Friday, October 30, 2009

Birth of the Zeno

I’m on a JPat roll at the moment, happy to share news of another contribution of J. Patrick Lewis. He has invented a new poetic form, the zeno! Tricia scooped the news at The Miss Rumphius Effect earlier this week, but I think it bears repeating. I know teachers enjoy introducing the form of poetry to kids, as they model for children the different ways a poem can look and sound. And kids often enjoy this aspect of poetry too—approaching it as a puzzle to solve and understand. And I know poets themselves approach the form and structure of poetry with great intentionality and I’m always curious about why a certain choice is made. Well… drum roll… you can see Pat’s past as a professor of economics in the roots of his new poem form, the zeno. He describes it so:

"I've never invented a new verse form... until now… It was inspired by the mathematical "hailstone sequence," simply explained here…. I call the form a "zeno," so named for Zeno, the philosopher of paradoxes, especially the dichotomy paradox, according to which getting anywhere involves first getting half way there and then again halfway there, and so on ad infinitum. I'm dividing each line in half of the previous one. Here's my definition of a zeno: A 10-line verse form with a repeating syllable count of 8,4,2,1,4,2,1,4,2,1. The rhyme scheme is abcdefdghd. Naturally, I don't expect it to displace the sestina, villanelle, triolet, et al. But it would be grand if they all moved over one seat and made room for it.”

Here are a few examples to illustrate the form:

Nature’s Art Gallery

By J. Patrick Lewis

Wind’s paintbrush strokes in streaks the trees,

a miracle,



it knows without






Traveling by Armchair

By J. Patrick Lewis

You can take a trip by Greyhound,




ocean liner



I prefer a



I think kids will love it—the math of it and the brevity. I know they enjoy list poems and this form suggests a list, but requires a bit more thought and planning. I hope they’ll give it a go. In the mean time, for teachers (and kids) who are looking for other poets who specialize in experimentation with form, look for the work of Paul Janeczko (Poetry from A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers and A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms) and Avis Harley (Fly with Poetry; An ABC of Poetry and Leap into Poetry: More ABCs of Poetry), among others.

And if you're interested in more poetry creation activities, check out poet David Harrison's blog. He is hosting a poetry writing contest each month based on a single word ("dirt" for October) with a chance to vote for your favorite-- and help select Hall of Fame winners, one per month. Next up, David will be posting the word for November on Monday.

Finally, it’s not too late to join the Poetry Friday round up hosted by Jennie at Biblio File.

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.

Image credit:;


Jennie said...

I've seen lots of Zenos today, but I love all your great explanation of the background. Thank you so much for sharing!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks for stopping by-- and for hosting us all!

Alan Summers said...

Looks like lots of fun! ;-)

I'm heavily involved with the local/global "1000 Verse Renga Project" which has included doing workshops/activities with whole schools in a day, or 60 children at a time in 60 minutes for a shisan renga poem. Phew! ;-)

The project is inclusive so renga versefiers have ranged from the age of 2 years right through to 11 years old in schools!

We've included maintenance staff and dinner staff as well as teachers!

All kinds of adults can still take part, so please send a renga verse to:

We have had verses sent in from U.S. libraries to support the U.K. libraries I've been involved with.

We've had poets and childrens fiction writers the States, as well as haiku writers from Africa to Croatia, USA, Europe and elsewhere have sent in verses as well as the public at large.

BBC weblink: BBC 1000 verse renga article

Alan's blog weblink: 1000 Verse Renga blog

If you are interested you could always do a few linked verses together and send them to me as a mini-renga that I can include as an internal renga within the larger renga.

all my best,


Mary Burkey said...

How fantastic! I can't wait to introduce this new form to my school's 7th grade language arts teachers! What a perfect tie-in with the 7th grade social study's focus on Ancient Greece and 7th grade math's unit on fractions. Plus, Lewis has visited many of our Ohio district's elementary schools - slam dunk!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Hi, Mary-- thanks for the note. So glad you found this helpful. It's mutual!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Alan, very cool! I'm blown away by your ambitious renga project! Thanks for sharing that info here.

Alan Summers said...


If you'd like to link to my three liner, fresh from tonight, please go ahead!

Just need a two liner verse after mine, then a three liner and so on from anyone else, and I can add it to the ongoing 1000 Verse Renga Project which is both local and international. ;-)

halloween takeout
a ghost spine T-shirt boy
gets his mom to order

Alan Summers

Mandy said...

Hi Sylvia,
I realize I'm late on commenting on this post, so I hope you still see this...
This is kind of a response with a request for info. You seem to be the poetry guru, so I was sure you would know something about this. I'm writing a poetry picture book that tells a narrative story about the Montgomery Boycott. I am including different forms of poetry and it was suggested that I include various forms of "open form" verse especially speciifc to african american poetry. Would you happen to have information about this topic: such as call and response, praise poems, jump rope rhymes, or any other type of forms for "open form". Thanks,

Sylvia Vardell said...

Mandy-- cool project. No, I am not familiar with any writing specifically about African American poetic forms-- specifically for children. You might look at the work of Marilyn Nelson and Carole Boston Weatherford for models...
Best of luck!

Alan Summers said...

Hi Mandy,

I've asked your question and as soon as I've heard I can post it here, if that's all right?