Novem Poetry Form: Chisel Poetic Majesty

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Here’s what the Novem poetry form is:

A novem is a poem form consisting of four-syllable, three-word tercets in which the positioning of the disyllabic word is different on each line.

The poem form celebrates consonance and was loosely based on the Burmese than-bauk.

Its inventor was Robin Skelton, famous author of The Shapes of Our Singing.

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

Let’s get right to it!

Novem Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Novem

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The novem is a poetic form invented by Robin Skelton, the author of The Shapes of Our Singing.

It is explained in that same book as having been inspired by the Burmese than-bauk.

The novem leans into the number three in its form and structure, being tercets of three words each.

Skelton spent an inordinate amount of time studying international poetry, with The Shapes of Our Singing still standing as one of the most comprehensive collections of forms ever written.

The novem stands as another reminder of the love he had for poetry in all its forms.

Basic Properties of a Novem

Girl in a sweater is writing in a notebook in a warm and cozy atmosphere.
Rhyme StructureNone
OriginBased on the Burmese than-bauk

How Is a Novem Structured?

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The novem consists entirely of tercets.

Each line is a mere three words, with two of the words being monosyllabic and the last being disyllabic, for a total of four syllables per line.

The disyllabic word’s position also shifts on each line of the tercet, with it appearing last in the first line, second in the second, and first in the third.

The form also has an unorthodox obsession with consonance.

It’s expected that one consonant sound will be repeated four times in each verse.

From a writer’s perspective, this makes the poem more about experimenting with consonance than about any of its other limitations, though they naturally factor into the overall feel of the poem.

The short lines and verses do make it difficult to maintain a steady throughline or narrative but since the poem can continue across many verses, it ends up being largely a non-issue.

Novems tend to veer more toward light and aesthetic expressions than dedicated storylines.

Novems have no dedicated rhyme scheme or meter.

It may be best to avoid adding one entirely in order to keep to the typical structure, but it is of course up to the individual writer to make those decisions.

Example of a Novem

Pretty Asian girl outdoor in the countryside standing by wooden door in rustic theme.

Like a leopard
that lounges here
lazy and sly

I am waiting
and always way
away from there

where too many
more options mount
meeting at once.

The rather clumsy example above really only exists to show the general premise of the form.

Each tercet of a novem typically chooses one consonant sound to focus on.

In this case, the tercets are focused around the ‘l’, ‘w’, and ‘m’ sounds.

You might think the obsession with consonance would be the most limiting factor of the form, but it’s actually the combination of the short length of each stanza and the pre-established sequence of the syllables that generates most of the challenge.

Changing the position of the disyllabic word in each verse actually ends up being the hardest element of the poem to work with.

What About the Than-bauk?

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One unique element of the novem is that it has a clear, named parent form in the Burmese than-bauk, so we’ll briefly go over what it takes from its parent form.

Like the novem, a than-bauk is a poem form consisting of three lines with four syllables per line.

Where the than-bauk differs most is in the execution of the rhythm.

Whereas Skelton’s novem concerns itself with the positioning of monosyllabic and disyllabic words, the than-bauk contains a rhyme that is used across the three lines of the tercet in different positions. (The fourth, third, and second syllable.)

Unlike the novem, a than-bauk is typically just three lines.

They are intended to be witty epigrams rather than fully fleshed out poems, often with a bit of snark to them.

Ironically the than-bauk may actually be easier than the novem, despite being only three lines, since the syllable counts of each individual word are irrelevant to the poem.

The syllable counts of the novem are far more limiting than they might initially appear to be.

Tips for Writing a Novem

open empty notebook with carnation flowers.

Think of your first few novems as experiments rather than goals.

While the form may initially not seem too unlike a haiku chain, it ends up being far more stringent due to the awkward rules regarding syllable counts and placement.

The main thing you’ll need to get used to is the effect that moving a disyllabic word around has on your syntax.

There are many common disyllabic adjectives and adverbs, but with only four syllables per line, you won’t have many chances to just throw a random word into your poem.

Instead, the best approach seems to be to focus on how you utilize your verbs.

Pick verbs that move the poem forward and provide momentum, while also matching the syllable counts you need.

This may require some creative placements as you go from verse to verse but try to think of the poem as one long thought broken up into tercets rather than a series of independent thoughts.

Fragmentary writing goes especially well with this form since there’s less pressure on the writer to have the lines be logical and well-structured if the thoughts themselves are presented as fragments.

Adopting a dreamlike or nonsensical tone can go a long way toward freeing up your hands.

The consonance will come quite naturally provided you have a wide enough vocabulary.

Young woman sitting and writing with pen at the checkered plaid on the ground.

If you find yourself struggling with thinking of more words using a certain letter, then don’t be afraid to backpedal and write that entire verse with a different consonance in mind instead.

Don’t despair if your first novem feels more like a completed word game than a purposeful work of art.

While a novem can’t really be compared to something like a villanelle or terzanelle, it’s certainly a fair bit harder than just picking up your pen and hammering out a few lines of free verse.

It will take practice with the various requirements to get comfortable.

Alternatively, you could always chase the poem back to its roots and write a than-bauk.

As strange as it sounds, I personally find the than-bauk to feel much more natural and conducive to expression than its child form, but different writers will have different preferences.

Choosing a form is all about finding what works best for you, your style, and your content.

Poet’s Note


If it wasn’t obvious by now, the novem caught me off-guard.

On the surface it looks like such a short, sweet poem form. I’m not sure if it’s just because I have a very consistent syntax, but I really did find the syllable structures to be surprisingly jarring to work with.

Perhaps you’ll have better luck than I did?

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