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How to Write a Tercet in a Poem

Updated February 16, 2017

The Logic Behind Tercets

One famed American poet who wrote at length about the appeal of the tercet was William Carlos Williams. Williams, who wrote most of his poetry during the first third of the 20th century, felt strongly that poetry should be written with some organizing principle in mind. This was likely a response to the growing popularity of "free verse" poetry, which Williams believed was rather aimless. To compose verse that carried a precise rhythmic pace -- like waves crashing onto a beach -- Williams relied on tercets, which he believed helped the sounds within his poetry to become more measured and natural.

Enclosed Tercets

A popular version of the three-line form, known as an enclosed tercet, follows an "aba" rhyme scheme, with each letter standing in for an end-rhyme. "Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." In this tercet by Dylan Thomas, both "night" and "light" sound alike, making them the "a" rhyme. This leaves "day" as the "b" rhyme.

Haiku

Sometimes, entire poems are composed of a single tercet. English has variations on haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry that often emphasizes images of the outdoors or the changing seasons. Though not absolutely necessary, many poets adhere to a specified syllable-count for each line -- five in the first and final lines, and seven in the second. An excerpt from a series of haiku written by American poet Etheridge Knight reads: "Eastern guard tower/glints in sunset; convicts rest/like lizards on rocks."

Terza Rima

Longer poems, of course, may also use tercets as building blocks, with end-rhymes forming links between each stanza. The terza rima form, for example, follows the rhyme scheme "aba bcb cdc ded" and so on, with white space standing in for stanza breaks between tercets.

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About the Author

Ruth Nix began her career teaching a variety of writing classes at the University of Florida. She also worked as a columnist and editorial fellow for "Esquire" magazine. In 2012, Nix was featured in the annual "Best New Poets" anthology and received the Calvin A. VanderWerf Award for excellence in teaching from the University of Florida.