The Blog of John Hewitt

Writing tercet and triad poetry

Tercet Stanzas

The tercet is a poetry form with Italian roots. One of the most famous examples of the form is Dante’s The Divine Comedy (aff). At heart, this is a stanza form more than a form for a complete poem. In most cases, multiple stanzas are combined to create a single poem. The poem may be be a string of several tercets. In other cases, the tercet is one component in a poem composed of other stanzas such as couplets or quatrains.

The Divine Comedy was composed of three line stanzas. Every first and third line ends with a rhyme. This is the classic version of the form. It is a three-lined poetic stanza in which the first and third lines rhyme. The second line is blank (unrhymed) verse.

Today, we call this rhymed form an enclosed tercet because the two rhymed lines enclose the blank line. Most modern tercets employ unrhymed or blank verse. An even more stringent form of the tercet is the Sicilian Tercet. The Sicilian Tercet incorporates the enclosed form, but also requires that the poet write in iambic pentameter.

The tercet is rarely a complete poem in itself. Instead, poets write multiple stanzas to create longer works. A famous English example of a poem using tercet stanzas is Percy Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which includes:

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


The triad is a specific form of tercet. The origins of the triad are Irish and Welsh. A triad is a poem composed of three tercets. It is a consideration of three things and their effect on a person. Welsh versions of the Arthurian legends make heavy use of this form.

Here is a sample triad that I have written:

Cold Comfort

My favorite glass folds upward.
Three curved echoes.
Growing large enough to hold comfort.

My blender can spin ice to powder.
Gentle as snow in my hair.
Eager to provide relief.

Parrot Bay and pina colada mix.
Turn snow to sweet cold liquor.
And I can smile now.

The triad is one of the lesser know poetry forms, but it is an enjoyable outlet for expression. You can add as much challenge as you wish. You can simply write in three-line stanzas or you can use iambic pentameter and enclosed tercets if you wish to increase the writing challenge.

Twelve questions that will help you create your character

Use these questions to help define your characters further:

  • How would I describe this character in a single sentence?
  • What type of personality does this character have?
  • What is this character’s purpose in the story?
  • How is this character different from any other character in the story?
  • What makes this character interesting to readers?
  • What does this character care most about?
  • What are this character’s key physical traits?
  • What is the most important thing that has ever happened to this character?
  • What are the things this character cares the most about?
  • How does this character deal with problems?
  • What would it take to make this character change significantly?
  • What relationship does this character have with the other characters?

Writing elegies and memory poems

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? (Hamlet, V.i)

Writing an Elegy

Poetry has, from its beginning days onward, been a tool of remembrance. From Homer’s Iliad through Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade to Pinsky’s 9/11, poetry has been used to remember people and events, both heroic and tragic. Poems of this type are called elegies.

As a form, the elegy is very flexible. The term elegy should not be confused with the similar term, eulogy, which is a speech given at a funeral. An elegy is a poem of mourning and reflection. The original elegies were written in elegiac meter. Elegiac meter consists of couplets composed of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. That traditional meter (we will discuss meter in greater depth soon) is no longer required for a poem to be an elegy. All that is required is that it remembers a person’s death or other tragic event such as a battle or a natural disaster.

Poems of this type tend to carry a lot of emotion. The feelings one has about a significant event, especially a tragic one, can be complex and even contradictory. You might mourn a friend or relative but still be angered by the choices they made. You might admire the heroism of battle but recognize its flaws. Poetry is one way to work through those emotions.

When approaching material of this sort, it can be emotionally draining but also cathartic. Many people carry around these emotions and thoughts without ever being able to express them or consciously deal with them. As a poet, you can at least put your thoughts on paper, which allows you to process those thoughts and come to some sort of emotional closure.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write an elegy about a person or event that is meaningful to you. You don’t necessarily have to approach the most tragic event in your life. Don’t try to take on an event that is still too difficult for you to deal with. Look for something that you can handle.

Today’s Recommended Poet

Dean Young is a poet whose influence seems to increase with each new work. His poetry tends toward the surreal, but is always insightful and often genuinely funny. His poem Elegy on a Toy Piano is written for fellow poet Kenneth Koch, one of the Twentieth Century’s true greats. Don’t hesitate to read Kenneth Koch, but because my recommendations are based on working poets, please try Dean Young first. He’s still alive and worthy of a long look.

Poems on the web

Books by Dean Young

Basing characters on real people

Basing characters on actual people is a fairly common literary practice. The people around you can be a great source of inspiration. I don’t, however, recommend basing a character on a single person. It can be problematic for the following reasons:

  • If that person finds out, they may not like it. It can hurt a friendship or even get you sued.
  • You may be tempted to recreate moments from their life too closely and not let the plot take its natural course because you know how everything took place. In other words, it can be difficult to stay fictional with a character based on a real person.
  • You might find yourself unwilling to portray the darkest aspects of a character because you don’t want to hurt the real person.

I believe it is a much better idea to base a character on two different people. When you combine two people who share at least a few common traits, you can pick the traits that you want and fictionalize the remaining traits. It is easier to demonstrate this process than explain it, so I’ll give an example.

Turning Two People into One

I have two friends that I believe share some common traits and experiences. There are many links between them, but for the purposes of my story:

  • Both are about forty
  • Both have careers in the computer field
  • Both have worked for their respective employers for over ten years
  • Both enjoy watching and playing games such as baseball, pool, poker and bowling.
  • Both have recently bought new houses with their significant others
  • Both own a lot of electronic equipment and gadgets
  • Both are extroverts

Using these characteristics, I have the base of a character. Now I can use their differences to try to make the character unique and to try to fill the story needs I have for that character. Here are some of my choices.

  • Friend A is married while Friend B lives with his girlfriend. For my purposes, I am going to choose to have the character live with his girlfriend, which will happen during the story rather than at the beginning. This is to contrast him with other characters in my story who are already in long-term relationships.
  • Friend A’s significant other has a five year old son. Friend B has no children. For the purposes of my story it is better for there to be a child, but I want the boy to be older, so that he can interact with another boy I have already added to the story. My character’s significant other will have a twelve year old son.
  • Friend B has strong political views and Friend A does not. I think this will make for an interesting character trait, so my character will have strong political views.
  • Friend A attended a university, Friend B went to a technical school. Friend A works for a university, friend B works in the private sector. I want the character to work in an academic setting, so I am going to have him be a university graduate. I am going to add that he is pursing a master’s degree, which neither friend is doing.
  • Friend A dated prolifically and was married briefly before his current relationship. Friend B did not date much. My character will have an extensive dating history and a past divorce, which will set him apart from other characters in the story.
  • Friend A is very concerned about his looks and has a daily workout routine to maintain them. Friend B is neither in shape nor self-conscious about it. I am going to have the character maintain a workout routine.
  • Friend A is a hard worker who takes his job seriously while Friend B is a decent worker but not the sort of person who takes his work home with him. My character will take this a step further than Friend B, to the point that he has a hard time staying busy at work because so little is required of him.

Using all of these traits I have enough information to create a character who is unique, but still maintains many of the qualities of his real life inspirations. Based on what I’ve decided so far, I have created the character profile below. It has aspects of both my friends, but it creates a unique character that should mesh well with the other characters in my story.

Profile: Larry Parris

Larry is a forty year old database programmer at a university. He has worked for the university since before he graduated fifteen years ago. His has excellent computer skills, but his job is easy and he is so settled in it that few people even understand what he does. He has earned telecommuting rights, so he is often not at work and instead spends his time at the gym or at a nearby bar where he watches sports and bets on horse racing. He keeps his computer, phone and PDA within quick reach so that he can fix a problem if he needs to.

Larry attends at least one class per semester, working on a master’s degree in sociology that he has no real need for, but pursues because he finds it interesting. His conservative libertarian political views often put him at odds with the younger, more left-wing students in the classes he takes. He calls them “the crunchy granola people”.

He is attractive and outgoing, frequently dating the women he meets at the gym or at the bar. This has led to many strange and sometimes embarrassing situations that his friends never let him live down. Most of the time, the women are significantly younger and less educated than him, but he soon meets a woman close to his age who has a twelve year old son.

Larry is a little shy of commitment since his divorce ten years ago, but find himself moving quickly with this woman and bonding with her son. The relationship is not without its problems though, as he finds his loose, carefree lifestyle growing more and more structured and restrictive. He also has to deal with his girlfriend’s emotionally abusive ex-husband.

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