Introducing: the Decima

I’ve invented a new form! At least, I’ve come up with a set of writing constraints that amused me, and look vaguely form-ish. For reasons that will (hopefully?) become apparent, I’ve called it the decima. As far as I can find, it isn’t already a word for anything else, and sounds vaguely right.

It came out of a- writing exercise from Diane Lockwood’s The Crafty Poet II: A Portable Workshop, where it was (in turn) based on David Barber’s poem, “Aria”. Her exercise had a lot of interesting constraints, which I began with, but diverged from. The thing that really fascinated me was the way his poem turns on the idea of monorhyme – keeping the same rhyme sound for the end of every line. You don’t tend to come across it much in English poetry, although it does get used in Welsh and Middle Eastern poems. Offhand the only English forms I can think of that really do that are the Skeltonic, (although it doesn’t have to keep the same rhyme the whole way through) and  Crambo (which is a game rather than a form).

A digression on the subject of rhyme, and generating sound palettes.

Whenever you sit down to write something that is so heavily reliant on a single rhyme sound, you’re going to need to spend some time coming up with as many words as possible that will fit. And I do a variation of this with my students quite often – taking dominant sounds from someone else’s poem, and using them to generate a new trove of words that in turn generates a new poem. Rhyme keys on the final stressed vowel sound, because we only really hear the stressed vowels: everything else tends to decay to the schwa (aka “the English central mid lax vowel”– the neutral “uh” sound that we hear as the first syllable of ago or the final syllable of butter. The simplest way of generating the sound palette of your word is to start with the vowel sound, and think of all the words you can that use that vowel sound and one or other (or all) of the consonant sounds that are with it in that syllable. Perfect rhyme requires you to match that final stressed vowel and everything that follows it to the end of your word. To come up with rhymes for the word vowel (technically a single syllable word, although you can kinda hear a second syllable after the w: a hint of an ul) you need to look first at words with that strong ow vowel sound: how, wow, plough, thou, wow. To make a perfect rhyme, you need to match the following sounds too – the (or ul, maybe). Owl is the obvious one. Fowl, prowl, howl, yowl (weird how many animal ones there are) foul, cowl. Not to mention towel, dowel, bowel. Disavowal would also be accepted by most people. But if you don’t mind moving away from perfect rhyme, you can do some other interesting things. Words with any combination of stressed ow and an audible l will feel like close sonic cousins. That’s why plough earlier felt good. We‘ve changed the order of the key sounds, but they’re still nice and clear. Lout would also chime nicely, or flounder. Blouse. Cloud. Flower. You get the drift. These are all variations of slant rhyme. (Not to be confused with pararhyme, which keeps the consonants the same but changes the vowel sound. Vowel / veil / veal for example, or  moon / man / main / mean.)

Ahem. End of digression.

Aaaaanyway … I really enjoy playing with rhyme, so I found myself assembling a poem from some interesting combinations of polysyllabic rhymes. Some were perfect rhymes, some were slant rhymes. Some used two separate words to give the required sound. (Which I think is called mosaic rhyme. That one is really fun, because it slightly disguises things. ) And gradually, a form emerged from my mess of scribblings. I’m not going to give you the actual original poem here, as I’m hoping it will get published somewhere first. But I will give you the rules, and a throwaway example.

Key features of the Decima:

      • Ten lines;
      • ten syllables per line;
      • all lines end with the same rhyme sound;
      • some slant rhyme is permitted, but not wrenched rhyme;
      • the rhyme sound should be polysyllabic (that is, more than one syllable long).

Within that basic template there is a fair bit of free play. Words that are technically two syllables will often elide into a single syllable, depending on where the stress of the sentence falls. The reverse is also true – as with vowel above, it’s not uncommon for a single-syllable word to be pronounced as two syllables, depending again on the pattern of stress in the sentence leading up to it. (Fire, or fi-yer? Ev-er-y or ev-ry?) You will need to have at least a couple of perfect rhymes in there, in order to set the rhyme sound. But the discrimination between the vowel sounds you hear will depend on where you learned English – can you hear differences between pour, pore, poor, paw, and pa? (Try the last one with a Southern US accent – think that’s the man that shot my pa!) Or merry, marry, Mary? (I could – and do – go on at length about this. But will restrain myself here.) Plus there’s the question of whether a line with ten syllables is really ten syllables long … how about the syllable-worth pauses that you need to add for rhythmic purposes? Places where you take a beat, or leap forward? So even that simplest rule – the ten syllable per line count – is a more elastic thing than it might at first seem. (And don’t get me started on the way that ten syllables feels if you tend to be very rhythmic in your writing …) Some latitude is permitted, as long as the basic pattern is still there underneath.

So there you are. A form is born!  I think that technically makes you its godparents …


How do you write a decima? Easy.
Ten ten-syllable lines, just like these. See?
But there’s a risk of rhymes getting cheesy,
so vary your pauses. Make it breezy
and nimble. Don’t just name the Uffizi,
wedge in a rhyme without the Medici
being part of your poem. Appease me
with suppler rhymes: fleecy and greasy
for instance, to set readers up, tease the
last of your rhymes into place. Done. Easy!

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