Perhaps paradise, too, blooms in due season.
A fragmentary gift that sprouts in piecemeal design
under a chaotic spring, its lesions
perhaps a paradise in due season.
A distant view from a cool hilltop gives reason
to speculations, and frenzies of color align
to show a paradise blooming in due season,
a fragmentary gift, sprouting in piecemeal design.
Copyright 2009 by Janet Butler
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
In August I asked why one might write a text-message poem. This month, same question, but for a much older form—the “triolet”.
Well, for one thing, if you can accomplish a triolet, you will have a piece that requires a second reading to fully appreciate. Inviting a second reading is always a goal of good poetry.
But be cautioned: formal poetry demands more from the reader, who not only has to parse language not delivered in standard speech, but is also expected to understand the rules that the poet was following. (Sites such as Ariadne's Web can help you become a more knowledgeable reader and writer of poetic forms.)
For contest entrants, the use of traditional forms can distinguish your work, demonstrating that you are capable of working on two levels at once. However, you should be aware that while some judges may be impressed, an equal number loathe formal poetry of any kind.
Most importantly for those of us who love to write poetry, a closed form like a triolet gives us something to work against. Until a poet experiments with putting some formal constraints on a poem, it is impossible to appreciate what they can elicit. They can force fresh language, or expand a poet to a more public voice. They can excite rhythms.
Many poets first try their hand at the villanelle, which does share some of the same qualities, but I would suggest that triolets offer a better starting point for explorations. Certainly they make a better stepping stone to the sestina, which so many poets try next and then grow frustrated. And since the poet only composes five lines, it's worth a try.
For this month's author, Janet Butler, it was worth four tries. In her letter she wrote: “I've decided to make July 'write-a-triolet-a-week' month.” She went on to say that she and a long-distance poet friend give each other a challenge every week and suggest a theme. Clearly we have a poet here who understands how structure can support her work and help her become a more accomplished, versatile, and prolific writer.
She has chosen for her poem a complexly rule-bound form. Next, she must choose a theme, something that expresses the properties of its tight structure—that expresses, if you will, its “triolet-ness”. Not surprisingly, she chose: “Design”.
From its first line we are clued that this is a poem meant to be read slowly: the internal clause separated by commas, the slow movement of the “u” sound. It is not so much a proposition (as one might conclude from the “Perhaps”) as a thesis—the word “too” inviting the reader to fill in her own examples.
It asks a question: does “paradise”—a word rich with cultural and personal connotations—only bloom for a season in its turn? The next three lines wonder whether there is ever a time in the cycle of seasons that the “lesions” of the creek, its dry rivulets and washes, aren't thriving with life. Notice she has used a second connotation of “paradise”, this time not a proper noun.
In lines five through eight, Janet is done asking questions. She turns to argument and provides evidence. Looked at from what she takes the trouble to describe as a “cool” high place, the pattern of colors supports her proposition, for at least as far as her eyes can see.
In other words, this is a poem with an underlying rhetorical strategy. It is very well achieved. The result, just as it stands, is very satisfying.
So much is suggested by the choice of the word “cool”. In the same line as “reason” it connotes “mind”, “hilltop”, of course, the cranium. So another way to read line five is psychologically. When, with a “cool head”, we take some perspective, we see that paradise—whatever that means—is not only brief and fleeting but “fragmentary” and “piecemeal”. These lines deepen the meaning of the poem and make it more potentially relevant to a random reader's life.
But again, this is a poem with an underlying rhetorical strategy—in this case, an argument, usually the domain of the elegant sonnet. I wonder if Janet's lines, sonnet-like in their length and rhythm, exploit all the potential lively fun out of the song-like, witty triolet? I find myself reading this as if it were written in couplets, and line five, as I've shown, operates much like a volta. Might this be a near-sonnet dressed up as a triolet? Has Janet chosen the best vehicle for her words?
If it has a weak thread, I would pick out lines two and eight. In these lines the “gift that sprouts” is what is called a metonomy—a substitution, in this case for “bloom”. What remains of the line without these words is “fragment” and “piecemeal”, which describe the bloom.
Because of this, grammatically, they really belong in the previous sentence. But anyone can see why Janet made the choice to end-stop her first sentence exactly as she did. To fix this, she need only remove the metonomy.
She is left with the concepts “fragmentary” and “piecemeal design”. I question these. Not only do I not hear music between the two phrases, but I feel their choppy rhythm detracts from the flow that exists in the first and third lines. Furthermore, I struggle to find what resonates between their meanings. Perhaps the words are too close to one another in concept? Or perhaps they are too abstract. Here may be the place for metonomy. What concrete objects might represent “fragmentary” and “piecemeal” as well as connect to and expand upon the image of a chaotic spring?
But this is just one line, and not the rhyme at that. “Design” rings with line 6, which is a model for a good pivotal line in a poem—that comma handing off the topic like a marathoner with a baton. So not even a line—a few phrases! And whether Janet revises them or not, she has, by daring to work with a form, created a tightly crafted, well-argued and insightful poem.
Where could a poem like “Design” be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Franklin-Christoph Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by November 30
Free contest from seller of luxury pens and desk accessories offers $1,000 for unpublished poems
The Lyric College Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 1
Free contest from venerable journal of formal verse offers prizes up to $500 for poems by US and Canadian undergraduates
Writer's Digest Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 15
National writers' magazine offers prizes up to $500 for poems 32 lines or less; online entries accepted; no simultaneous submissions
Writers' Forum Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by December 15
Monthly award from British magazine for emerging writers offers 100 pounds for unpublished short poems; online entries accepted
Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: December 31
Prizes up to $1,000 and anthology publication for unpublished poems, from an independent small press in Connecticut whose motto is “Delight, entertain and educate”
Nature Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: January 30
Free biennial contest sponsored by the Friends of Acadia, a conservation group in Maine, offers prizes up to $350 for distinctive nature poetry; no simultaneous submissions
The Binnacle Ultra-Short Competition
Entries must be received by February 15; don't enter before December 1
Free contest from The Binnacle, the literary journal of the University of Maine at Machias, offers a total of $300 in prizes for poems up to 16 lines and prose up to 150 words
This poem and critique appeared in the November 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).