Poetic Forms: The Triolet
by Conrad Geller

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In the Golden Age of lyric poetry, about five hundred years ago, as the French Middle Ages slipped toward the Renaissance, poetic forms tended to become more and more tests of raw skill, like the NBA's Slam-Dunk Contest. A poet needed as many as thirty-six rhyme words for some of the more monstrous concoctions. Compounding the difficulties were the riddles, puns, and acrostics that were supposed to be imbedded in the verses.

Most of those poetic types are mercifully only museum pieces now, as more modern poets began to emphasize imagery and feeling over technique. But there is one of those old French forms, the oldest and simplest of them all, that deserves a look from the contemporary poet: the triolet.

Going back at least to the thirteenth century, triolets are short, usually witty poems, just perfect for tucking into a box of candy or some flowers. Its name comes from the repetition of the key line three times (French "tri"). A similar form, the rondeau, means "round poem" and also refers to the key feature of repetition (we all know, "Row, row, row your boat", which is still referred to as a "round").

Of the triolet's eight lines, the first line is used three times and the second line is repeated once. So the requirement for rhyme words is easy, and the eight lines really come down to only five different ones--easier than it seems at first. Let's look at an example (Triolets, though very popular during several periods on the Continent, have not abounded in English poetry, so my examples are coming immodestly from my own pen.):

It's best to begin a triolet with a statement or observation, something like this:

You have to write a triolet
If you would make your name immortal.

The third line rhymes with the first:

To get a form that's fit and set

Then you repeat the first line, so the first four lines are

You have to write a triolet
If you would make your name immortal.
To get a form that's fit and set;
You have to write a triolet.

Next, write another line that rhymes with the first line. Here you should change the viewpoint or add another idea:

From free verse all you ever get

(now a rhyme with the second line):

Is just another yawn or chortle.

You are finished, except for repeating the first two lines. Here is the whole simple poem:

You have to write a triolet
If you would make your name immortal.
To get a form that's fit and set.
You have to write a triolet.
From free verse all you ever get
Is just another yawn or chortle.
You have to write a triolet
If you would make your name immortal.

Here are a couple more, more conventionally on the subject of love:

I loved you, and will love again
If all the circumstance is right.
I am the faithfullest of men.
I loved you, and will love again.
Just re-create, by word or pen,
That lake, those trees, that starry night
I loved you. I will love again
If all the circumstance is right.

I feel with wonder and surprise
The hard, hard softness of your touch;
Then your bright, swift, and careful eyes
I feel with wonder and surprise.
Enough, for rage is sure to rise
If once again, and then not much,
I feel with wonder and surprise
The hard, hard softness of your touch.

Simple but elegant, isn't it? And just the thing to show the recipient of your gift or card that you cared enough to play with language just for him/her. Sure you can do it.

Conrad Geller's Series on Poetic Forms:

The Ballad
http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/ballad.shtml

The Sonnet
http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/sonnet.shtml

The Triolet
http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/triolet.shtml

The Villanelle
http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/villanelle.shtml

Copyright © 2001 Conrad Geller
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Conrad Geller grew up in Boston and received his education at the Boston Latin School and Harvard. He has taught in Massachusetts and New York and spent a Fulbright year teaching in London. He has published widely on literature and education. Currently he heads the Committee on Public Doublespeak of the National Council of Teachers of English. His poetry has appeared in many publications, including Bibliophilos, Insight, and Burning Cloud Review.

 

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