Terzanelle: Poetic Form

What do you get when you mix two super popular Italian poetic forms, specifically the terza rima and villanelle? The terzanelle, of course!

It combines the lyricism of the terza rima with the repetition of the villanelle to make a powerful one-two punch in only 19 lines. The traditional stance on the terzanelle is that the lines should be written in a consistent iambic meter, but there are plenty of contemporary terzanelles that just aspire to keep the lines a consistent length throughout.

Here’s the rhyme and refrain order for the Terzanelle:

A1
B
A2

b
C
B

c
D
C

d
E
D

e
F
E

f
A1
F
A2

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Here’s my attempt at a Terzanelle:

“Big A”

The hardest thing to do is remember
what I just did and what I want to do.
I can still recall that one December

when both the moon and snow surrounded you
like a whisper. Am I losing my mind?
What I just did and what I want to do

vanish completely as soon as I find
the answer. The question a question mark
like a whisper, “Am I losing my mind?”

I’ve never felt comforted by the dark,
but I still remember that winter night
the answer, the question, and question mark

unraveled beneath the frozen moon’s light
like there was something worthwhile to forget,
but I still remember that winter night

in the park in the dark when we first met.
The hardest thing to do is remember
as if there’s something worthwhile to forget.
I can still recall that one December.

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roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.

Ever since college, he’s loved learning and fumbling around with new (to him) poetic forms, whether it’s the shadorma, paradelle, or triolet. When he’s not messing up another sestina or other traditional form, he’s bound to be making up forms to fit the poems he writes.

Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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42 thoughts on “Terzanelle: Poetic Form

  1. ianchandler

    Hopefully this fits the form. I’ve gone over it, but I’m always paranoid with layered schemes. In any case:

    the pit
    by ian chandler

    the fire burned out,
    and you were the tinder, ill fated
    the scent of sauerkraut

    chased me down until i only somewhat reluctantly suffocated.
    i saw you navigate the invisible thorns,
    and you were the tinder, ill fated

    autumn arrived without horns,
    and in between the dying leaves
    i saw you navigate the invisible thorns.

    later, before and after dry heaves,
    we discover the all-seeing eye,
    and in between the dying leaves,

    charlatans line the sidewalk, passing by
    and from the smoke, blue,
    we discover the all-seeing eye.

    the last moon, after what was new,
    the fire burned out,
    and from the smoke, blue,
    the scent of sauerkraut.

  2. LeeAnne Ellyett

    Giving this a try, missed the last one.

    Colours of Life

    Colours of life with unique wisdom and rhythm,
    sharing colours of harmony, our Rainbow,
    Love, embraces both reflection and refraction, a multicolored arc,

    Purple lust, while we tangle in the sheets,
    Passionate Red, when we don’t make it to bed,
    Sharing colours of harmony, our rainbow,

    Envy, the ugly green-eyed monster, lusting, lurking,
    Disappointing blue, who will forgive who?
    Passionate red, when we don’t make it to bed,

    Indigo, is worth the dignity of a half step forward,
    Gratitude, the luster of torquoise, transparent, opaque,
    Dissappointing blue, who will forgive who?

    Sympathy Black, Wedding White,
    opposites attract a family together, beginning and end,
    Gratitude, the luster of Torquoise, transparent, opaque,

    Generosity, soft lustrous Silver, pure, free
    Colours of life with unique wisdom and rhythm,
    Opposites that attract a family together, beginning and end,
    Love, embraces both reflection and refraction, a multicolored arc.

  3. Cynthia Page

    Going Home

    Going home is hard for me and it seems
    while away I found new dreams. I grew strong.
    I’ve traveled new roads, waded other streams

    that pulled me further away. Carried along
    through the tides of change, I learned new things
    while I found new dreams. I grew strong.

    Facing my past, I discover old strings
    pulling me back. Tied together by the past
    through the tides of change. I’ve learned new things

    about them now. Yesterday does not last.
    Memories are deceptive. Changes daunt me,
    pulling me back. Tied together by the past,

    these strangers with well-known faces haunt me.
    The years have changed me more than I knew.
    Memories are deceptive. Changes daunt me,

    but this is family, my first home, so I rue
    going home is hard for me and it seems
    the years have changed me more than I knew.
    I’ve traveled new roads, waded other streams.

    1. Cynthia Page

      Correction to line 8: the caesura should be a comma instead of period. The stanza should be written this way:

      Facing my past, I discover old strings
      pulling me back, tied together by the past
      through the tides of change. I’ve learned new things

  4. rlhodges

    This Canvas

    We pray our children are normal, like us—
    no twists of the limbs or rifts in the mind—
    but distortion enhances this canvas.

    Our shrunken sight isn’t always aligned
    with the Artist’s dream. We think blessing means
    no twists of the limbs or rifts in the mind,

    so when gray reality contravenes,
    we cannot connect our concept of Grace
    with the Artist’s dream. We think blessing means

    a polished body or a handsome face—
    To anything awkward, crooked, or odd
    we cannot connect our concept of Grace.

    A clockwork brain, flesh scrunched into a wad—
    Heavenly eyes have assigned much value
    To anything awkward, crooked, or odd.

    Because humans often don’t see what’s true,
    We pray our children are normal, like us—
    Heavenly eyes have assigned much value
    to the distortion blessing this canvas.

  5. taylor graham

    MAGIC ENERGY

    At daybreak, just see how her eyes burn bright.
    This earth-dark, sable puppy, puckish-gay
    by cell-phone photo taken at first light –

    “magic energy” in dog-form, you’d say.
    I say she’s wild as water, hard to hold.
    This earth-dark, sable puppy puckish-gay,

    quicksilver. She whirls through a dawning cold;
    next she’s scouting wind for coyote scent.
    I say she’s wild as water, hard to hold

    by leash or theory. What was it I meant
    to teach her? The far ridges call her now,
    next she’s scouting wind for coyote scent,

    she startles birds from a low hanging bough;
    a rise of wings, wanderlust song of birds
    to teach her the far ridges. Call her now,

    try to catch her with a rope of flung words
    or cell-phone photo taken at first light.
    A rise of wings, wanderlust song of birds
    at daybreak. Just see how her eyes burn bright.

  6. James Von Hendy

    A Feast for the Bards

    He served a feast of form and offered up
    Delight the way another might provide
    Some simple fare to make a poet’s sup,

    And though we goggled seeing forms collide,
    We sat before the board and took from it
    Delight. The way another might provide

    An easy form, he tried the opposite,
    A challenge filled with twists and sly returns.
    We sat before the board and took from it

    A pleasured pain. It’s how a poet learns,
    We say, and grin. (It’s really how we feast.)
    A challenge filled with twists and sly returns

    Is poet’s play, both game and hairy beast,
    A hearty fare of rhyme and much refrain
    We say, and grin. It’s really how we feast,

    And as for joy? It must be said again
    He served a feast of form and offered up
    A hearty dish of rhyme and much refrain,
    Some simple fare to make a poet’s sup.

    1. BDP

      The Bard’s art of poetry is a feast for bards–that’s how I read this. Love the 4th and 5th stanzas–“(It’s really how we feast)” feels as if a turning point, all the more so because it’s parenthetical, an “inside notion.” I also like: “The way another might provide // An easy form, he tried the opposite….” Seems fitting that though there’s mention pain, you end with joy.

  7. taylor graham

    READ AND RE-READ

    The spine so fragile now, it breaks
    through any opening. Whose skin?
    So leathered against human aches

    and grievances; ungrateful kin;
    the faithful partner slipped away
    through any opening, whose skin

    becomes translucent, thin as day.
    The father dies without an heir,
    the faithful partner slipped away

    like life itself – bone, sinew, hair,
    and breath, a young boy’s favorite song.
    The father dies without an heir

    as time and circumstance go wrong.
    If author dies, must books be lost?
    And breath – a young boy’s favorite song

    becomes a murmur on the east-wind tossed.
    So leathered against human aches,
    if author dies, must books be lost?
    The spine so fragile now it breaks.

    1. grcran

      I like this one very much… you have melded, for me, the story in the book, the story of the family who owned the book, the story of the binding and pages of the book itself, the story of a parent and child, the story of an author and the book she wrote and the writing she did/does… so many stories… and for me, that’s the advantage of writing a terzanelle or villanelle… if you can pull it off, as you have done so well here, then it can have so many different meanings emerge from each line and stanza and word, and from the poem itself… and you have written and structured this one so that the repeated refrains almost seem new each time they repeat, and yet you couch them so that they develop the poem as a whole, even though they are repeated… that’s difficult to do and you’ve done it here, quite well, thanks for sharing this here!

  8. taylor graham

    JACKS ROAD

    Along this county road paved flat and straight
    to the horizon, nothing seems to change
    as horses patient in their pastures wait.

    An orchard’s leafing out. The local grange;
    a windmill overlooks an unplowed field
    to the horizon. Nothing seems to change

    from year to year. But how the sun has wheeled
    its shadows over crops in furrowed rows.
    A windmill overlooks an unplowed field

    where, just last month, an iron gate arose;
    and now a new foundation, scaffold walls
    that over-shadow crops in furrowed rows

    with 2x4s for someone’s rooms and halls;
    more traffic on these peaceful two-lane roads;
    and now, a new foundation, scaffold walls.

    The harvest’s trucked away in dusty loads
    along this county road paved flat and straight –
    more traffic on these peaceful two-lane roads
    as horses patient in their pastures wait.

  9. Sara McNulty

    I admire your talent, so obvious in this tough form. I decided to give it a shot anyway.

    Lost Attachments

    When a union breaks
    friends and family are lost.
    Not only two lives are at stake.

    How great the cost?
    When love has waned,
    friends and family are lost.

    Though part of life has drained,
    you remember still, those faces
    when love has waned.

    Visiting familiar places,
    there is an absence in your heart.
    You remember still, those faces.

    Time has passed since your new start;
    you wonder how others’ lives turned out.
    There is an absence in your heart.

    Even with a new love, you think about
    when a union breaks.
    You wonder how others’ lives turned out.
    Not only two lives are at stake.

    1. BDP

      Nicely done, Sara. You use the form skillfully in the sense that you break it (yes, like a breakup) and then put it back together slowly–the lines are shorter in the beginning than in the end. The feeling is one of bereft at first, and then a slow change to acceptance/wondering/prolonged sadness. The final stanza is a perfect meld of shorter-longer/break up-acceptance. Glad you gave this form a shot! Barb

  10. Amaria

    This form is kicking my butt. Here is my one and only terzanelle so far:

    not a day goes by that I don’t regret
    of leaving you alone and in the dark
    though I try my best, I cannot forget

    I should have kept your light in my heart
    instead of looking for those greener lawns
    and leaving you alone and in the dark

    you began to drown in those sad love songs
    after you tried to convince me to stay
    instead of looking for those greener lawns

    but night shadows now seep into my days
    now that I have lost your heart to the wind
    after you tried to convince me to stay

    though the scars are no longer on your skin
    the pain that I cause you will never fade
    now that I have lost your heart to the wind

    and as I lie in this cold bed I made
    not a day goes by that I don’t regret
    for the pain that I cause you will never fade
    though I try my best I cannot forget

    1. BDP

      The choice of regret as a subject for a terzanelle is perfect, because with regret, we go around and around and around, feeling bad. And it’s hard to forget regret. So you have a good sense of this form, and have done it proud.

  11. grcran

    Green inside Red inside Green

    In autumn, some trees add the red to leaves
    Like wine, like blood, it paints a darker scene
    But green’s not gone, there are no color thieves

    The nature of the beast to keep it lean
    She brings the crimson death which fades to brown
    Like wine, like blood, it paints a darker scene

    Components rot, enrich as they break down
    Must not lose sight of this, whatever comes
    next, bringing crimson death, or fading brown

    or green again, with joyous trills and thrums
    anthemic paeans, tidings great and glad
    Must not lose sight of this, whatever comes

    Let baby bit of life with love be clad
    Birdsong rainwater flow of spirit bright
    anthemic paeans, tidings great and glad

    Unsplitting spectral hues will birth white light
    In autumn, trees may add the red to leaves
    Birdsong rainwater flow of spirit bright
    Green shines in red, there are no color thieves

    by gpr crane

    1. BDP

      Just love the line “there are no color thieves” in the context of your poem. I like how you play with the repetition of that line in the first and last stanzas. Good title, too!

  12. taylor graham

    I’m working on a new terzanelle. In the meantime, here’s one from my book Walking with Elihu: poems on Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith:

    “GRACES OF AN ENGLISH LANDSCAPE”

    “Will the utilitarian and unsparing science of the latter days…shear away these beautiful tresses?”
    – Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O’Groats (1864)

    Of hedgerow tree and hawthorn hedge
    who can adequately sing?
    Who but the birds who nest there at the edge

    of cultivation? Like many a lovely thing
    we take for granted, endangered now.
    Who can adequately sing

    of plough-horse and the brindle cow
    in an age of iron, smoke, and steam
    one takes for granted? Endangered now,

    the unprofitable margin and unbridled stream.
    The picturesque has little place
    in an age of iron, smoke, and steam.

    Still, a traveler’s lightened by the grace
    of unproductive leaf, and shade.
    If picturesque has little place,

    who mourns the work of axe and blade?
    Who but the birds who nest here at the edge
    of unproductive leaf and shade,
    of hedgerow tree and hawthorn hedge?

    1. BDP

      Thanks for posting this. I’m not very familiar with the art form, but this poems seems a very good example of a terzanelle. You show how the first stanza and the last can dovetail skillfully and beautifully.

  13. Susan Schoeffield

    SOLITARY SOLDIER

    Far from home, a soldier marches
    on the move when his country calls.
    More than heat depletes and parches

    and one by one, a comrade falls.
    Smells of death assault each nostril.
    On the move when his country calls,

    unseen enemies grow hostile.
    His air is filled with deadly bombs.
    Smells of death assault each nostril.

    He finds no zone with soothing calms.
    As battles rage inside his head,
    his air is filled with deadly bombs.

    Alone he walks among the dead.
    Unsteady legs, his footsteps slow
    as battles rage inside his head.

    He fights against a ruthless foe.
    Far from home, a soldier marches.
    Unsteady legs, his footsteps slow.
    More than heat depletes and parches.

    © Susan Schoeffield

    1. BDP

      The soldier, so alone in a crowd. And yes, by the end of the poem, “more than heat depletes and parches.” The reader feels this through the repetition of words, through the repetition of battles on soil and inside his head.

  14. TomNeal

    Metaphysical Mind

    Metaphysical Mind does not extend
    Into a ragged space and rushing time
    Without your being there to bring its end;

    To enslave its still point in circuits fine
    Tuned in your busy brain to transform mind
    Into a ragged space and rushing time.

    These circuit chains are light but strong; unkind
    Masters in grey matter- electric storms
    Tuned in your busy brain to transform mind

    Into neural sparks and deceiving forms:
    Shadows that play in brain’s Platonic cave:
    Masters in grey matter- electric storms.

    In matter death lives, but dies in minds brave
    Enough to challenge its temporal thoughts-
    Shadows that play in brain’s Platonic cave.

    To emancipate your slave you are taught
    Metaphysical Mind does not extend
    Into the marketplace where time is bought
    Without your being there to bring its end.

    1. BDP

      Tom, if I read this right, the opening two stanzas set up the cyclical nature of thinking. And the poem continues the ideas of cycle, and end stop, both by commentary and showing. The terzanelle is perfect to show cycle due to the form’s nature, due to repetition, which through the poet’s intent must end. I’ve read this several times, and appreciate your efforts on this one!

      1. TomNeal

        Barb, Thanks for taking the time to read my poem. Although cycles are part of what I want to explore, my main interest is in developing a poetic response to reductionist material philosophies of mind (a poetic version of philosophical works like Minds, Causes, and Mechanisms by Corbi and Prades). I don’t want to interpret my own work. The forgoing is merely a little background. In the end this poem is more of an exercise (scales), than a finished product. I wanted to see what I could come up with in an hour. The form nudged the direction of my effort. That said, I probably won’t use the terzanelle form again. Tom

        1. BDP

          Tom: Since you were the first to post a terzanelle, I figured you were going for what you could do in a certain time period. In the interest of brevity, I focused my comment on cycles, but saw/read/felt more. Seems to me poetic form sets up a feeling different from the feeling gotten from content, but of course all are interconnected. Wish I knew more about reductionist and metaphysical philosophies, but your comment and your poem have got me thinking about them, and I appreciate that. I’ll look up the book you mentioned. Barb

  15. grcran

    oh Robert, I’ve truly enjoyed many of your poems… but this one… for me, it catapults to the top, as I read it now… and re-read it… you’ve put words to the mystery and delight and overwhelmingness of falling in love, of meeting a person who is part of one’s destiny (that’s what I’m reading, anyway…)… I REALLY like this one! I think the structure and word choice and the refrain lines just build and build and it ROCKS!

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