Decima: Poetic Forms

For those interested, I’m in the midst of putting together a results post for the April PAD Challenge. It won’t have a whole lot of results, but it will include some winners–and we’ll add as they come in (like last year). Keep an eye out for it. But first…

Let’s look at the poetic form known as decima. There are various versions of it, but we’ll start with the version popular in Puerto Rico. It is a 10-liner with 8 syllables per line in the following rhyme pattern:

A
B
B
A
A
C
C
D
D
C

In Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America, the decima is often sung and improvised. The form is also sometimes referred to as espinela after its founder, Spanish writer and musician Vicente Espinel. Those who write and perform decimas are known as decimistas or deimeros.

In Ecuador, the decima is a 44-line poem comprised of a quatrain and four 10-line stanzas. Each of the lines from the opening quatrain are repeated later in the poem. The lines still retain eight syllables, though the rhyme constraints are loosened. If it sounds familiar, check out the glosa poetic form.

There is also a decima Italiana with ten 8-syllable lines that rhyme ababcdedec.

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Here’s my attempt at a Decima:

“The Greatest Madness”

Fall for the trick, seeking gladness
in fine trinkets, milk, and honey,
and what can be had for money
for this makes the greatest madness–
trying to swap things for sadness.
Let us discover on this night
things that are wrong and love that’s right–
alone in the woods, we will kiss
and find new paths to priceless bliss
on this soft journey by moonlight.

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roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community, which means he maintains this blog, edits a couple Market Books (Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market), writes a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine, leads online education, speaks around the country on publishing and poetry, and a lot of other fun writing-related stuff.

He’s a big fan of learning (and trying) the vast variations of poetic forms available to poets. If you want to show him some love, check out his collection Solving the World’s Problems.

Also, follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.

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26 thoughts on “Decima: Poetic Forms

  1. J.lynn Sheridan

    The Honor War

    When brothers raid the iron nest
    for steel of pride and their birthright,
    they test the bonds of blood contrite
    in bitterness—a kin tempest.
    Two forged blades engaged in conquest
    to break a chained bequest lost in
    an hourglass of time and ruin.
    One seed, two souls, three sinners—
    The Master in the flame simmers
    his incensed lies with a glazed grin.

  2. PKP

    Spilled hot

    Ah sweet island spilled hot in sun
    Pulsed rhythm pulled me to your arms
    Swooned captivated by your charms
    Swaying dance long ago begun
    Ah sweet island spilled hot in sun
    False Sirens’ lured me far away
    Cast me on cold shores lost astray
    Your rhythm distant faint and paled
    Then screamed for me passion regaled
    Swept back to you we are as one

  3. Walt Wojtanik

    DECEMBER

    Your bitter comes before November goes,
    a harbinger of the vignette to come.
    Seeking refuge in the warm hearth of home,
    away from the cold that freezes your toes,
    sequestered from the Winter’s frigid snows.

    Bittersweet, you watch the children at play,
    in anticipation of Christmas Day.
    But it is certain the curtain will call,
    in abundance of Lake Effect snowfall.
    Until the New Year comes, December stays.

    © Walter J. Wojtanik, 2015

  4. BlaineEKosek

    Can’t I

    Maybe, tomorrow it will rain.
    The flowers have begun to wilt.
    Their leaves droop like blood that has spilt,
    from vessels that made me insane.
    Light each spark and ignite my flame,
    then dream to figure out the rest.
    But sleep with your hands on your chest
    to feel each heartbeat slowly fade
    away from life and all Ive made –
    like rose petals and robins breasts.

    – Blaine E Kosek

  5. taylor graham

    LETTER I’LL NEVER SEND

    Your son speaks to his ceiling fan
    or whoever will listen; or
    runs circles, in and out the door.
    My puppy chases what he can.
    Your pasture’s Rain Bird sprinkler ran
    since dawn, your circles-boy as well.
    I watch the sun cast shadow-spell
    on field and faces, its slow arc
    and then before I know, it’s dark.
    What my pup fathoms he won’t tell.

  6. Sara McNulty

    Lake-wise

    She lived by a lake–clear, serene,
    a place where words floated and spun
    into vivid verse while the sun
    was veiled by clouds and stayed unseen.
    She developed her own routine.
    When clouds would darken to steel gray,
    and drops could not be kept at bay,
    her thoughts flashed faster than her pen
    could write, an outpouring, but then,
    she always wrote best in the rain.

  7. taylor graham

    MOUNTAIN’S HOLD

    Could this be where the man was lost,
    where each trail marker disappears
    in forest tangling of the years?
    A rock-cairn’s scattered, masked and mossed.
    Those broken limbs? an X was crossed
    and then wiped out by weather’s whim,
    by snow’s cold, sublimating scrim.
    A storm-torn cedar blocks the way.
    A lost man must forever stay
    where mountain’s got the best of him.

  8. taylor graham

    TRACTOR-LADY

    It’s a slow twenty miles from town
    to celebrate her life. There stands
    her steel-clad mount, 14:2 hands
    high, red Kubota, blade bowed down
    as in grief, pine-bough-laden, crown
    of sunflower. Is that her ghost
    smiling from its emblazoned host
    of petals? Natural gold was she,
    like sunrise and harvest; like free
    blossoming of earth’s innermost.

  9. Pedro Poitevin

    Here’s a translation I made of a décima I wrote originally in Spanish.

    “What do you do when I stay
    with my mom and not with you?
    Do you wander like we do?
    Do you walk around the bay?”

    Not at all, in truth, no way,
    but I do not feign delight
    when I answer “yes, you’re right,
    I go out, explore the place.”

    But now, in this empty space,
    what do I do? This: I write.

      1. Pedro Poitevin

        Oh, thanks! Here’s the original:

        “¿Qué haces, papá, cuando estoy
        con mi mamá en la otra casa?
        ¿Vas a pasear a la plaza
        como tú y yo hicimos hoy?”

        La verdad es que no voy,
        pero sonrío y contesto
        “claro que voy, por supuesto”,
        y no finjo mi alegría.

        Y ahora en la casa vacía,
        ¿qué hago?, me digo. Pues esto.

        1. BDP

          Pedro, I really like the Spanish version. My knowledge of Spanish is limited to high school classes, but I know how to sound out the words correctly (or so I believe), and therefore I have a sense of flow of sounds–quite nice. One note: consider putting papa in the English version. Your poem became richer with him in the Spanish version in that I gained more clarity of who “you” might be. Thanks for posting this. Barb

  10. Pedro Poitevin

    I think there are two ways to go about adapting the meter of a décima into English meter: one is to really write octosyllabic verses, and the other is to simply write in iambic tetrameter. But to the ear of a decimista, there is something odd about hearing one verse stressed on the eight syllable preceded or followed by one stressed on the seventh. Below, the two approaches are described:

    1. Octosyllabic verses: an octosyllabic verse is a verse in which the last stressed syllable is the seventh syllable. The reason the prefix octo- is there is that the most common kind of end words in Spanish language verse are feminine words, i.e. words that end in a trochee. This is why the most common syllable count for an octosyllabic verse is eight. On the other hand, octosyllabic verses range in number of syllables depending on where the last stress falls on the verse: they can have seven, eight, or even nine syllables. The short of it is that (to repeat) an octosyllabic verse is a verse whose last stressed syllable is the seventh.

    2. Iambic or trochaic tetrameter: One way to anglicize the Spanish meter is to simply use iambic or trochaic regular meter. If iambic pentameter is roughly speaking the same as Spanish meter hendecasyllabics, then octosyllabics should correspond more or less with trochaic or iambic tetrameter.

    Cheers!

    Pedro.

    1. Cynthia Page

      Thank you for that explanation. I wonder if there is a corresponding stress preference for the Italian form. I’m going to try your form and see how it feels in English.

      1. Pedro Poitevin

        Hi Cynthia: I think the answer is yes. Hendecasyllabic verses in Spanish were actually imported from Italy! Though many English speaking poets think of Latin meter as syllabic, it is actually stress-syllabic. A verse with eleven syllables is not necessarily a hendecasyllabic, and a verse with eight syllables is not necessarily an octosyllabic, because it’s not the number of syllables that matters but the distribution of the stresses. In the case of octosyllabic, though, the only requirement is that the last stressed syllable be the seventh. In the case of hendecasyllabic verses, there are other mathematically meaningful requirements!

        Some more information: The décima is sometimes structurally similar to the sonnet, but the turn happens earlier. Typically the first four verses say some unit of thought (or convey a particular image), and the six remaining verses say something else that either enriches or modifies.

        The décima is also usually less high brow than the sonnet. It’s a form for the people and by the people, and it is the form of preference for improvisational battles in Cuba, Argentina, etc., where opponents engage in what are called “controversies.” Last year, I had in my house the world’s preeminent improvisational poet Alexis Díaz Pimienta, who improvises décimas (and sonnets, too) on the spot. He would probably be saying all this stuff I’m saying in décimas.

        Thank you for your interest, Cynthia!

        Pedro.

        1. BDP

          Pedro, you’ve greatly added to my curiosity about this form. Thank you for taking the time to explain your understanding of it. You’ve given us much to think about.

  11. Gwyvian

    Smothered

    I played your tune to get ahead,
    the destination is in sight:
    a precious moment of delight
    yet inside something is still dead…
    I thought it must all be in my head,
    but the shakes just don’t ever stop:
    I’ve been trying so very hard,
    but it won’t let me rest easy—
    I have all the world to please me,
    but nothing can replace that spark…

    August 4, 2015

    By: Lucy K. Melocco

  12. MutherBear

    When One Door Closes…

    My tale of loss, a tale of woe
    Please take to heart and learn from this
    Take great care my point not to miss
    Had I known then what now I know
    I might have not moved quite so slow
    But hindsight was yet not in play
    And fingers too slow moved away
    My little brother slammed the door
    Two of my digits are no more
    Now it is harder to crochet

  13. Sasha A. Palmer

    I did a bit of digging and found something I wrote several years ago. I guess it’s Ecuadorian decima.

    “Gracias”

    Withered hands, permeable, old,
    Memory of your touch still lingers,
    Time escaping through my fingers,
    Tale unraveling, life untold.

    Close we get as days unfold,
    Thinner dreams, sleep lighter, fragile,
    Heavy step, a soul in exile,
    Withered hands, permeable, old.
    Night around me wrapped, being cold,
    Balance on the verge of after,
    Keep on walking, former rafter,
    Dry’s the land where the waters flowed,
    Travelling down the winding road,
    Hanging on to children’s laughter.

    Clasp the thread with failing fingers,
    Try to find the long-sought measure,
    What is it you used to treasure?
    Memory of your touch still lingers.
    Memory of my youth still triggers
    Those emotions softly sleeping
    Underneath the scars and weeping,
    By a dry creek cries a willow,
    Through the tiny jail cell window
    Fading sunshine gently seeping.

    Birds of sunset, mournful singers,
    Sing your praise to days forgotten,
    Roots of which we were begotten,
    Time escaping through my fingers.
    In the dusk I hear bell ringers,
    For my soul the bell is tolling,
    Swiftly, as the night is falling,
    Count the blessings I’ve been given,
    Pray for me, so I’m forgiven,
    In the bells I hear your calling.

    Non-repayable what is owed,
    Still you come to claim your measure,
    I shall bring to you my treasure,
    Tale unraveling, life untold.
    Seedlings coming up strong, behold,
    Persevere must what’s been planted,
    Bouts of woe, no tale enchanted,
    Yet succeeding tearful mourning
    Comes the sun-kissed youthful morning,
    Yet another day is granted.

  14. Gwyvian

    Hidden

    Always the wind in my heart gales
    forever approaching madness:
    my love is dipped in such sadness
    yet that mad wind keeps telling tales…
    I approach each dusk without fail,
    where for so long my dreams were kept
    nocturnal corners where I wept
    and was blessed with the tongue of spies
    with which naught was spoken but lies—
    yet behind those eyes the truth crept…

    August 4, 2015

    By: Lucy K. Melocco

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