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.


BULLETIN: Current leaders for January Hall of Fame Poets are Mimi Cross, Liz Korba, and Steve Withrow. Mimi and Liz have won previously so Steve is the leading contender. Student poet leaders are Rachel Heinrichs, Sam Shekut, and Cecily White.
REMINDER: Voting ends at midnight CST this Saturday, January 30.

As promised, here’s another Wednesday Poetry Tip. I hope you you’ll post comments, suggestions, and questions.


Poetry, whether verse or free verse, is constructed in lines and a great deal depends upon how the poet arranges them. Pulitzer winning poet Karl Shapiro said, “The line provides the greatest possible concentration of meaning and feeling in the most controlled manner possible.”

Free verse provides the poet with more flexibility (and more decisions) about the best arrangement for conveying meaning and feeling. Generally, positions of greatest emphasis fall near the end or the beginning of a poetic line. Read some poems by another Pulitzer winner and 2007-2008 U. S. Poet Laureate, Charles Simic, for good examples of how a single sentence can be crafted into a powerful stanza of free verse. Here’s the opening to “Evening Walk” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M. (Harcourt, 2003, page 61).

You give the appearance of listening

To my thoughts, O trees,

Bent over the road I am walking

On a late summer evening

When every one of you is a steep staircase

The night is slowly descending.

Would you have arranged any of Simic’s lines differently? It would be as simple as moving furniture around a room.

You give the appearance

Of listening to my thoughts, O trees

Bent over the road

I am walking on a late summer evening . . .”

. . . is still a poem, but in the first line the emphasis has changed from what the trees appear to be doing –listening – to how they look, which is less important at this point. In the third line we have traded off walking along the road for a stronger emphasis on the road itself, another poor exchange. The road isn’t what’s important; walking along it is.

In certain fixed forms of verse, the poet has less flexibility. A short ballad stanza must be phrased in four lines with three beats (usually iambic) in lines 1, 2, and 4 and four beats in line 3. Change the basic recipe and you bake something else.

A limerick is told in five lines with lines 1, 2, and 5 three anapestic beats long and lines 3 and 4 two anapestic beats long. A lot of limericks fall somewhat short of the goal, but they all have five lines that approximate the basic definition for that kind of Cinquain (or Quintet if you prefer).

However the poem is told, the line establishes at once the rules for reading it. Here’s “Giraffe” (from Snowman Sniffles and Other Verse, by N. M. Bodecker, Atheneum, 1983, page 18).

I like giraffe and hope that he

In his own way is fond of me

Despite the fact that he and I

Did never quite see eye to eye.


That’s known as a long ballad stanza (4, 4, 4, and 4 beats respectively) told in two couplets and it’s typically Bodecker-clever. But the poet didn’t choose to break the lines the way I’ve written them. Since no one could see eye to eye with a giraffe, Bodecker obligingly arranged his lines into something more appropriate.

I like

the giraffe

and hope that he

in his

own way

is fond of me,


the fact

that he and I

did never


see eye to eye.

The poet chose to emphasize the imposing height of his subject by breaking four traditional lines into twelve and further dividing them into two stanzas. The new lines, some now as brief as one or two words, urge us to read a bit slower and think a bit longer about the tall star of the poem.

Coming up – on Wednesdays when I can answer the bell — will be similarly brief discussions about other aspects of poetic lines, including number of beats, end-stopped, enjambment, punctuation, capitalization, syllabic, and accentual.



Last day for your poems

My sincere thanks to Vicki Grove for yesterday’s guest article. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure you don’t miss it!



BULLETIN: Guess who posted a poem last night? Kathy Temean, that’s who! Better go have a look. It’s a fun poem.

Hi Everyone,

This past week was a busy one.

On the 16th, I proposed to provide tips on writing poetry and said I’d get back with a plan. I also listed the schedule for upcoming guests including Vicki Grove (1/22), Laura Robb (1/29), Laura Purdie Salas (2/5), and Lee Bennett Hopkins (2/12).

On the 17th, Kathy Temean posted another of my poems, “My Essay on Birds,” as the Poem of the Week. Thanks to the generous support of George Brown, Sharon Umnik, and the graphic team at Boyds Mills Press, Kathy now has access to all of my books with BMP and can choose at random a poem each week for the Sunday feature. I hope you enjoy the weekly feature because I have enough published poems to last a number of years. By asking Kathy to do the choosing, I’m often surprised to see old friends.

On the 18th, I told you about newly posted poems by Liz Korba, Rosalind Adam, Erin McMullen, V. L. Gregory, Melanie Bishop, Reta Allen, and Genia Gerlach. I also discussed the poetic foot as part of my proposed series of poetry tips.

On the 19th, I posted a proposed outline for poetry tips to come. I said that I’ll try to stay with a schedule of adding tips on Wednesdays but asked that you not hold me to it every week.

On the 20th, I announced that we had heard from our first four young poets of the month and urged everyone to read their work. Jan Gallagher posted a poem. I reported on an article I like in this issue of Language Arts, a publication of NCTE. The article is called “Asking the Experts: What Children Have to Say About Their Reading Preferences.”

On the 21st, you read some biographical information about Vicki Grove prior to her appearance the following day as my guest. Mimi Cross posted her poem for January.

On the 22nd, Vicki’s straight talk from the heart reached a lot of readers who related to her words and shared similar problems in making time to write. Vicki observed that life-inspired surprises can happen to a story when it’s left alone. Jane Yolen shared her term for it: “Here come the elves.” We also received poems from three more young poets.


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!


Verse forms


Kathy Temean has made a good suggestion. There are quite a few fixed forms of verse and few people know them all. Among us we have several students of form and Kathy thinks we could put together a series of forms with examples that might help others.

What do you think? Should we ask for volunteers to take on various forms and share poems to demonstrate how they work?

The floor is open for discussion and/or volunteers!