Board of Contributors: A poetry puzzle solved

For the Monitor
Published: 12/25/2016 12:14:54 AM

Back in mid-October (which seems like half a century ago), I issued a challenge in this space: “I have been haunted by a particular verse form – and now it’s your turn.” The verse in question was an eight-line poem, containing only two rhymes in a most particular pattern. Here’s an example from late last summer:

The crickets in chorus

And fiery sun setting.

They sing, but not for us

The crickets in chorus.

And light becomes porous

When night drops its netting

The crickets in chorus

And fiery sun setting.

The response from Monitor readers was wonderful. Within an hour of it hitting the newsstands, Gary Shirk, a friend and colleague, wrote:

“Yesterday, quite by chance, I learned that my first serious girlfriend, Debbie Y, died 12 years ago. We fell in love with each other and the poetry she and I wrote in English and I later in French as well. She wanted to marry me when I was just 21, but being so young and subject to the Vietnam era draft, I just couldn’t reciprocate. We stayed friends and a few years later she invited me to her wedding. Hospitalized by pneumonia, I couldn’t make it so she and her fiance, just two days before their wedding, visited me in the hospital. We lost touch after that. For her it was the excitement of early marriage and her first job. For me it was grad school, army, grad school and finally work. Fifty year’s later I chance upon her obituary. So in Debbie’s memory
. . .”

When dearest friends die,

Sweet memories fading,

Secret places cry

When dearest friends die,

Tightest knots untie,

Deep emotions raging,

When dearest friends die,

Sweet memories fading.

Also, quite quickly, I got my answer. The verse form is called a “triolet,” defined by the Academy of American Poets as “a short poem of eight lines with only two rhymes used throughout. French in origin, and likely dating to the late 13th century. The requirements of this fixed form are straightforward: the first line is repeated in the fourth and seventh lines; the second line is repeated in the final line; and only the first two end-words are used to complete the tight rhyme scheme. Thus, the poet writes only five original lines, giving the triolet a deceptively simple appearance . . . Though some employed the triolet as a vehicle for light or humorous themes, Thomas Hardy recognized the possibilities for melancholy and seriousness, if the repetition could be skillfully employed to mark a shift in the meaning of repeated lines.”

Hardy’s triolet bears a captivating resonance to Gary’s:

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Since first it was my fate to know thee!

– Have the slow years not brought to view

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Not memory shaped old times anew,

Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Since first it was my fate to know thee?

I was soon rewarded with two previously published poems by Don Kimball, president of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire, the first entitled, “Burial for a Stray.”

Two dogs and a cat who knew you best

came by and sat as I dug a hole.

Azaleas bloom there where you rest.

Two dogs, a cat, who knew you best,

keep vigil here: at whose behest?

Torn ear, one eye: life takes its toll.

Two dogs and a cat who knew you best

Came by and sat. I dug the hole.

(Published in Rattle, June 2015; then in Tumbling, March, 2016)

And one called “Pheasant Hunt.”

Where Banjo points her snout and routs them up,

old Huntley aims his Browning, brings them down.

It’s how they bond, the huntsman and his pup.

His spaniel points her snout. She routs them up.

He drops an outraged ringneck, drains his cup,

reloads his pump – directs a splotchy frown

where Banjo points her snout. She routs them up.

The hunter aims. His Browning brings them down.

(Published in Journal of a Flatlander, 2009)

This last one reminded me of a triolet I wrote in September, while vacationing in Scotland, when I overheard an older lady talking about her late husband’s last hunting expedition (and why he put his gun away forever):

The last stag he never shot

Fixed him boldly with his eye

Dared him, “As you be a Scot,”

(The last stag he never shot)

Think it fair? Think it my lot,

To kill me, gently as I lie?”

The last stag he never shot

Fixed him boldly with his eye.

And, speaking of the Scottish highlands, where rough weather is often a constant companion:

Seasons here are rarely kind,

Fraught with rain and chilling draughts.

Suited best for ewe, or hind,

Seasons here are rarely kind.

Treasure days when you might find

Thin clouds pierced by sunny shafts.

Seasons here are rarely kind,

Fraught with rain and chilling draughts.

The triolet can also express political thoughts. Perhaps this one fits the mood of much of our nation and the world. In line 6, the word “coil” indicates a residue of confusion or turmoil (as in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be,” where he says “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil”).

The world spins away

In chaos and turmoil.

Dark forces hold sway,

The world spins away.

And folk, come what may,

Hold tight to their heart’s coil.

The world spins away

In chaos and turmoil.

But the possibilities are endless, and the triolet lends itself to parody as well as to strong emotion. While walking in the Highlands, I found myself composing modern “takes” on classical poems, such as a familiar Shakespeare sonnet:

Compare thee to Summer’s day?

A complicated challenge.

You’ll hold me to account, I’d say,

Comparing thee to Summer’s day,

And likely there’d be hell to pay

Unless these lines undo the damage.

Compare thee to Summer’s day?

A complicated challenge.

Or to Herrick’s, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” where I try to mime his language:

Rosebuds gathered while ye may

Their sweet petals soon they lose.

Frost warns: “Nothing gold can stay,”

Rosebuds gathered while ye may

Yet the lovelorn swain must pay

Hope’s arrears and sorrow’s dues.

Rosebuds gathered while ye may

Their sweet petals soon they lose.

So, there we have it, the triolet – a verse form for all seasons. Now, once more, it’s your turn.

(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a retired educator who is now a writer, gardener and tinkerer. He can be reached by email at rob.fried@gmail.com.)




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