Self-calming with Syllable Counting and Rhyme Finding by Elizabeth Cunningham

In times of stress, I like to count syllables. It soothes me the way the click of knitting needles might soothe others. Finding rhymes is also calming. Below are poems in forms that require syllable count and/or rhyme, the last three written recently. I hope you are all sheltering well.

Villanelle: 10 syllables to a line. A, B rhyme scheme, with repetition of the 1st and 3rd lines.



I have come to love the silence of noon
the cars have all gone wherever they go
I can hear the bees hum their tuneless tune

the noon of the day is the sun’s full moon
listen, the air is still, the wind lies low
I have come to love the silence of noon

the chainsaws silent, no wood to be hewn
no scratching the dirt, it’s too hot to hoe
I can hear the bees hum their tuneless tune

each shadow cast, now drawn close, is a rune
thickets conceal spotted fawns and a doe
I have come to love the silence of noon

this refuge from noise, a sweet daily boon
a full body blessing, crown to tiptoe
I can hear the bees hum their tuneless tune

each noon is a moment, passing so soon
the wild meadow flowers before we mow
I have come to love the silence of noon
I can hear the bees hum their tuneless tune

American Ghazal: 12 syllables per line, 3 lines per stanza, 6 stanzas that can also stand alone.

…between ancient roots

outside doing something else I turn and see them,
snowdrops thrusting through dead leaves beside a snowdrift
I drop everything, pick up a rake, clear their bed

the garden, an infant crowning from winter’s womb
labor intensive tenderness for this newborn
and then again in the dying time next autumn

in summer, weeding, making way for bloom and fruit
watering, watching as the whole green world matures
but now it is the end of the bare time, bone time

the end of resting inside or questing over crusty snow
to learn the secrets of hollow and rise, the ways
of water and stone, the groan of bare trees and ice

how I am pulled again into the seasons’ round
even as my own time winds down or up or both
is there wisdom in waning? I still want to dance

Elizabeth, your body spirals with the wind
watch the oak, learn to keep a wilder deeper time
look, daffodil shoots rising between ancient roots

photo by Douglas Smyth

I write dream fragments in haiku (5-7-5 syllables) or tanka (5-7-5-7-7)

the dangerous book
secrets of life encoded
is placed in my lap
my charge is to keep it safe
and practice healing magic

my hand is tired
I’m holding on by a thread
as the kite flies me

the air has a shape
curved as an animal’s flank
my arm rests on air
years of practicing tai chi
when I move I am the curve

writing a new book
a question for each chapter
women will answer

Sillanelle (silly villanelle) same syllable and rhyme scheme

the age of Zoom

now we are entering the age of Zoom
keeping our distance, we come face to face
and lighten our sense of impending doom

many locations, we’re all in one room
though we miss the times when we could embrace
for now, we’re welcoming the age of Zoom

outside birds nest, trees bud, and flowers bloom
humans on pause, we must slacken our pace
and lighten our sense of impending doom

to cover fear we tend to fret and fume
who’s hoarding toilet paper by the case?
and no! not another meeting on Zoom

what relief to sweep the floor with a broom
some things technology cannot replace
simple tasks can relieve the sense of doom

though each day more dire headlines loom
necessity and pressure may yield grace
we can laugh and commiserate on Zoom
and lighten our sense of impending doom

Another ghazal written after learning of quarantine conditions for refugees in Canada. I had been gathering verses inspired by spring beauty and was brought up short by the contrast.

…bear witness honestly

two goldfinch fluttering up, down, on their own breeze
a firmament of Scylla flowers in the grass
iridescent understory in morning light

inside cinderblock cells, quarantined refugees
people who risked their lives to escape, imprisoned
where is the springtime for them, the promised new life?

turtles sun on every log in the beaver pond
surrounded by the reflection of cloud and sky
their shells are shiny, too, little domes of darkness

less freedom than dogs, walked through a park twice a day
their existence regarded as potential crime
who is protected, who abandoned to despair

the falling petals of a star magnolia tree
birds singing dawn and evening, courting and nesting
spring is here with its power to pierce or break hearts

every day I catalogue the beauty I see
so much suffering at such a remove from me
is it possible to bear witness honestly?

Though I don’t often write them, I had to attempt a sonnet: 10 syllable lines, 7 sets of rhymes.

attempted sonnet

a sonnet must a metaphor extend
the poet then must pick a theme with care
for to this purpose all the lines shall bend
line four already! let me take the dare:
I want to hope again though all seems lost
trees burn, ice melts and species disappear
while billionaires refuse to count the cost
and billions live their lives in desperate fear.
are we at flood tide or our lowest ebb?
I hold my breath and listen for the pause
the only rhyme available is web.
will we make mending it our dearest cause?
at sonnet’s end, no guiding metaphor
and yet there’s still a planet to adore.



Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her novels The Wild Mother and The Return of the Goddess have both been released in 25th anniversary editions. She is also the author of Murder at the Rummage Sale. The sequel, All the Perils of this Night, will be published in 2020. Tell Me the Story Again, her fourth collection of poems, is now in print. An interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.

Categories: General, Poetry, Women's Voices

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40 replies

  1. Oh Elizabeth – these poems are exquisite and reflect so accurately the troubled times in which we are living – the suffering of so many – the fear – and lastly Nature’s beauty which thankfully interrupts a chaotic world – bringing us to peace – if only for moments. Thank you for such inspiring words – they are deeply appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Elizabeth, for these beautiful word creations. I found these three lines soothing:

    what relief to sweep the floor with a broom
    some things technology cannot replace
    simple tasks can relieve the sense of doom

    I am not a ZOOM fan although there is a wordless book by Istvah Banyai titled ZOOM–a favorite of mine! It’s even on YouTube.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Esther – just the WORD “Zoom” reminds me of our frantic ego driven culture!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your poetry has always blown me away, as has your exquisite prose. (Remember–I have all your books, plus a couple poems you gave me.) Yes, counting is good mental exercise, and so is finding rhymes. I love all these little (?) poems. Little in length, very large in meaning and sentiment, especially in these days when we need to read thoughtful poetry.

    I’m glad we’ve been friends all these many years. Stay safe in upstate New York! Bright blessings to all of us.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Beautiful and wonderful, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for offering these poems.

    I imagine your finding solace in the rhythm of syllables is an ancient human path. My his/herstorical knowledge is spotty, but I think at least our Western heritage is rooted in syllabic-based repetition of all sorts of wisdom and stories no? Rhythms before thoughts, as in Nature; so returning to the womb — of the maternal heartbeat?.

    Haikus of dream fragments — what a perfect, inspiring collaboration of forms! Thank you for noting that.

    Ever an optimist and partaker of the long view, I think we are reweaving the web already. First the idea, the world wide web, then the spinning of the infrastructure, now the implementation, where everyone can contribute their witnessing and wisdom and compassion, and we quickly become hyper-aware of the interconnectedness of all that is and cannot go back to obliviousness.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. These are lovely! Thank you for sharing. What peace and power.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks so much much for your healing words – just what I needed today. I love it all but the lines that really pop out for me are
    “the noon of the day is the sun’s full moon” –

    “is there wisdom in waning? I still want to dance” –

    “my hand is tired
    I’m holding on by a thread
    as the kite flies me

    the air has a shape
    curved as an animal’s flank”

    And of course the contrast between the beauty of spring and the dire consequences for those who don’t even have a home to shelter in. Difficult times for us all. Like you express here “are we at flood tide or our lowest ebb?” – I flip back and forth between despair and hope.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for reading and reflecting, Judith. I share the same trajectory between despair and hope. And find some place of not knowing and maybe even comfort in between, in moments.


  8. Thank you Xochitl and FAR for painstaking formatting. I am so grateful for technical–and spiritual!–support from this community and those who make it possible for this community to exist. Love to all!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve come late to this celebratory poetry party. That I made it at all is due to my friend, Barbara Austin, your newest fan. She emailed me to make sure I got here, and she posted you on FB to make sure others found their way to you. I am scurrying around the house to find my Maeve Chronicles to pass along to Barbara. Two books missing. I can’t remember the last person I lent them to. My daughter?

    Now this new wealth. These poems stun. These lines an arrow direct to my heart.

    how I am pulled again into the seasons’ round
    even as my own time winds down or up or both
    is there wisdom in waning? I still want to dance

    (I’d just used the phrase “waning hours” in my novel-in-progress.
    And I felt a partner take my hand in the word dance.)

    Then the final stanza of “between ancient roots” and the beautiful photo.

    And these lines dazzled my eye:
    a firmament of Scylla flowers in the grass
    iridescent understory in morning light

    Then these:

    my hand is tired
    I’m holding on by a thread
    as the kite flies me

    (I’d been kneading a kite metaphor,
    my fingers still doughy.
    Now I want to bake your lines into my book.
    Some equivalence of bread sisters.
    See how they rise.
    See how the metaphors mix.)

    Thank you dear one!
    You’ve created the poems we are living.
    The garden is the book on our lap.

    Zoom zoom,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, Isabella! It is always so good to see you here–there, and everywhere! How I would love to be baked into your book. Right on, write on, sister!


  10. Elizabeth, thanks for your incandescent, incantatory poems! I love the way you use strong, simple words that strike directly at the heart. Simple words make more of an impact, I think, because they’re devoid of pretension.

    You have the ability to distill moments of beauty into poetry. It’s a rare gift. Let us rejoice that you have it!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Dear Elizabeth,

    There’s something about the villanelle that really appeals to me- it probably because I read Dylan Thomas at a young age. Somehow the more effortless they appear the harder they are to write- yours simply floats. I’m sure you’ve also noticed how quiet things have gotten and how many more masked creature, bird and tree sounds have been unmasked.

    I can’t figure out how to re-blog to a different Facebook page from mine. I have a separate page for my Open Mic poetry group, Kitchen Sync and I’d love to put your post up on it. May I have your permission to cut and paste this onto that page?

    On a different note- quite sometime ago I sent you my novel “Magdalene A.D.” as a gift. i wonder if you ever received it? .

    Thank you for the poems, I enjoyed them so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Christine! Thank you so much for your response. Yes, you have my permission to cut and paste.

      I did receive your novel in August, 2013 when i was in the midst of moving house. Here is the email I sent you:

      “Dear Christine,

      Thanks so much for the gift of Magdalene A.D. I look forward to reading it when my life calms down a bit. (I am in the midst of moving but promise Magdalene A.D. won’t get lost; will pack it with my bedside treasures).

      All the best to you and blessed bees!”

      And lo, true to my word, the book did not get lost! It is on my shelf of Magdalene books, and though, as wrote you in an earlier email, I don’t usually read fiction about our MM, I am going to move the book to my morning reading table and treat myself to a contemplative read.

      My email is unchanged from that time so if you look into your gmail history you should be able to find our correspondence as I did.

      Thanks for reading and for writing!


  12. Beautiful, haunting and creative as always Elizabeth. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Interesting literaryexercise.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. A beautiful diversion…thank you, Elizabeth.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi, I’d like to let you know that your article has been featured in the self-help section of this article:

    I enjoyed reading your poetry. Honestly, my favorite is the sillanelle, especially for its name! I remember studying these poetry forms in high school and writing some for my creative writing class. However, I haven’t done any poetry since my attempt to translate “anoche cuando dormia” on my personal blog.

    Do you have any tips for dipping your toes back into the water?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing the post, Jenna. I think the best way for any writer to dip their toes back in the water, whether it’s been a long time or since yesterday, is to dedicate a notebook or word document to play and exploration. Remove any pressure to have a finished piece and just get some words out on screen or paper. If there’s something you want to take further, refine, complete, share, then you’ll have something to work with. Have fun and right on, write on!

      Liked by 1 person


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