Complete a Piece: A Triolet So Tasty You Could Eat it

"A triolet is a poem of eight lines, typically of eight syllables each, rhyming ABaAabAB and so structured that the first line recurs as the fourth and seventh and the second as the eighth"
*editor's note: In composing this article I wrote a triolet explaining the rules of a triolet but before posting it, I had fallen a bit in love with the poem and didn't want to 'self publish' it, as posting would be doing when it omes to submitting to journals. So I sent it out a little and it's been published in Third Wednesday which has been printed so I can include it now! 

How to Triolet

Line one comes back seventh and fourth,
line two is how the poem will end.
Line three's free but rhymes with one: north.
Line one comes back seventh and fourth.
Line five's your choice but rhymes that 'orth'
from one and three—six rhymes two, and 
line one comes back seventh and fourth.

Line two is how the poem will end.

The triolet is another one of those repeating french formal poems, most closely related to the rondeau. Dating back to the thirteenth century, the triolet had a short heyday in nineteenth century England, one writer in particular championed the form and has numerous well known examples. The easiest way might be to look at a triolet that is already famous with some highlighting. It's tempting to go with Thomas Hardy, because everyone does, but I prefer using examples that use language closer to what we will be using so instead I'll use Wendy Cope's "Valentine" Triolet.

Line 1 is repeated as line 4 and line 7
Line 2 is repeated as line 8 (final line)
Rhymes with line 1
Rhymes with line 2


     My heart has made its mind up
     And I’m afraid it’s you.
     Whatever you’ve got lined up,
     My heart has made its mind up
     And if you can’t be signed up
     This year, next year will do.
     My heart has made its mind up
     And I’m afraid it’s you.


One thing you'll notice is that the opening of the poem is also the ending of the poem. So one of the focuses you'll want is to make those lines transform in some way. In Wendy Cope's "Valentine's Triolet" there isn't a ton of that transformation or substitution. For that let's look to a more contemporary triolet in Leslie Timmins' "Triolet for Afghanistan" which appeared in Literary Review of Canada.

     Triolet for Afghanistan

     my country
     is a fractured mirror
     a continuous fire
     a burning garden
     —Asadulla Habib

     At Kag Khana four boys flee
     the peacemakers’ war, the Pashtun lord.
     Sandflies tear their cheeks, scars seed
     at Kag Khana. Four boys flee
     across mountains bereft of the grace of trees
     that will cast them back
     to Kag Khana four shadows to be
     peacemakers, lords of war?


Notice how Timmins uses enjambment and different punctuation to altar the first refrain from "At Kag Khana four boys flee / [the peacemakers's war]" to "at Kag Khana. Four boys flee / [across mountains]". The poet altars the refrain for the seventh and eighth lines in a similar way in which Jazz musicians will improvise over a medley maintaining it's core notes. The specific location "Kag Khana" remains the same, as does the number of boys, but instead of fleeing boys, they are the returning shadows of those boys who were forced to flee. And the final line maintains "peacemakers", "lords" and "war" but pares down the syllables significantly, leaving only the shadow of that first instance of the line, much as the returning boys are shadows of their former selves. Great poem, right? Setting up a dichotomy or dualism is a great move for a triolet, as you have very limited real estate and must make your point quickly.

Now that you've got a good idea of what a triolet looks like, we're going to write one.

1) Decide on a dish that is either baked or fried, which you can get behind describing. Something you really like. If you don't like anything baked or fried... um, just pretend you do and write a fictional triolet. Most poems are fictional, afterall. Even a good chunk of confessional poems.

2) You've got your dish. Now we need to make it sound delish! Brainstorm phrases, sentences or even just words you'd use to describe the look, smell, taste, feel (that exquisite mouthfeel, or its texture or whatever in hand), and even even its sound if your item has one associated with it. For your favorite 2-4 descriptive words check out Rhymezone and write down a list of 4-6 rhyming words. If there aren't a ton of exact rhymes try their smart rhyme feature to find near and slant rhymes.

3) Is your dish baked or fried? Write down a list of 3-5 good words from the the linked list, if it's fried also grab a couple from here, if it's baked grab one or two from here. For each word, write a few fragments of sentences that either have something to do with cooking or eating your food dish. Make sure there's a variety of placement for that word within your sentence. Include some where the word is in the beginning of the sentence, some in the middle, but most with the word at the end. Variety is the spice of... well, in this case, writing your final poem with more ease.

4) Brainstorm any brands or nicknames for the dish you're describing (if it's commercially available). Do a few searches, and look for other similar dishes, noting a few similarities or differences of any. Write down the ingredients for your dish. Google it if you're not sure.

5) For today's triolet, you're going to write your last two lines first. I know, I know, that's the same as the first two lines, but whatever. We're starting with the last two lines. The last two words: "freshly [fried/baked]". So now that you're 3 syllables into the line there's only five left. How many syllables are there in your dish? Because that's going to slot right in there with "freshly baked/fried" so you have the last syllables of the poem as ____________ freshly [fried/baked]. Now fill out the line with your remaining syllables. Should you feel the need, feel free to tack on a couple extra syllables as the metrics are just another thing that it's fun to toy with when writing formal poetry, and many poets before us have done the same.

At this point your triolet will look like this:

1)  ____________________
2)  ____________________
3)  ____________________
4)  ____________________
5)  ____________________
6) ____________________
7)  ____________________
8)  exercise 5_[your food] freshly [fried/baked].

6) Now you're going to to figure out line 7. Not line 1 or 4 necessarily, but just seven. This is the crux of the poem, which is to focus on just how dang awesome that baked or fried dish is. You're writing a line which leads into your already composed line 8, and you should include your favorite description from exercise #2. Remember that the end word's last syllable will be the sound that is most prevalent in the poem, and that line is going to appear in one form or another throughout the piece. One good tactic for tweaking the meaning of a line for repetition is to include a comma. By having that pause, often with only slight re-wording you can change that comma to a period in later repetitions and disguise the repetition with enjambment. If that doesn't make sense, say your dish is pecan pie, and your last line is "a crisp pecan pie freshly baked." And you wanted to use the word caramelize in some form, so you go with "The caramelized crunch of nuts atop" knowing that the phrase can be lead into with enjambment from line 6, as well as be the beginning of a sentence, and even broken into a list (of the proper number of syllables no less) by removing the "of".

7) Look at your lines from exercise #3. Now that you have your final 2 lines, this is where you either round out that final sentence (if your line 7 isn't the beginning of a sentence), set up the final lines, but mainly, you provide some sort of a turn if you can. You don't need to know what it's turning from yet, just, start it off with some sort of action or adverb. For the pecan pie, because it leads into both crunch and crisp, the gooeyness of the pecan pie could serve as the turning point, the contrast to the final lines. So something like "The sweet, buttery goo sub-strate." By juxtaposing the textures at the end it provides the poem a sense of movement. This can be done with sweet/salty, hot/cold, or any contrast in the dish, flaky/smooth, whatever your dish has that contrasts, as most good dishes aren't one note.

8) Now that we have the final three lines all figured out, let's decide how they will lead into the poem. Looking quickly at what we've got for the triolet we'll fill in the repetition finally, and find the puzzle pieces that will fit nice and snugly into the poem's form. Your poem will look something like this:

1)  ___line from exercise 6____
2)  ___line from exercise 5_____
3)  ____________________
4)  ___line from exercise 6____
5)  ____________________
6)  ___line from exercise 7__
7)  ___line from exercise 6____
8)  ___line from exercise 5_____.
 It's time to make whatever small tweaks to the line from exercise 6 in line 1's space to make it a proper start of a poem. If it fits as it is, excellent. But if you can make a small tweak to the punctuation or an individual word or something small that will help the poem from feeling too repetitions despite its actual repetition. Same thing for line 2 which is the line from exercise 5. Punctuation/enjambment is one of the best ways to to work that fresh line magic, so in the pecan pie example, the triolet at this point would look like this:

1)  The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
2)   a crisp pecan pie, freshly baked
3)  ____________________(rhymes with atop)
4) The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
5)  ____________________(rhymes with atop)
6)  The sweet, buttery goo sub-strate.
7)  The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
8)  a crisp pecan pie freshly baked.
And now there's just two lines to fill in, and those will be occupied getting from the written line to the written line smoothly. You're doing that good old creative problem solving. You only have so much lumber to patch up your house, and if you're efficient, you can keep that draft out in your first draft. Don't worry if it's a little rough, you'll polish it up in one final exercise. Here is where your research should come in handy. You have nicknames, descriptive phrases, ingredients, rhymes. Use those lists to put together the missing lines. Doing my part to fashion puzzle pieces for the pecan pie poem here's more progression.

 1)  The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
2)   a crisp pecan pie, freshly baked
3)  from your home oven. What could top
4) The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
5)  the caramely mess that holds the slop,
6)  the sweet, buttery goo sub-strate?
7)  The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
8)  a crisp pecan pie freshly baked.
9) Now you have the poem, but there's a little messiness to it. It doesn't quite have enough. You know why? Well, there's likely a few reasons. For me, is caramely too weird? Sub-strate sounded good when I came up with it but now I'm second guessing going geologic with the imagery. Whatever your second-guessing is, before addressing that, you need to add the final piece! You need yourself a title. And what is extra good about this part, is you have essentially another line with no syllable limitations to give that triolet context. 

Leslie Timmins used her title to provide the context of the Afghanistan conflict to the poem, immediately bringing to mind the specific image of UN peacekeepers with their blue helmets or berets. The way I've decided to attack the title is to use it to smooth the transition between lines six and seven. Line seven, despite my best intentions was a little abrupt, being the answer to the question finished in line 6. As this was the intended turning point of the poem, I draw attention to the question. So, using this method, here is a triolet I've written as an example.

     Another Slice, That's What!

     The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
     a slice of crisp pecan pie, freshly baked
     from your home oven. What could top
     caramelized crunchy nuts atop
     flaky crust and caramely slop—
     that sweet, buttery goo sub-strate?
     The caramelized crunch of nuts atop
     another slice of crisp pecan pie freshly baked.


If you're still having a problem putting the pieces together, or need a moment to get out of your head, perhaps a few more published triolets would help with inspiration on ways you can alter the repeating lines.

From The New Verse News, here is a triolet from poet Robert West.

     Triolet to a Rainmaker

     If only you could get this through your head:
        we’re drowning in a bloody flood of guns.
     We need to stem the torrent, count the dead;
     if only you could get that through your head.
     You call for more guns, everywhere, instead.
        Who knows whose daughters might grow up, whose sons,
     if only you could get it through your head
        we’re drowning in a bloody flood of guns?


Notice West's use of the colon in his first/refrain line? That allows the final two lines to read differently than when they first appear, because that way of breaking the line into essentially two declarative sentences joined by the colon, and then running the lines together with enjambment is a technique you might employ. Being that it's a cooking poem I don't think it'll be as heavy as West's poem, but it's a good example of punctuation altering the refrain. How about this triolet, also, from Literary Review of Canada. They do like their triolets, and for that, we thank them. This is the poem doesn't utilize punctuation to alter its refrain, it doesn't use punctuation at all. Instead it, like Leslie Timmins' Triolet earlier in this article, maintains key words in the repeated phrase, but riffs around them. Here is "Arrival" by Kim Goldberg:


     A land where wolves did howl 'til dawn
     Where muskrats wove each home from reeds
     I don't know why the bees have gone
     Have never heard a wolf at dawn
     The beaver's tail does sound alarm
     no squash will grow from last year's seeds
     On land where wheels now howl 'til dawn
     And townhomes rise where once stood reeds


Now, I'm not a huge fan of the poet's use of the words "did" and "does" in this poem, I feel they're filler words that allow the phrasing they were wanting to use, but at the same time making the line sound archaic, not like something you'd hear someone say. But notice how she maintained wolf and dawn in the first two, then substitutes out "wolf" for "wheels" but brings back the "howl", and in the other refrain maintained "home" and "reeds". It is good to remember that there is no Triolet or Villanelle or Sestina police. If you wanna alter the rules, go right ahead. If you wanna keep calling it that form is up to you. The further you drift from the original stipulations, the more you open yourself up to criticisms or you may distract your reader/potential editor, but you do what you feel is correct.

And because a triolet article simply would not be complete without that Hardy guy, here's two of his triolets. He is, afterall, the form's essential caretaker, being its most famous practitioner. 

     How Great My Grief

     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,
     Nor 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?


See that sneaky punctuation in there? The first time the refrain appears it's a statement, the second time it is a rhetorical question. It's also common for multi-syllabic assonance to be employed with triolet's rhymes, for instance here there's "show thee"/"know thee" and in Wendy Cope's poem there's "mind up"/"lined up"/"signed up". Here is another Thomas Hardy triolet, in this one he demonstrates the tactic of breaking the line in the middle with a period and enjambment to alter the refrain.

     Birds at Winter Nightfall

     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 that crumb-outcaster
     We used to see upon the lawn
     Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
     And all the berries now are gone!


Well, you're done! Or, now's the time to finish it at least in some form. The pieces don't have to fit perfect, they should just fit well. Sand down their sharp edges, their jagged and rough bits. Pare away the unnecessary and don't be afraid to rephrase lines you already are fine with a hundred times as experiment/exercises. See if you can get a line just a little tighter, pack a little more meaning, connotation, description in there. And overall, don't let yourself stop yourself from finishing this poem. You have almost all of the pieces of the puzzle, just finish it up, and worry about giving it a real shine later. Editing is great like that.