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.

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.


Poetry tips #1, the poetic foot

BULLETIN: In the last week or so we’ve received poems from Liz Korba, Rosalind Adam, Erin McMullen, V. L. Gregory, Melanie Bishop, Reta Stewart, and Genia Gerloch. Nothing yet from our young poets out there but there is still time. The cutoff for January is this Saturday, the 23rd, at midnight CST. Don’t miss a chance to participate!

On with poetry. Let’s start with definitions. For the sake of my upcoming posts about poetry, I’ll divide all poetry into two categories, verse and free verse. Verse is metered language. We can measure it. Verse doesn’t have to rhyme but it does have to be metered into lines that we can recognize by their pattern. Historically, much of the world’s poetry has been told in verse, partly because it’s easier to memorize structured language than prose and poetry was a handy device for remembering and passing on important information or entertainment.

Through common usage verse developed into a number of recognizable patterns, that is, number of lines, length of lines, rhyme schemes and, in modern English, arrangement of accented and unaccented syllables into units called feet. Although the root words in today’s English come from Greek, Latin, and a good many other backgrounds, our modernized derivitives generally fall into a system of stressed and unstressed syllables that can be metered rather easily into lines of verse. I’ll begin with four groupings that have gained recognition by most poets over time.

4 Basic Patterns of Meter

Iambic: da DA — above, below, a boy, a girl, reduce
Anapestic: da da DA — in the night, from the light, from above
Trochaic: DA da — doggie, kitty, morning, teacher
Dactylic: DA da da — following, teaching us, tricycle, Harrison

Iambic: The Farmer in the Dell
da DA da DA da DA
da DA da DA da DA

Anapestic: A Visit from St. Nicholas
da da DA da da DA da
da DA da da DA

Trochaic: Peter, Peter
DA da DA da DA da DA da
DA da DA da DA da DA da

Dactylic: The Cat and the Fiddle
DA da da DA da da DA da da
DA da da DA da da DA da da DA

Iambic line: The English language has a basic beat.
da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA

Anapestic line: You can practice the meter aloud by yourself.
da da DA da da DA da da DA da da DA

Two others should be mentioned. Once in a while a poet needs a foot that has no accent in it: da da. That’s known as a pyrrhus. It’s opposite, a syllable with two accents only, is a spondee: DA DA.

There are other kinds of poetic feet but these six basic arrangements will account for nearly all of what you need to function well when writing verse.

Tomorrow I will present an outline of subjects to come so you’ll have a chance to consider them in advance and, if you wish, add to them.

If you have questions or comments as we go, please let me know.