I’m always on the lookout for a little poetry in life. I love P.W. Norris’ 19th century description of Yellowstone almost as much as I love the waterfalls themselves:

Some of these streams descend by beautiful cascades or in dark narrow cañons, and others, as the Twin Falls, by cañons to the remnants of old slides, and thence by a clear, beautiful leap of some two hundred feet, reach the river nearly opposite…

While I might chastise Norris for overusing “beautiful” there’s really nothing as actually beautiful as a mountain cascade. So when I ran across a form of poetry called “cascade” how could I resist? To make it even better, cascade poems combine my favorite structural elements of forms like the tritina, triolet, or villanelle at a much lower difficulty level. Roll up your pant legs, step into the stream with me, and let’s learn how to write a cascade poem!

Cascade poems: form and function

Like the waterfalls from which they take their name, cascade poems are built on a structure that tumbles downward to the end of the poem. The length of the overall poem is determined by the number of lines in the first stanza. Each succeeding stanza has the same number of lines as the first stanza, but ends with one of those lines, in order.

Structure

If you’re not afraid of math, a cascade poem has n+1 stanzas, where n is the number of lines in the first stanza.

This happens because each stanza after the first ends with a line from the first stanza. The second stanza ends with Line 1, the third stanza ends with Line 2, and so forth. If you’re not afraid of poetry notation, a cascade poem with three lines in the first stanza is described like this:

A
B
C

d
e
A

f
g
B

h
i
C

See? Three lines in the first stanza means four stanzas of three lines each, so that you can use up those first-stanza lines. If you’re not sure why some letters are capital and others are small, it’s because the capital letters describe exact copies rather than just rhyme matches. Check out our triolet tutorial for a refresher on notation!

There’s no length requirement, though, so you could start your cascade poem with a stanza of any length, from two lines to two thousand. A two-line-stanza cascade poem would look like this:

A
B

c
A

d
B

See how the scheme carries through?

Rhyme and meter

There is no requirement to use a rhyme scheme in cascade poetry, although you are welcome to do so. Keep in mind the overall structure of the poem, however: if you use an ABA rhyme scheme for your first stanza, one of your stanzas will end with a B rhyme. You’ll need to account and adjust for that. You could, however, easily push the envelope with a rhyme scheme that went AAA, bbA, ccA, ddA. (Accessibility note: If you’re colorblind, those A’s are different colors, in order, to show that they’re actually not the exact same line but three different lines using the same rhyme.)

Likewise, there is no requirement to use any specific meter, although any metric scheme you set up in the first stanza should continue through the poem.

Example

All that notation and theory is great, but personally I think it’s easiest to learn a new form when you’ve got an example to work from. So let’s write a sample cascade poem together, referring back to the instructions where we need to.

I’m going to use a three-line stanza, and you may want to as well. A poem with a total of four stanzas tends to be a good amount to work on while not feeling overwhelming. A four-line stanza is also a good length for a first cascade poem, but honestly this post is long enough already and you don’t want to sit through my ramblings.

Because I’m writing this quickly and for a tutorial (be gentle!) I’m not going to bother with rhyme or meter. The important thing to remember there is that I need to make sure I don’t put in an accidental rhyme or common metric line like iambic pentameter or tetrameter. (If I’ve lost you with the scansion talk, here’s a refresher for you. And incidentally a sonnet tutorial.) I’ve got water on the brain, so let’s see what I can come up with.

She moves like a spring flood, rushing by
the leaves and leaving puddles in her footprints
it seems impossible that frost will come again

That works okay for a first stanza. I don’t think I’ve boxed myself in with any of the lines. That is, they go together well, but none of them ends on a cliffhanger or is the beginning of a fragment. All of those things would be manageable and are certainly a style, but they can make a poem harder to write or read, so make conscious choices when you set them up.

My second stanza needs to end with Line 1 of my first stanza, “She moves like a spring flood, rushing by”

I measure my life in the arc where the second hand pauses
Waiting for gears to shove it forward to the next tick
She moves like a spring flood, rushing by

The third stanza has to end with Line 2. I’m struggling a bit with this one, because I haven’t set up a metaphor for leaves, I’m at clockwork and time. I might have to rewrite the second stanza later to get myself back to a nature image, but I’ll leave it for now. No pun intended.

If I’m a breath on a window, a handprint in the fog watching,
She’s the rain outside, pushing down
the leaves and leaving puddles in her footprints

That’s back to the nature metaphor so it looks like I’ll definitely be rewriting the first stanza. It’s really tempting at this point to just go back up and delete that bit and make myself look like the kind of person who can just bang out a good poem, but that feels a bit like cheating. Also I learn more from understanding what mistakes other people are making, so it would be a little disingenuous of me to pretend I don’t make any instead of giving you the benefit of them. Anyway, on to my last stanza. I really like a good turn in a poem, and this is the place to do it. The first bit of my poem has been energetic, a little wistful, with a strong connection between narrator and subject. Let’s break that up, as long as we can do it and conclude with Line 3 of the first stanza:

I want to press the flowers of these days
Trap them between yellowing pages as a reminder: there are still times
it seems impossible that frost will come again

That feels good; I just changed up the way the reader sees the descriptions in the first three stanzas. To really make it work, though, I’ve absolutely got to toss that second stanza and redo it in a gentler, more hopeful and excited way. I’ll go copy it into my “darlings” file, where I save my murdered darlings from other pieces that might get a second life somewhere else. Okay. Let’s go in again, ending with she moves like a spring flood, rushing by. Maybe I can pull the frost back in. That’s one of the things I like about tritinas, that circular flow of words, so let’s get it going in this cascade poem too.

On mornings when windowsills are sewn shut with frost
And even the sun can’t coax the buds skyward
she moves like a spring flood, rushing by

Ok, that’s better. Now that I know what’s coming in the third and fourth stanzas, I’ve woven in the windows, the frost, the sun as a symbol of hope. Let’s see what it looks like all together, and tidy it up a bit where it needs tidying. I’ll boldface the repeated lines so they’re easy to see, but you shouldn’t do that for your finished poem.

She moves like a spring flood, rushing by
the leaves and leaving puddles in her footprints
it seems impossible that frost will come again

On mornings when windowsills are sewn shut with frost
And even the sun can’t coax leaf-buds skyward
she moves like a spring flood, rushing by

I’m breath on a window, a handprint in the fog watching;
She’s the rain outside, pushing down
the leaves and leaving puddles in her footprints

I want to press the flowers of these days
Trap them between yellowing pages to remind me: there are times
it seems impossible that frost will come again

And there you have it, a cascade poem. Remember, I could have set a meter or rhyme scheme, but I didn’t. You can if you like. Ready to try your hand? Start writing. We’ll see you on the Fiction|Poetry grid!

About the author:

Rowan submitted exactly one piece of microfiction to YeahWrite before being consumed by the editorial darkside. She spent some time working hard as our Submissions Editor before becoming YeahWrite’s Managing Editor in 2016. In real life she’s been at various times an attorney, aerialist, professional knitter, artist, graphic designer (yes, they’re different things), editor, secretary, tailor, and martial artist. It bothers her vaguely that the preceding list isn’t alphabetized, but the Oxford comma makes up for it. She lives in Portlandia with a menagerie which includes at least one other human. She blogs at textwall and CrossKnit.

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