If you’ve been around yeah write for a while, you’ve probably seen this month’s poetry slam form, the tritina, or its big sister the sestina, popping up on the fiction|poetry grid here and there. It’s not entirely my fault, but I do love a good tritina, and since this month is the anniversary of the first-ever editorial poetry slam (which featured tritinas), I thought it would be a lot of fun to revisit the form.

Tri-what?

If you’re familiar with Greek numerical roots, you’ve already spotted that the tritina is three of something and the sestina is six of whatever it is. So what is it? End words. Let’s talk about the sestina for a minute first, though, since it was the original form.

The origin of the sestina is often attributed to 12th century Aquitanian troubadour Arnaut Daniel; since then it has undergone a series of permutations from number of lines to number of syllables per line; the modern sestina is six verses of six lines each, followed by an envoi of three lines. There is no required meter for a modern sestina, although there have been different metric conventions preferred by historical poets, and of course one can write a sestina in strict meter.

This is a really good time for me to discuss meter with you. More specifically, to discuss meter and the yeah write fiction|poetry grid. We don’t require that you write poetry in strict meter and verse, but if you start a poem that is clearly intended to be in strict meter and verse and then lapse into free verse in the middle somewhere, stop counting syllables in your lines, or drift off-rhyme, you won’t make it onto the voting grid. Keep that in mind if you set out to try this month’s form and write your first stanza in strict meter.

But enough about sestinas: we’re talking about tritinas this month.

The tritina is a 20th century variant of the sestina, and can be a lot less intimidating to write. Like its “big sister” the form is dependent on a strict reordering of end words, but it’s only three verses of three lines each and a one-line envoi. There is no required meter or rhyme, making it a nice, tidy little form to wrap up our year with.

Fine, how do I write a tritina?

Gosh, I thought you’d never ask.

Terminal words

The first thing to do is to pick three words. You can either start your tritina by picking three words that go well together, or you can write your first stanza and take the three end words from it to use as your words. I prefer to start by picking three words. I’ll add a bunch of suggested word-sets at the end of this post, but if you’re picking your own keep in mind that it’s easier if you pick words that have more than one meaning. For example, “gold” can be an adjective or a noun. “Fly” can be a noun or a verb.

Word order

Now that you have your words, it’s time to explore the order in which you use them. If the words at the end of your first three lines are 1, 2, 3, then your poem has to look like this (don’t worry, I’ll give an example of how to write one in just a minute, if you don’t learn well with numeric substitutions): 123 / 312 / 231 / envoi: 1, 2, 3 in order, in one line.

If you’re one of the folks that learns easily with numbers, you’ve probably already picked up on the pattern: each new verse uses the last word of the verse above for its first line, the last word of the FIRST line for its second, and the last word of the second for its third.

I promise, it’s easier to see when you’re looking at an actual poem.

Just give me the #^@#!?% example

For this sample tritina, I chose the words “red, yellow, blue” because they’re pretty easy to follow along with. I start by assigning numbers to those words. It helps if I write my first stanza first, which will give me the words in the order I want to start using them. Make sense? no? OK, here goes.

First stanza. I can’t get “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” out of my head, so I’ll just write something that kind of plays with that idea and uses all three words:

They say that if the sky is red
at night, when the yellow
sun goes down, sailors aren’t blue.

OK, so that gave me red, yellow, blue. That makes red=1, yellow=2, blue=3, since the first stanza the words end the lines in 1,2,3 order. Looking at the next stanza, the words have to come in 3,1,2 order, so I have to end the lines with blue, red, yellow.

So why am I still blue
sailing this sea where your red
mouth smiles and the morning sun is yellow?

The third stanza changes up the order again: 2,3,1 so yellow, blue, red.

I was wrong; the sun isn’t yellow;
it’s white, so white it’s almost blue
it burns me red

Now the final “stanza” is only one line and it has to use the words again in 1,2,3 order. This line is called the tournada or envoi and it should, done well, introduce a twist in the mood of the poem or bring you some new understanding.

I stare at my red hands; fill them with yellow flowers, but cannot blot out the blue.

And there you have a whole tritina:

They say that if the sky is red
at night, when the yellow
sun goes down, sailors aren’t blue.

So why am I still blue
sailing this sea where your red
mouth smiles and the morning sun’s yellow?

I was wrong; the sun isn’t yellow;
it’s white, so white it’s almost blue
it burns me red

I stare at my red hands; fill them with yellow flowers, but cannot blot out the blue.

Your turn!

Now that you’ve got the basics, jump in! Here are some word sets to get you started. Feel free to play with these, pick your own, mix and match or ask in the coffeehouse for your very own three words from one of our editors.


[Hide/Hidden] / Rush / Sleep


Gold / Run / Dark


Together / Was / [Spoke/Speak]


Wave / Bright / Promise


Soft / Sharp / [Sing/song]


Two / Hot / Long


Cattle / Summer / Weep


Morning / Abate / Breath


New / Down / Crush


Eve / [Furl/Unfurl] / Perfume


Copper / Tear / Wide


Stream / Stone / Wild