Tritina Form

For those who write poetry, you may already be familiar with the art of the tritina. The tritina is my favorite kind of structured poem, and an intriguing challenge even if you don’t prefer structured verse. But if you aren’t familiar, here’s how to build one.

To start with, the poet picks three words. For the purpose of this post, we’ll use milk, coffee, and tea, from my poem “Age of the Sun.” The traditional teaching skeleton for tritinas is a number grid:

1 2 3
3 1 2
2 3 1
1, 2, 3

The numbers each apply to a word. The tritina is written in three tercets, or stanzas of three lines, and each line ends with one of the three words. The first tercet would end milk, coffee, then tea. The second would end tea, milk, coffee, and the third coffee, tea, milk.

The final line of the poem uses all three words in the beginning order (milk and coffee and tea).

Spread out, it looks like this:

The morning starts cold at his table, white sun and fresh milk. 1
The farmer sinks deep in the ridges of his chair, and his black coffee. 2
His wife makes the face she’s made twenty years and pours her tea. 3

I don’t know why you drink that, she says to the green-herb tea. 3
They hear Marjorie’s boy outside bang each knee with a pail for milk. 1
He and she breathe steam in the house whose walls breathe his coffee. 2

In his bones, the farmer feels a cold ghost, and black coffee. 2
They steep dark and pungent through him, like his wife’s bitter tea. 3
Once, the farmer carved this chair; built this house, brought in the milk. 1

Now, Marjorie’s boy puts milk on their table. Coffee is only as strong as he is. They are both tired of tea.

1 2 3

(Note: I cheated on the last line in this poem. Usually, each word would fit into the same sentence. For this poem, I thought separation was more effective. )

If remembering this order is difficult, here are a couple of tips. First, the 1 in the number set should move diagonally right, from the first position in the first row to the last position in the last row. Second, the ending number of one line will always be the first umber of the next line.

Keep in mind that a good tritina is so good it fools you into thinking it isn’t a tritina at first. To accomplish this, some tritina writers allow for the changing of grammatic form–“dark” for “darken” or “run” for “running.” Thematic consistency in a poem is just as important as semantics.

If you’ve never written a tritina before, give it a shot! They’re a good exercise for any kind of writer who wants to experiment with theme, structure, and meaning.

The older, annoyingly better-accomplished sibling to the tritina is the sestina, which is the same thing but with six words in use. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” is one of my favorite poems of all time. Give it a read even if you’re only interested in tritinas; it’s a perfect showcase of how to use word repetition without overusing.

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