Terza Rima Anyone?

No, it’s not a fancy new cocktail or even a rich, continental dessert. Terza rima is a verse form. We associate its development with Dante writing the Divine Comedy in the 14th century. A poem written in terza rima consists of any number of 3-line stanzas (tercets). You might think that once you get started in this form, it’s easy to just roll along – and to some extent that may be true. However, along with the series of three liners, the poem contains a specific rhyme scheme: aba, cdc, ded, and so on. Writing a successful poem in terza rima can be quite an achievement.

Engaging this verse form can be a lot of fun, as well as good practice for anyone who writes poetry. Like a puzzle or word game, the effort combines theme or point of view with one’s verbal capabilities. The rhyme scheme means creating interlocking rhymes to give the poem energy and forward thrust. A description from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch makes this clear:

Rhyming the first and third lines give each tercet a sense of temporary closure; rhyming the second line with the first and last lines of the nest stanza generate a strong feeling of propulsion. The effect of this chain-rhyme is both open ended and conclusive, like moving through a series of interpenetrating rooms or going down a set of winding stairs: you are always traveling forward while looking back.

I like this form, which is not the same thing as being successful with it. In one instance I wanted to write a poem that captured the feeling of solidarity that develops when many different types of people gather together at a concert. I made some notes and a noticed a few good lines. The trick is to write a coherent, meaningful, and graceful poem within the constraints. The first three stanzas appear below:

A couple in torn jeans hold hands.

Men in suits, matrons in brocade

At the elevator we stand


Waiting to rise to the concert stage

On a summer evening’s festival

Purcell’s pellucid web of love and rage


Dido and Aeneas, ancient spectacle

Live on a bare sound stage, nothing

But musicians and singers visible.


The poem went on for several more stanzas and concluded with the description of cars slowly leaving the crowded parking lot – the slow crawl out in a line of bright headlights:


Hours pass. The world postponed

Returns. We find our car keys, nose out

Of parking lots, satisfied or stoned.


I wasn’t satisfied with the poem and didn’t want to publish it. At the same time, this version became a stepping stone to work that emerged later, after I wrestled with the form’s design. Instead of giving up, I expanded the idea, comparing and contrasting three types of concerts, opera, rock, and chamber music. I abandoned terza rima for looser free verse. The result was strangely different from formal verse, and yet I could stand behind it as an authentic statement of my experience. The completed poem will appear as part of a suite of poems at the Creative Pinellas May exhibition. An excerpt below:


Evening silk sky

Conservatory path

The wine bar, statues

Frescoes on the wall

Programs in hand

We stand together

Matrons in brocade

Men in suits, a couple

In torn jeans.

House lights dim

To a string of fireflies

First notes rise, drive

Toward the mounting cries

Of Dido’s lament.

What did I learn from pressing against the constraints of terza rima? Like the principle of entropy in psychology, nothing is lost in the effort of writing. Words move around in our imagination like whizzing molecules, in disorder but seeking shape and stability. One poem led to another, providing a new opportunity.  As mentioned earlier, writing in terza rima is more than a verbal exercise. It produces energy, generates surprise, and can be fun.



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