Why not write a couplet?


Exploring Couplets

Good things often come in pairs.  Given the nature of bipolar oppositions such as night/day, heat/cold, in-breath/out-breath, and so forth, one could argue that the universe of our experience is constructed in this way.  We cannot have one without the other, and yet it’s both, together, that make the world as we know it continue.  It’s in the contrasts as well as the combinations.  It’s also a matter of the alchemy of transcendence, of meaning-making, when these oppositional pairs are in juxtaposition.  A springboard if you will.

Consider couplets, for example.  They are a popular poetic form, and one of my personal favorites.  They consist of pairings of two lines, which form a stanza.  There aren’t, as I can discern, any real limits posed on how many stanzas you can have in a poem.  Consider the heroic sagas of our historical past…

According to Lewis Turco’s The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (1986), there are approximately fifteen different types of couplets:

  • Alexandrine couplet
  • Cyhydedd fer
  • Cywydd deuair fyrion
  • Cywydd dueair hirion
  • Nashers
  • Qasida
  • Short couplet
  • Split couplet
  • Elegiacs
  • Heroic couplet
  • Hudibrastics
  • Nasher
  • Poulter’s measure
  • Primer couplet
  • Tanka couplet (82)

Unfortunately, there’s not enough space in this column to give each one its due, so I encourage you to explore at your leisure. . .

I admit that one of my favorite forms is the open couplet.  It’s not that I’m too lazy to focus on a specific meter, as I will occasionally write sonnets and other metered forms, but my work tends toward blank verse.  When I “hear” a metric pattern emerging from one of my poems, I will follow that to see where it leads; but if I sense redrafting the poem in a specific meter constrains the poem, I will allow it to be what it is.  I save these “exercises”—or experiments—for future use.

So soft your lips upon my own

So harsh the moon above

Since most of the poetry I read in public (as opposed to that intended specifically for the page), takes a conversational tone, the meter may shift depending upon my mood and energetic level.  When someone else reads my poetry aloud or silently, the reader’s internal and/or external voice will provide the meter—or lack thereof.  I often ask my friends or students to read my poems aloud.  I’ve learned quite a bit that way.  It enables me to listen/hear/think differently.  This is the beauty of poetic interpretation.  When we allow other poets (as well as lovers of things poetic) to enter our writing process, we step into their universe of interpretation, into their realm of meaning-making.

My friend, the Diva

drapes herself in Tahitian sarongs

gives voice to French and Italian

women who once threatened

to leap off bridges for

unrequited love but it is the fresh

mango of her lips that lure

the audience close then closer

to feel the aria sigh

If you like the traditional forms of metered poetry, you can give it a spin.  One of my oft-uttered adages hails from one of my favorite English/Creative Writing teachers, Ms. Liz Frank-Green, who said:  “You have to learn the rules before you break them.”  I often break rules I didn’t know existed, and as another saying goes:  there’s probably a rule for everything.  The beauty of contemporary poetry, though, is that “everything goes”.

Live from Jupiter

Radio signals we’ve been
beaming from Jupiter

to Terrans our voices
cacophonous?  Off-key?

We’ve had no responses–

nothing intelligible–

what could have happened–

NASA abandoned?  SETI?

It’s not that I have anything against standard meter and rhyme.  I’ve written my fair share. I tend toward assonance and indirect rhyme, more so than perfect, or exact, rhyme.  I think it’s because I like to be more free form, or perhaps it’s because my work seems to flow that way, and efforts to recast it otherwise, often feel more like a dam than a bridge.

the one you abandoned

embraces the unseen

as visible, knows that

love is born of shadow and

only darkness unveils

our true feelings as

she slips into language

abandoned for ancient

tongue of touch

Open couplets also contain enjambment, which essentially means that there is no standard punctuation and one line leads down to, or may be “completed”, in the next line. Many poems are “heavy on” the enjambment, which can invoke a variety of states-of-mind.  I’ve run into the term, “smooshed together”, quite a bit lately, and I have to agree, academic drivel aside, that this is often a more apt term!  When words are compacted on the page (or within a series of couplets), expansion soon follows.  It’s the pressure cooker, or chaos theory, dynamic of contract-expand/order-chaos, so much like breathing.


I will walk outside

inhale the brilliant orange

of Morning Glories

until then

the rain

how it tumbles


Other open couplets may have so much space contained within and surrounding them, that they’re like the Japanese Ox paintings.  When we allow ourselves to “just be”, the mind will eventually grow still and thus awareness is expanded.

on the porch

a mikan* tree

its once lush



by the sun

*Japanese tangerine

If you like minimalism, you may be interested in the zip. John Carley (UK) invented this English language haiku correlative.  Like haiku, they are deceptively simple…One of the unique aspects of this poetic form is that there is a set number of fifteen syllables with two distinct caesura.  The spacing is also very specific; however, I have been unable to maintain the format here:

crimson flash of neon lights
two-for-one at the Zombie Lounge


Author’s Note: This article appeared in both the first and second editors of Poet’s Workshop – and Beyond, published by Sam’s Dot Publishing. The book is available through Alban Lake Publishing. One of the primary edits I made to this article was to remove the reference to a prior call for submissions.


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