Around this time of year, many competent rhymers turn to writing Limericks, but I like to work with a nobler ancient form called the Snám Suad (sNaao Sooud). This syllabic verse was first cited by an eleventh-century metrist as a tiny form known as Snám Suad – literally “swimming of the sages” meaning “poetic floating.”
A Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University, Calvert Watkins, is often quoted as having stated that the Irish had the oldest vernacular literature of Europe. The earliest recorded examples of Irish literature date from the sixth century. These of course belong to the period after the coming of Christianity, which introduced writing into Ireland for the first time. Few people, aside from the monks, could write at this time, and it was the occasional practice of Irish monks to divert themselves from the tedious copying of ecclesiastical texts by adding small poems in the margins of manuscripts that they were transcribing. The surviving ancient Snám Suad poems look like a typical piece of marginalia, in their brevity and clarity.
The Snám Suad is written with the defining features of ancient Celtic poetic patterns poems: cywddydd (harmony of sound) meaning alliteration, consonance and assonance, and dunadh (to begin and end the poem with the same word, syllable, phrase or meaning).
In its defined form, Snám Suad is:
- an octave, each line measured 3 syllables;
- rhymed aabcdddc;
- anchored at L4 and L8 with 3 syllabic words;
- written in cywddydd and dunadh.
For all its apparent spontaneity, the form is cunningly crafted. Here is my example –
Soap and Suds
work not play.
Fluff and fold
see swirled suds,
I’ve found the best approach to writing this tight form is to work at it backwards. I write the last line first, with an eye to whether I can match the three syllable count and achieve dunadh. Above, I used Laundromat (L8) and Laundry day (L1). These are the outside edges of the puzzle. Now, Line 4 is the trickiest; it has to be a matching 3-syllable word that rhymes with Line 8. Since this is a silly poem and I took a Seussical approach on rhyme – wash-a-crat (L4). Then, complete the rest of the poem.
And if you are in the mood for a good laugh, read other scribblings from monk’s margins.
Poetic swimmings, my fellow rhyme-a-crats!