Crystalline Poetry Form: Sparkle in Syllables

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Here’s what the Crystalline poetry form is:

The crystalline is a different take on the haiku, redesigned with a western audience in mind.

This poem form consists of a grammatically correct couplet restricted to 17 syllables, which ‘cuts’ from one train of thought or perspective to another one to simulate the Japanese concept of the kireji (literally “cutting word.”)

So if you want to learn all about the Crystalline poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s get started!

Crystalline Poem Form (+ Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Crystalline

A Woman In A Blue Dress Surrounded By Flowers

The crystalline, invented by modern American poet Denis Garrison, is a short poem form meant to combine a Japanese clarity of image with the English concept of harmony in sound.

It’s not especially well-documented and the original page describing it seems to be gone, so it mostly lives on as a ghost on a couple of web sites that reference it.

The premise is relatively simple, however.

The form is essentially just an attempt at creating a westernized variant of the haiku.

The poem is written in a couplet and limited to just 17 syllables, like its eastern predecessor.

Basic Properties of the Crystalline

Crystalline Basics
Rhyme StructureOptional
OriginRelatively new; invented by Denis Garrison
PopularityMostly synonymous with the inventor; rare otherwise

How is a Crystalline Structured?

Crystalline Structure

A crystalline is a couplet (a single verse of two lines) limited to a mere 17 syllables.

The two lines will typically be near-equal in length, with one being eight syllables and the other nine syllables.

There is no specific rule as to which should be first or second.

Longer poems can be written comprised of multiple couplets.

This is similar in practice to the chained poems that were popular in Japanese poetry, dating back to when poetry was more of an oral tradition than a written one.

The couplets need not all necessarily be by the same writer.

English rules of grammar and syntax are expected.

This is a critical distinction, since many poets like to write short poems by omitting capitalization and punctuation, or even by using sentence fragments.

Garrison’s form expressly forbids these practices.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a personal reaction to seeing how many English haikus are written in this sort of ‘no rules’ style.

A “cut” is expected where the poem shifts thoughts.

This is meant to mimic the tradition of the kireji (literally “cutting word”) seen in Japanese haikus.

This cut is usually represented by having the second line have a clearly different image or thought than the first line.

The use of other design elements, such as metaphor, imagery, and rhyme, are left up to the discretion of the poet.

In this sense a crystalline can be seen as a haiku that is allowed (and encouraged) to veer toward the writing styles we broadly associate with English poetry, as opposed to the fragmented unpunctuated haikus that have become commonplace in the West.

Any opportunities to ground the poem in terms of setting are also encouraged, especially if the concept of seasons commonly associated with haikus can be integrated, though this is not a hard and fast rule by any means.

Interestingly, poems in the form are generally expected to be untitled.

I say this is interesting because everything else about the form seems to be an attempt to make haikus “more conventional” whereas this one element is left unaddressed.

Example of Crystalline

Beautiful Girl Sleeping Peacefully, Bright Red Copper Color Hair, Surrounded By Autumn Fall Leaves And Flower Petals, Youthful Calm And Glamourous Princess Of Nature Generative Ai

In darkest days I dare to dream
that light lives on; fighting blight with right.

The above poem is a quick little crystalline in which the only images are darkness and light.

While this perhaps avoids the nature-based images you would expect from a Japanese haiku, it should help to make the moment that the poem “cuts” very easy to distinguish.

The first line, stuck firmly in “the darkest days” is the pre-cut portion of the poem.

The second line, in which the second word is immediately “light,” is the post-cut portion of the poem.

I don’t know that I can make it much more obvious.

One extra trick is employed here.

The semi-colon in the center of the second line enforces a third cut with a caesura (pause, often by punctuation).

This ends up dividing the last segment of the poem further, with the very last part of the poem being five syllables, purposely the same length as the last line of a haiku.

The form gives us the right to use punctuation, after all, so we might as well take advantage of it.

This crystalline also heavily employs alliteration and rhyme, though it notably opts to not have any end rhymes, with all of the rhyme occurring internally within the second line.

All of this is optional, but I thought it would be fun so I went for it.

Always look for ways to enjoy the poems you write.

Tips for Writing a Crystalline

Crystalline Tips

Much like with a haiku, the first step to writing a crystalline is accepting that there are some topics that will not work within the context of such a short poem.

17 syllables just isn’t a lot of space to work with.

You’re unlikely to write the compelling tale of how Cleopatra outwitted the men of Greece to prolong Egyptian sovereignty or some such ambitious concept.

Instead, be satisfied with just one or two very specific sharp images.

Perhaps the moment in which a leaf tumbles to the ground or the amusing sounds of a dog throwing a tantrum as its owner grooms it.

Little moments.

That’s really the key when it comes to short poems.

Do be aware that a crystalline, unlike many western variants of the haiku, does expect you to use mostly correct grammar and syntax.

A thought that might work in a sentence fragment may be harder to work with when you also have to find enough space to actually close out the sentence, but you should (in general) have enough space for at least one clear sentence.

The form is also largely unexplored, so feel free to play with its conventions.

Despite it sounding like a more limited haiku, it’s actually really open-ended in how it lets you choose what techniques you will and will not employ.

Feel free to turn it into a game with yourself, even.

How many times can you use the letter “L” in 17 syllables?

A crystalline doesn’t need to be your magnum opus and it probably won’t be.

That’s fine.

Sometimes a poem is just written to kill a moment or to get you past a particularly nasty writer’s block by just getting something on the page real quick.

There are no invalid reasons to write a poem, so just go with the thought that sticks to your head and see where it takes you.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

To be honest, I have to wonder if this form is just a tiny act of rebellion.

You see, western haikus are often written as if there are no rules.

Even the concept of the cutting word is often thrown out the window in favor of the simple 5-7-5 syllable structure that casual lovers of poetry have popularized.

I’m curious if Garrison just had a small impulse to ‘course-correct’ western haikus on some level when he came up with this form, but I can’t find any declarations one way or the other.

Comprehensive Collection of Poetry Forms: Craft Words Into Art

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