and lastly, and most importantly, appeal to the intellect and the emotions.

The tetractys presents difficulties, but as every good poetic format, it has many rewards also. Its form includes a naivety of sorts which requires patience, just like the Haiku, by the way.

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