A few years ago I decided to try a little form poetry – poetry following rigid rhyming and metrical schemes. I wrote a fair few but published nearly none of it, but it was a worthwhile exercise, and I still like some of the ones I wrote. Form poetry is regaining some popularity now, no doubt at least in part because one can get a bad taste in the mouth from the abundance of truly trite free verse circulating (schlocky wall plaques lately don’t rhyme).
The triolet is a little jewel among forms. It is not as lapidary as a haiku or a tanka, true, but those forms were invented for a language with very different structure and prosody. Like many tight poetic forms, it repeats some lines. But since it’s only eight lines long, and it repeats one line twice and another thrice, that’s a pretty high proportion of repetition. The trick is to try not to make it trite: vary the sense of the repeated lines so that while the words are the same, you get a new angle each time. This classic one illustrates (though it’s freer with the punctuation than the strictest version would allow):
Birds at Winter (by Thomas Hardy)
Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotoneaster
Around the house. The flakes fly! – faster
Shutting indoors the crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The Flakes fly faster
And all the berries now are gone!
You can see the rhyme scheme: ABaAabAB, where the capitals mean the verse is identical rather than just rhyming.
A word like triolet is a nice word for this form, and not just because it describes it – it’s French for “little trio”, and you see that it’s built around three iterations of the first line. It has a taste of the little thrill a well-done poem of this type can give. At the same time, it has two pronunciations, one French-style (“tree o lay”) – more sublime, to English ears – and one English-style (“try a let”) – more earthy, basic, or ridiculous. So, too, the poem may use its repetition for some deeper insight, or for a joke. Or even both: something earthy that seems light but also gives an insight into the working of the human mind in even the basest circumstance.
The pair of repeated verses play into this dichotomy, though we see that one wins in the count; and as we look at the word, we see the t and t bookending it and the l in the middle, the tallest of a triumvirate. The resonances match the dichotomy: the tree echo gives us the branches of the poem, efflorescing and further ramifying; the olé resonance has a small taste of bravado, or is it an au lait with its milky coffee flavour? On the other side, try a let makes it sound like an attempt to score in a game, though the rhyme with violet still brings flowers; and we cannot escape the anagram of loiter and near-anagram of toilet, which take it out of the gardens and into the bus station, or onto a sidewalk with flowers growing through the cracked concrete, or to some other heavily used public place.
Such as the beach. I wrote a set of poetry, “Forms on the Beach,” presenting vignettes of various people on the beach in different strict poetic forms, ranging from wistful to sporty to peevish; I will present at least one more from it in a coming word tasting note. The triolet is this:
Ya gotta go, ya gotta go.
I’m gettin’ desperate for a sign –
like “men” or “salle de bain,” y’know.
Ya gotta go, ya gotta go!
I’m outta beer ’n’ outta dough,
’n’ all my chick can do is whine.
Ya gotta go, ya gotta go…
I’m gettin’ desperate for a sign.
I note, incidentally, that there was a Russian-French author named Elsa Triolet (she was born Ella Kagan and married a fellow named André Triolet; she subsequently divorced him and later married the author Louis Aragon). Among the works she wrote was an epistolary novel called Luna Park, which catches my attention because there are several other things by the name, including a Pet Shop Boys song. Triolet, by the way, can also (though rarely) refer to a triplet in music. But “Luna Park” by the Pet Shop Boys is in four-time.
“Luna Park / Lunapark”: neat coincidence: I have just started translating a children’s poem called (in Slovenian) Mačji Lunapark (“The Cat’s Fun Fair”); after some research I found that there are (or have been) fun fairs called “Lunapark” or “Luna Park” all over the world, with the first to be thus named on Coney Island in 1903. One of the cultural items (gems) that I somehow missed in spite of living in two countries that have had such things. Which Luna Park Fair were the Pet Shop Boys singing about?
I’m not sure they had a specific real-life one in mind. You can give it a listen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDRUSLzcyxI .
Since the Pet Shop Boys’ album Fundamental has a theme of religious intolerance and persecution, my guess is that the song refers to Pavel Lungin’s 1992 film Luna Park about a group of gay anti-Semitic skinheads in Moscow — see
On a happier note, have you ever tried your hand at that shockingly difficult strict verse form the sestina, with its whole-word rhymes rotated in a fixed order? The most famous recent example is John Ashbery’s casually surreal ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’,
Indeed, I open my set of poems “Forms on the Beach” with one – not the best poem in the bunch, but here it is:
Summer date sestina
I gave you my sunblock.
You gave me your lipstick.
I unstuffed your backpack.
You gave me a knick-knack.
I bought you a lollipop.
You gave me a tickle.
We started to snuggle
and rub off the sunblock.
You licked on the lollipop.
I tasted your lipstick
and toyed with your knick-knack,
then looked in your backpack.
Somewhere in your backpack
you had fishing tackle
or some kind of knick-knack
all slathered with sunblock.
It hooked on your lipstick.
You set down the lollipop.
Hey, don’t lose your lollipop!
What’s that in my backpack?
Don’t break up my lipstick!
Don’t spill all my sparkle!
Oh, bugger, my sunblock…
Watch out with that knick-knack!
Here, take the damn knick-knack.
There’s sand on the lollipop.
I’ll buy you more sunblock.
I’ll wash out your backpack.
It’s starting to sprinkle…
Have you got my lipstick?
I gave you your lipstick
and took back the knick-knack,
so as not to seem fickle,
you got a new lollipop,
we wrote off the backpack
and redid the sunblock…
but lipstick and lollipop
and knick-knack in backpack
meant naught as we struggled all buttered in sunblock.
I’ve written at least one other than I can think of, but that one plays on on vulgarities (quite a bit), so it’s not fit for presentation on this site.
Oh, I notice I did vary the form by changing the -le word every stanza.
Here’s another I almost forgot I had done:
Friends at 30
Allie got candles,
Marty got sandals,
Philly got carried,
Lisa got married,
Shana got china,
Andie got divorced.
Why get divorced?
You still have the candles.
You take the china;
I’ll take the sandals.
Why were you married?
What have you carried?
Paulie was buried,
Jan was divorced,
Allie was married.
Sam brought the candles.
They all wore sandals
and drank from the china.
Nan went to China
when grandma was buried.
She brought back sandals.
left her no candles
from when she was married.
Suzie’s not married.
Cara’s in China.
Andie makes candles.
Philly’s mom’s buried.
Don’t get divorced.
Marty’s with Randall.
Lisa knows Randall,
but Lisa’s married.
He got the china.
He says that he buried
his ring with the candles.
Allie says marriage is like being buried.
Nan stayed in China and now she’s divorced.
Lisa still holds a candle for Randall.
Here are two more triolets as well (but shortened by one line in the middle – the second b-rhyme) – I had forgotten about them; they were also in the set about turning 30 (written for a magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, but they didn’t accept them, and I haven’t done anything else with them until now):
had his place up in the sky,
a window to the world he knew.
At thirty, who could ask him why
he had his place? Up in the sky,
the sun sought ways to live and die.
He had his: Place up in the sky
a window to the world. He knew.
saw a drop of blood, a spot.
Two children – but whose could it be?
The party’s on; the food is hot;
and there’s a drop of blood. A spot.
Three decades and you still get caught
by one small drop of blood. A spot!
Two children. But whose could it be?
Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words