Poetry Tip #6

REMINDER: FRIDAY NIGHT AT 10:00 CST IS THE CUTOFF FOR THIS MONTH’S POEMS. DON’T MISS IT!
rubberman

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.

POETRY TIP #6: SHORT STANZAS: COUPLETS AND TERCETS

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.

COUPLET/DISTICH

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.”

TERCET/TRIPLET/TERZA RIMA

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.
https://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/which-features-do-you-like-best-about-my-blog

Advertisements

Coming up this week

REMINDER: Time to vote for your March Word of the Month favorite adult and student poems. Tomorrow night at 10:00 CST is the cutoff. Congratulations to our leaders so far. Laura Purdie Salas and Jackie Huppenthal are tied in first place followed closely by Fahad, drj3kyll, DeLane Parrott, and Liz Korba (a previouis winner). Students are led by Colin Hurley with Anne, Josh, Victoria, and Fareid all tied in second place.

Make today and tomorrow count with your votes! Thanks.

Hello everyone. Here are some events to expect this week.

Tuesday, March 30: Poetry Tip #4 will be posted. I’ll discuss punctuation and capitalization plus how words and lines can be designed and/or arranged to help enhance the impact and underscore the intent of your poem.

Tuesday night at 10:00 CST we’ll cut off voting for the March Word of the Month Poems.

Wednesday, March 31: March Hall of Fame Poets will be announced and the word of the month for April will be revealed. You don’t want to miss that!

Thursday, April 1: I’ll post the biographical information about this week’s guest, Nile Stanley. Nile is an author, teacher, poet, and performer. You’re going to enjoy his appearance on Friday.

Also, if anyone wants to post an April Fools Day poem in the comment section, that’s the day to do it.

Friday, April 2: My guest Nile Stanley will present some remarks and also share a “digi-poem” with us.

It promises to be a busy week so I hope you’ll join us.

David

POETRY TIP #2, THE LINE: ARRANGEMENT

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.

THE LINE: ARRANGEMENT

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,


despite

the fact

that he and I

did never

quite

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.

REMINDER: SIGN MY GUEST BOOK THIS MONTH FOR A CHANCE FOR A POETRY OR PICTURE BOOK CRITIQUE.

David