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.