Recently there was some heated discussion online about a “new poetic form”, the “anchored terset.” Described in the literary media as “radically condensed” and coined by Lisa Matthews as part of the Northern Poetry Library’s celebration of National Libraries Day, the form comprises three words and a full stop. It is argued that such a condensed form is democratic and suited to social media; anyone may find the time to write three words. This was at the core of criticism of the form, and while much of the vitriol can be discounted there are fruitful lines of critical enquiry concerning the form. Poetry can be described as compressing or abbreviating complex ideas in concise ways which are then unpicked by the reader. Compressing an idea into three words that evoke the right associations to paint a picture or provoke thought is immensely challenging: it may be easy to write three words but picking the three best words is not easy.
The anchored terset is a form which opens up with possibility the more versification one knows; three words is a metrical foot, or a two monosyllabic word foot and another word, or something else entirely. My immediate response was irreverence, turning an injoke into one. ↑←↑ is a shorthand for the visual style of Masami Obari, referring to the opening credits of Metal Armour Dragonar. But this association of robots and tersets got me thinking about where I had seen the form before:
(Hot Winds! Gale! Cybuster!, from Super Robot Wars)
(The King of Braves Appears!, from King of Braves Gaogaigar)
(Through the Night, from Outlaw Star)
The anchored terset thus became inextricably linked in my mind not to monosyllabic molossi but to the theme tunes to cartoons. Its democratic, forward thinking appeal was based on a proven theory of lyric writing intended to be memorable and staccato. After all:
Advertising slogans love the terset form, and if one extends its definition further many memorable phrases and choruses use three and six line constructions.
打ち砕け (KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA)
時満ちて (KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA)
生きるため (KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA)
(Sidonia, from Knights of Sidonia)
One hears triplets everywhere – phone numbers related as three pairs of digits, people shocked, appalled and horrified at a tragedy. Romans saying Veni, Vidi, Vici and Zeroes attacking Pearl Harbour with Tora! Tora! Tora! Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Yet hexameter and trisyllabic feet are less enduring. The alexandrine was mocked by Pope, English verse favours iambs and trochees over anapaests. Finding a poetic precedent for the terset needs a different approach. Alliterative verse provides it. In medieval alliterative poetry the line is formed of two halves, and a structure commonly of three stressed alliterations and a fourth, unalliterative stress. For example:
A feir feld full of folk ford I ther bitwene
Of alle maner of mene, the mene and the riche
Worching and wanderinge as the world asketh
Drawing the attention to three stressed ideas – exactly the intent of the anchored terset. But where does this leave the form? A strange child of medieval verse, robots and advertising whose forbears are all set in a wider context – choruses, slogans as part of adverts rich in connotative meaning and stress patterns in longer poems. If it is a derivation of these traditions, it removes the context and risks being aphoristic. These punchy compressed forms work as punctuation themselves – a terset could end a longer poem as a recapitulation or volta, for sure. But taken alone they feel more like a literary parlour game which shows off a propensity for triplets in English verse and certain types of songwriting.
SHOW ME THE WAY TO YOU (HEAVYMETAL)
LEAD ME NOW WHERE YOU ARE (HEAVYMETAL)
(Time for L-Gaim, from Heavy Metal L-Gaim)