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.

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