Poetry Tip #6


Today I’m happy to present Poetry Tip #6. This one is about the two shortest forms of verse, the couplet and the tercet. Next time I’ll get to the four line stanzas.


In 1959 I sat in an auditorium in Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia to hear Robert Frost speak. At 85 and rather frail, he thrilled us with his famous poems read as only the poet could read them. Toward the end of his presentation, Frost confided that he no longer had the energy to compose longer works but he still loved writing couplets.


A couplet, that shortest of all stanzas, can stand alone as a single poem or be used as a building unit for longer poems of any length. Writing couplets is a great way to get into verse (structured poetry). Ogden Nash made mirthful use of the two line poem when he penned:

The cow is of the bovine ilk,
One end is moo, the other, milk.

In my case, I found frequent use of the couplet in BUGS, POEMS ABOUT CREEPING THINGS. For example:

The termite doesn’t eat the way it should.
It’s not his fault, his food all tastes like wood.

In the first case, Nash uses four beats per line of iambic meter so we call that structure iambic tetrameter. My poem is also in iambic but uses five beats per line, making it iambic pentameter. These two are the most popular forms but there are many other combinations.

For example, here are two samples from T. S. Eliot’s work, taken from his wonderful “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which provided the basis for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, CATS. Eliot employed seven beats per iambic line to introduce us to GROWLTIGER, which begins:

GROWLTIGER was a Bravo Cat, who lived upon a barge:
In fact he was the roughest cat that ever roamed at large.

It took eight stressed syllables per line to tell the tale of The Old Gumbie Cat:

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.

Contrast Eliot’s long, playful lines to my quick report in BUGS regarding my inability to manage a chocolate covered grasshopper:

Me chew it?
Can’t do it.

You can also write a two-line stanza of verse that doesn’t rhyme. There’s even a name for such a form. It’s called a distich. Change one word in Nash’s poem:

The cow is of the bovine kind,
One end is moo, the other, milk.

We have now established an internal rhyme (bovine/kind) in line one. Line two still retains its alliteration with moo/milk, and the two lines still form a perfectly valid poem. However, it’s now technically a distich rather than a couplet.

Many poems are written in a series of couplets. Again using BUGS for examples, I used two sets of couplets to tell about no-see-ums:

No-see-um’s tiny bite
Keeps you scratching half the night.
No-see-um’s no fun.
Next time you don’t see ‘um, run!

I took three sets of couplets to tell on these beetles:

Two dumb beetles set out to float
Across the sea in a tennis-shoe boat.
Sadly, the tennis shoe sank before
The beetles had sailed a foot from shore.
The beetles cried with red faces,
“Duh, we shoulda tied da laces.”


A stanza one line longer than a couplet is a tercet. If all three lines of the tercet rhyme, it’s called a triplet. As you might imagine, finding three consecutive rhymes is not easy so the triplet is a fairly rare bird. However, it isn’t too unusual to compose three-line stanzas in which only two of the three end in a rhyme.

One version, called the terza rima, calls for the first and third lines to end in the same sound in stanza one. In stanza two, the ending sound of the middle line of the first stanza becomes the rhyme sound for the first and third lines of the new stanza, and so on.

Here is an example of how I’ve used tercets. In “Daydreams,” from CONNECTING DOTS, I used three-line stanzas in which the second and third lines rhyme, leaving the first lines to set the scene for each of the six stanzas. Like this:

I remember the turtle
beneath our basement stair.
I see him sleeping there.

Maybe he’s dreaming of clover,
shade beside a tree,
days when he was free.

In THE MOUSE WAS OUT AT RECESS, the poem “The Bus” is told in tercets in which the first two lines rhyme and the third line is a kind of refrain that appears with slightly altered wording in each of the nine stanzas:

You know what’s cool
About going to school?
Riding on the bus!

You wave at your friends
When the day just begins
And you’re riding on the bus.

In “It’s Better if You Don’t Know” from THE MOUSE WAS OUT AT RECESS, I devised sets of three-line stanzas in which the second lines of consecutive stanzas rhymed. The third lines of the same stanzas also rhymed but not with the same sound. Like this:

There’s a Welcome sign
On the principal’s door,
(But try not to go.)

Her office is long.
There’s a rug on the floor.
(Never mind how I know.)

As you can see, two-line and three-line stanzas can be employed in a variety of ways to get your ideas told. To be such short forms, they are surprisingly adaptable.

Thanks to you who have let me know your preferences among the features I’ve introduced since starting my blog last August. Many readers have dropped by to review the boxes. Voting ends Saturday.

If you come to NCTE in November . . .

I know I told you recently that I’ll be speaking at NCTE in Orlando on Saturday, November 20. I’ll present for seventy-five minutes on two main subjects: Word of the Month Poetry Challenge and the value of two-voice poems in developing readig fluency. I intend to involve the audience in both subject areas, first by brainstorming ideas for poems from a single word; second, by reading aloud several poems for two or more voices and discussing the variety of ways they can be employed in the classroom.

I’ve heard from some of you who plan to attend the conference and come to my presentation. I look forward to seeing you again or meeting you if it’s for the first time. I also hope that you will encourage others you know to come to my session. I’m excited about the opportunity to give Word of the Month a good introduction to as many as possible and I love doing poems for two voices. I intend to post some ideas on that subject soon.

REMINDER: Voted yet for April Hall of Fame Poets? Deadline is Thursday night at 10:00 CST. Current leaders for adults are Liz Korba and V. L. Gregory. Young poets are led by Taylor McGowan and Rachel Heinrichs.


Catching up


Hi everyone,

We’ve been moving quickly lately so I need to pause and catch up. Four things.

1) On January 9 we began a lively discussion about children’s poetry in general and humorous poetry in particular. We’ve had several dozen comments and they continue to come in as new readers find the place. If you haven’t gone back through all the remarks, I hope you’ll do that and respond to anything that leaves you wanting to make another comment of your own.

2) Per Kathy Temean’s January 12 suggestion, we set out to collect and discuss various fixed forms of verse. Our first entry, the haiku, has generated some good discussion. We could go on like this, posting whatever comes in and in whatever order, but I smell a lot of work in it for me and a certain amount of confusion for drop-in readers.

So here’s my proposal. I’ll put together a list of traditional forms to get us started. I’ll post them one at a time when we don’t have other business on the agenda. What happens next will be up to you. If I describe a couplet, you can share a couplet. If we’re discussing a short ballad, your short ballads will be appreciated. That way we can advance one form at a time and anyone who wants to can comment, question, and/or pitch in an example. I’ll begin with a general discussion and plan to kick things off early next week. Is this okay with everyone?

3) On January 13 I invited anyone who would like to post websites to add them under that date. We’ve already had several takers but I don’t want to move past the opportunity without reminding you that it’s an ongoing invitation. If you are interested but haven’t gotten to it yet, please keep track of the date.

4) We all enjoyed Cheryl Harness’s guest blog yesterday. Cheryl, thanks again for taking your time to share with us. I look forward to seeing you in Warrensburg before long.

Coming up on the Friday guest blog schedule are Vicki Grove (1/22), Laura Robb (1/29), Laura Purdie Salas (2/5), and Lee Bennett Hopkins (2/12). A number of others are working on articles and I’ll post them on Fridays as they become available. Let me know if there is a subject or person you would like to see and I’ll do my best.

There! I think I’m caught up.

Except for your Word of the Month Poems. We need LOTS more of those!


How to write a poem inspired by one word

To write a poem starting with a single word is an entertaining challenge that exercises our imagination. Here’s how to help young poets (or adult poets) get started.

Let’s say the word is time.
Think it over for a few minutes but don’t waste a lot of “time” doing it. Do the quick stuff first. What does time make you think of?

Here are 6 steps you can take.

1 Make a list of the first things that come to mind

Telling time
Losing time
Time out
Lunch time
A good time
A sad time
A funny time
Once upon a time
Hard times
Prehistoric times
Time zones
Daylight Savings Time
The time of your life
In no time
(You’ll think of a lot more in the next few minutes)

2 Look up some things about time and make notes

The earliest efforts to keep track of time
Tracking sun and moon
Following constellations across the sky
Modern time pieces
Making a watch
Measuring distance in light years

3 Pick a subject that interests you and think about what you might write about it. Begin with random thoughts, whatever comes to mind.

I’ll choose LUNCH TIME from the first list.

What would I have to say about lunch time? I might write about eating lunch in our school cafeteria. Some kids are noisy and talk to their friends while others sit quietly and eat their food. Some days we get so noisy that teachers and even our principal have to stand up and give us the quiet sign until we settle down. Some days the food is good but I don’t always eat everything on my tray.

I could write my poem about the day the lights went out during lunch period and some of the little kids didn’t like it but some of the bigger ones threw stuff and no one could hear anything over all the yelling.

Or maybe I can write about how we have to line up to go to the cafeteria and walk down the hall behind our teacher. One time someone stepped on my heel and my shoe came off. Sometimes we get giggly and can’t seem to stop even when our teacher gives us “The look.” One time we got so out of control that our teacher made us go back to our room and start all over, and then we had to wolf our food down.

4 Pick an idea from the random description and list some points you might want to include in your poem.

I’ll choose getting “The look” in the lunchroom.


Making too much noise
Shoving in line
Dropping a tray
Poking someone
Not being polite
Not listening

5 Try a first draft.


Beware “The Look,”
It will turn your hair white
Teacher’s always watching
You mustn’t poke or run
Or shout
Or drop a tray
Or forget to listen
Or else you might get “The Look”
And go home white-headed.

6 Revise


Better behave at lunch time,
Kid, I’m warning you,
Teacher keeps her eagle eyes
On everything we do.

Lunch time is the wrong time
To run or drop a tray,
You mustn’t poke
Or yell or tease,
You must remember manners, please,
You must say thank you to the cook
Or else you’ll get “The Look.”

It fries your hair and turns it white
So you go home an awful sight
And give you little sis a fright!

“The Look!”

Click here to print.

I realize that everyone has his or her own way to develop a poem for the monthly challenge. I offer the suggestions below merely as another possibility. I’m posting this same thing on the Teacher page as the tool for January so you can always find it there if you forget the date of this posting. Although I wrote these suggestions with young poets in mind, I think the process would be much the same for poets of any age.

Let me know how this exercise works for you.



BULLETIN: Linda’s winning poem is up on Kathy’s writing and illustrating blog www.kathytemean.wordpress.com today, January 2nd and Priya’s poem is up on www.YAAgroup.wordpress.com. Linda and Priya, be sure to find them there.

BULLETIN: Jan Gallagher has a question for the group. Here it is.

David and Adult Poets posted here.
I appreciate your work.
May I have permission to share these poems with THE QUILL AND INK CLUB in Marshfield, MO on Wednesday
6 January 2010 ?
Please let me know. If you do not e-mail permission I will not print and share.
Janet Kay Gallagher

My response is that our poems and comments are generally meant for public view. We might copyright our invididual poems, especially if they should appear in books or magazines, but in the case of one poet wanting to share our body of work with other writers, hopefully to entice them to join the “gang,” I personally don’t have a problem.

WHAT SAY YOU? We need to respond to Jan right away. Thanks. DH


January schedule for Word of the Month poems

Hello Everyone,
I hope you rang in the new year with style. Do we call this two thousand ten or twenty ten? I’m not sure.

Here is your schedule for January.

January 23 — Cutoff for posting “time” poems at midnight CST.
January 25 — Voting begins for January Hall of Fame Poets.
January 30 — Voting ends at midnight CST.
January 31 — January winners declared and February word announced.

Tomorrow I’m going to post something that might help poets get started on creating a poem that springs from one word. If you have comments and/or suggestions of your own, please don’t hesitate to share them!

Happy New Year!