Viator Poetry Form: Loop Through Repetition

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Here’s what the Viator poetry form is:

The viator is a refrain-based poem type created by the Canadian poet Robin Skelton.

It uses a refrain on the first line that becomes the second line of the second stanza, the third line of the third, and so on.

The poem ends on the refrain, such that the number of lines per verse and number of verses per poem is equal.

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

Let’s get right to it!

Viator Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Viator

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The viator is a type of poem invented by the 20th-century Canadian poet Robin Skelton that relies heavily on the continued repetition of a single refrain throughout the poem.

Unlike various other refrain-based poems, there are no particular expectations for meter or rhyme scheme.

It’s fascinating that Skelton would come up with such a simple form, chiefly because he’s most famous as the author of The Shapes of Our Singing, an extensive guide to various forms of poetry from around the world.

It seems unusual that a scholar who is most renowned for having learned of forms from across the globe would prioritize simplicity in one of his own forms, but nonetheless, that’s exactly what the viator represents.

Basic Properties of the Viator

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Rhyme StructureOptional
OriginCreated by Robin Skelton in the 20th century
PopularityFairly uncommon

How Is the Viator Structured?

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The viator uses the first line of the first stanza as a refrain.

It becomes the second line of the second stanza, the third line of the third, etc.

This culminates in the final verse of the entire poem, in which the refrain acts as the final line of both that stanza and the poem itself.

This ultimately means that the poem will also have the same number of lines per stanza as it has stanzas in the poem.

So a five-stanza viator will have five lines per stanza, a six-stanza viator will have six lines per stanza and so on.

One interesting quirk of this is that the total number of lines in the viator will always be a square number, with no exceptions. (4, 9, 16, 25, 36, etc.)

This is one of many examples of the unusual relationship between mathematical patterns and poetic structure, so I thought it would be worth mentioning here.

Unlike a long list of older forms that utilize refrains, the viator does not have an inherent structure or rhyme scheme baked into the poem.

The poet is free to add one or both as desired, but the form itself allows for flexibility.

Example of a Viator

Woman using laptop at balcony of her apartment at the night.

Day at the Office

The keyboard goes clickety-clack
as time ticks down on the clock.
It all fills up the old office now,
the doors long since locked.

Time passes slowly now.
The keyboard goes clickety-clack.
A dozen or so worker drones
pouring their lives into their Macs.

We wait again for the day to end
so that we can all go home.
The keyboard goes clickety-clack
but we all feel so alone.

If that clock doesn’t break soon
then a few of us might crack.
Still we loyally do the math.
The keyboard goes clickety-clack.

The above example takes advantage of the refrain’s constant presence by using it to emphasize the dull and repetitive nature of a workday.

Refrains can be used to showcase things like obsession, repetition, and cyclical thoughts, so they lend themselves rather well to topics about daily life.

There are plenty of ways to make a refrain much more dynamic, though, which I’ll briefly go over in the next section.

For now, just take note of the specific positions of the refrain. The refrain of a viator moves down one line with each subsequent verse.

This can make adding rhyme interesting, since the refrain adds a bit of a twist to how you would normally handle a rhyme scheme.

Tips for Writing a Viator

Woman with pen writing on notepad in the outdoors.

Even more than other refrain-based forms, the viator lives and dies by how you utilize the refrain.

A poorly chosen refrain will extinguish any hopes you may have of writing a good or even half-decent viator, but choosing a good refrain isn’t as hard as you might think.

One method is to simply use a line that can stand alone.

In the example, the line is a single concrete image. “The keyboard goes clickety-clack.”

This can work as the independent clause in a longer sentence or as a sentence entirely on its own if it needs to.

Using an independent refrain makes the task of working around it much, much easier.

If you will be utilizing rhyme, then there are some serious concessions to consider.

First, the refrain would need to have an end sound that you’re comfortable with using in rhymes as many times as necessary.

Second, your rhyme scheme must take into account every possible position of the refrain.

Let’s say you want to write a four-verse viator and have the rhyme scheme be ABAB throughout the entire poem.

It can’t be done. By virtue of the refrain’s position, it ends up as the ‘A’ sound in the first verse and the ‘B’ sound in the second.

As a result, the poem can not have a consistent ABAB rhyme scheme from start to finish.

Each individual verse can have its own internal ABAB rhyme scheme, but that’s as far as that dream goes.

Young woman inspired by nature sits on the bench in park writing a poem or song in a notebook.

Of course, rhyme is not mandatory for a viator, but just take note of how you’ll have to handle the spacing of the end sounds if you do intend to use rhyme.

Switching end sounds from one verse to the next tends to work best.

Also, you may not want to write a particularly lengthy viator.

Due to the nature of squaring, each extra stanza adds a substantial number of lines to the final poem.

By the time we get to just ten verses, you would already be writing a 100-line poem. (10×10)

Another downside of long viators is that the refrain can get very repetitive very fast.

The longer verses of longer viators do help with breaking up the monotony, but your reader will eventually feel as if the poem isn’t actually going anywhere if you push your luck.

Be aware of the limitations of both the form and the topic you’re working with.

I’m not trying to say that long viators can’t be good, but if you’re going to go big, then make sure you have enough ideas going into the poem to justify the extensive length.

Poet’s Note


It would be nice if more poem forms were this simple.

The viator really does scratch at the most fundamental aspects of poetry.

It simply uses repetition and a pattern to generate a ruleset that results in unique and innovative poems when well-written.

It’s proof that Skelton really did know exactly what makes a poem tick.

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