Try Tetractys

By Edel Wignell

© The Australian Society of Authors

Everything old is new again. Rejections can be recycled in many different ways and, by applying a little imagination, they will have a new life.

Some of my verse has been published in magazines and collections. I also have unpublished works. Occasionally I look critically and wonder how I can change and improve them.

Several years ago I discovered the ‘tetractys’ – a new short form of poetry – and took segments of rejected works to create new verses. ‘Treasure’ (a poem of four four-lined verses) describes a boy digging for treasure in the garden and finding potatoes. My first tetractys, was based on it, and was commended in the Yellow Moon ‘Nutshell’ Competition, Australia.



young lad

seeks treasure

digs up the ground

finds potatoes, lights a fire, bakes till browned.

© The Australian Society of Authors

The rules for writing a tetractys are as follows: line 1, one syllable; line 2, two syllables; line 3, three syllables; line 4, four syllables; line 5, ten syllables. The fourth and fifth lines may rhyme, but this is not mandatory.

‘The Cat’ is a shape poem of nine lines that has been rejected several times. I plundered it to create a tetractys that is more effective because the ideas are focussed. It was published by School Magazine in 2005.





silent lion

sphinx waiting forever – mysterious.

© The Australian Society of Authors

The tetractys form was invented by Ray Stebbings in 2000. In his website he wrote that Euclid, the mathematician of classical times, considered the number series, 1,2,3,4, to have mystical significance because its sum is 10, so he dignified it with a name of its own – Tetractys. ‘This gave me an idea for a new form of syllabic verse,’ Stebbings wrote. ‘What better name could I give it than “Tetractys”? If centred, the form gives a pleasing triangular shape. The text could be Britain’s answer to the haiku. Its challenge is to express a complete thought, profound or comic, witty or wise, within the narrow compass of twenty syllables.’

The following tetractys is based on a published poem, ‘Bits of Bone’, which has four four-lined verses and a four-lined chorus. Each verse describes an Australian dinosaur, identified by bones discovered. I took words and phrases from several verses to create a tetractys (Highly Commended in Yellow Moon, 1986).



of bone

wombat bulk


a time-worn crumbling prehistoric hulk.

© The Australian Society of Authors

Stebbings suggests that the form can be used in creative ways and gives examples: the reverse tetractys, the double tetractys (in three creative shapes), right and left justified, and then gives suggestions on how to get started. The following is a reverse tetractys, extracted from a longer poem (Commended, Yellow Moon, 2005).

BMX Hero

Rad killer-diller on his mean machine

around the track




©The Australian Society of Authors

I started writing tetractys because the Yellow Moon literary magazine introduced it in their bi-annual poetry competitions featuring short forms. Rejected poems may also see a new life in other short forms, such as haiku, tanka, halibun, cinquain and limerick.

Look for the essence of a longer poem and focus on the most telling words and images for creative recycling. Bringing new life to old ideas is satisfying. Taking poems out of the rejects stack is bliss!

Updated from an article first published in the SCBWI Bulletin (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, USA), in 2005, also in PIO (Pass It On) e-newsletter (Australia), in 2005; re-titled as ‘Kids Try Tetractys’ in Practically Primary (changed to meet the needs of teachers working with children), in 2008.

3 thoughts on “Try Tetractys

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