Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday Poetry Stretch - Terza Rima

I've been sonnet writing lately, so I have iambic pentameter on the brain. I need, however, to try a different form, so this week I've chosen terza rima. The Handbook of Poetic Forms defines it in this fashion.
Terza rima is a tumbling, interlocking rhyme scheme that was invented by the thirteenth-century Italian poet Dante for the creation of his long poem, The Divine Comedy.

Terza rima (an Italian phrase meaning "third rhyme") consists of a series of three-line stanzas (tercets) with the rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc ded and so on. It can go on as long as the poet wishes. At the end of the poem an extra line is often added to complete the structure: yzy z.
You can read more on this form at Generally, terza rima is written in iambic pentameter, though you will find exceptions. One notable one is this terza rima by William Carlos Williams. You'll notice a lot of near rhyme and then ... not so much.
The Yachts

contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too-heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows
to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.
Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls

Read the poem in its entirety.
Here is a clearer example of the form.
Ode to the West Wind
Percy Bysshe Shelley

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Read the poem in its entirety.
Will you join me in writing a terza rima? Leave me a comment about your poem and I'll post the results later this week.


  1. Wrote this a while back. I like terza rima for long narratives.

    Faust in the Industrial Age

  2. Here's mine (kind of terza rima with my own little twist):


    See the flakes dancing in the air-
    White, fluffy, like cotton candy
    Look around – they’re everywhere.

    Floating slowly they hit the ground
    Squishing as they hit their landing
    They do it all without making a sound.

    Now, run and build a snowman – quick!
    Don’t wait for later in the day
    Hurry, do it, lickity-split.
    Or the snow might melt away.

    So, go outside, now, run and play!

  3. This is a tough Monday Stretch, Tricia. I love terza rima - it's naturally elegant, I think, and feels a little like only the gods (like Dante) can do it right. I've posted my attempt called "The Doctor Says, 'He Has Meningitis,'" over at The Drift Record

  4. Yikes, this IS a tough one, but I'm going to try to do one today. But at the risk of sounding totally stupid, Williams' poem doesn't seem anywhere close to following the rhyme scheme of terza rima. It's in tercets, but...I Googled it and get tons of hits, so I guess it's widely accepted as terza rima, but I don't understand why. Help?

  5. I don't know if I'll play, but I just wanted to note that one of my favorite poems of all time, Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," is in terza rima. My most recent Mama, PhD blog post takes off from it, sort of.

    (I agree with Laura that the Williams poem clearly begins in terza rima, but then seems to me to let the rhyme scheme get more and more tenuous until it floats away entirely. It's a lovely poem nonetheless...)

    Also, thanks for the link to the piece yesterday, which I am about to link to as well.

  6. Terza rima is one of my favourite forms... here's one I wrote this week:

    What remains


  7. I posted one (rather stretching the definition I am afraid) on Julie Larios' blog about Dick Cheney's confession that he thinks waterboarding is okay.

    I find it a difficult form which begins to dictate to the poet. Maybe I need to do more of them.I haven't really tried them since college--back in the Eocene.


  8. I posted mine here, Tricia:

    Fun challenge this week!

  9. William's "terza rima" reminds me of how irritated Douglas Hofstadter was in "Le Ton Beau de Marot" with translators who abandoned the terza rima rhyme in Dante's Inferno. Hofstadter told them to "TRY HARDER!!!" But Williams knew how to use form when he wanted to, so there must be something he was trying to emphasize by opening with it & then abandoning it. Something about order vs. disorder, maybe?

    I agree, Laura, it's a puzzle.

  10. I'm delighted to participate this week! I have been so buried with work and preparing for concerts that I have only now just come up for air.

    And I present:

  11. I'm working on this but don't think I can pull it off today. Glad to see others got it done! I am also puzzled by the Williams example. It's complicated!

  12. you'll be shocked to see I played along this week, Tricia: