SunWinks! February 15, 2015: Take a Tumble

SunWinksLogoDearest hardy, intrepid SunWinkers:

I frequently badger you to read your poetry aloud, and today’s column is no exception. Writing poetry without hearing what it sounds like is like studying a piano etude without touching the keyboard. For about a year, I’ve been making the rounds of poetry open mikes here in Vancouver USA and trying to be a good citizen of the poetry community. Reading your poems to an audience is so valuable, I just can’t recommend it highly enough!

Ghost Town Poetry open mike, February 12, 2015

You get to hear it aloud, hear yourself read it, see what the audience responds to and what falls flat and what flies over their heads. It builds confidence in public speaking and in yourself as an artist. I’ve grown immensely from doing this. Here’s a sample, from January’s Ghost Town Poetry open mike:

This week, we bounce from Metaphors 201 back to considerations of rhythm and sound. Today’s topic is Tumbling Verse a.k.a. Skeltonic Verse. It’s lots of fun and it’s a great way to experiment with rhythm, pace, diction, sonority, and phonetics.

Named after John Skelton (1460-1529), the tutor of Prince Henry (later Henry VIII), Skeltonic verse is usually droll or satirical. It consists of

  • An indeterminate number of lines.
  • The lines are short, usually 3 to 6 words.
  • The lines rhyme, one with the next, an indeterminate number of times.       When you get tired of one rhyme, you switch to another and sustain that as many lines as you choose
  • Each line may have a varying number of syllables. The variation in the number of syllables from line to line is part of what gives Skeltonic verse its tumbling quality. This is key. The syllables-per-line isn’t just indeterminate. Be conscious of varying the number of syllables from line to line so as to give the poem a feeling of momentum (test it by reading it aloud!) A succession of shorter lines will increase the pace. Internal rhymes and alliteration, especially of harder sounds (k’s, g’s, d’s, b’s, p’s, etc.) will add to the percussive effect.
  • However, each line should have a regular pulse of two or at most three accents or stressed syllables.

Here’s a famous example from the selfsame Mr. Skelton:

from “Colin Clout”

And if ye stand in doubt
Who brought this rhyme about,
My name is Colin Clout.
I purpose to shake out
All my connying bag,
Like a clerkly hag;
For though my rhyme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rain beaten,
Rusty and moth eaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith.

And here is another example of Skelton’s verse, a piece of verse political satire called “The Tunnying of Elynour Rummying,” in the original Middle English. It’s quite lengthy, so just read it—preferably aloud—until you get a sense of the technique.

John Skelton

There’s a fine article on Skeltonic verse in Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms which I highly recommend (its endorsers include W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Richard Wilbur!) I can’t find an article I like as much as hers on the web, so invest in yourself and pick up a copy of the book.

Just kidding…John Skelton

Deutsch also wrote a remarkable poem called “Homage To John Skelton” which appeared in the May, 1953 edition of Poetry Magazine. The first and third sections, cast in the longer lines of more conventional verse poetry, frame a long second section of Skeltonic verse. The foregoing link takes you to a facsimile of the magazine in a reading window, open to page 95. The poem runs from p.95 to 98. Use the arrow keys at the top right of the reader window to page through it.

My modest attempt at tumbling verse is “The Joy of Soup” which I have just posted separately.

From, here is a helpful approach to Skeltonic verse for grade-school-age poets. As the article notes, this exercise can be a fun basis for a collaborative chain poem!

I see many amateur poems that are much like Skeltonic verse. The poems seem all about the rhymes, the lines are short, and the meter and number of syllables are haphazard.


To get the most out of this exercise, then,

  • Try to pay attention to the pulse of your writing.
  • Deliberately vary the number of syllables from line to line so the poem has the sense of tumbling along like a boulder down a steep grade.
  • Test it by reading it out loud.
  • Add to the momentum by using alliteration and internal rhyme.
  • Repeat the current rhyme as long as it sings and amuses and makes the poem hurtle along, then switch to another rhyme when it starts to feel forced. Whatever you do, don’t repeat like rhymes in a predictable pattern.

You can find more discussion of intrinsic rhythm and the use of accents and internal rhymes to create momentum in SunWinks! October 5, 2014: Music Without Melody.


The Prompt

Write a poem in Skeltonic (tumbling) verse. About one page in length is plenty, but go as long as you want if you’re on a roll.

Instructions for submitting your response to SunWinks!

SunWinks! Index

Carol Holden Cancer Fundraiser

© 2015 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Please share, reblog, link to, but do not copy or alter.



  1. Pingback: Yoo-Hoo! – Tumbling Verse – SunWinks! February 15, 2015 Take a Tumble | Irina's Poetry Corner

  2. Pingback: Yoo-Hoo! – Tumbling Verse | Poet's Corner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s