A new poetical form?

The Anchored Terset is a new, short poetic form consisting of three words, one per line, with a full-stop on a fourth line anchoring the three above it. Here are three examples of anchored tersets, the first being the original terset and the new identity for the Northern Poetry Library (NPL):




In the examples above the tersets are also acrostics, however, this is not a prerequisite and only a reflection of the form’s relationship to NPL. These original NPL anchored tersets use the library’s acronym in their form though general anchored tersets can use any three words.

The form was created by Lisa Matthews as part of her work as Lead Poet on the NPL development project taking place across Northumberland in 2015-2017.

While fun and accessible the terset was inspired in part by the branding created for NPL, though its development it neither wholly aesthetic nor engagement-focused. The form is meant to help engage new audiences for poetry but has its roots, at the same time, firmly planted in poetic provenance and literary form.

Terset rules, ok

A tercet is traditionally a three-line unit of poetry and can be used with a whole host of rhyme and/or metrical schemes. This new terset, with its three-word structure and grammatical anchor, is intimately bound to the concept of a poetic tercet. However, in this new short form, certain rules apply.

  • Firstly, an anchored terset may only be made of three words, and its unusual spelling is a nod to the terseness of short forms. Kennings and hyphenated words may be counted as one word for those wanting to experiment and stretch the form.
  • Whatever three-word combination a poet or writer comes up with, the second rule of the form is that the terset must be anchored by a full-stop on the fourth line (although again, those wanting to break the rules could employ other grammatical marks).

The brevity of the anchored terset leads us immediately to ask if three words can ever constitute a serious poem? Can you really make a poem out of so few words – and if we’re not sure of the answer, then how many words does a poem need to be a poem? Are anchored tersets ever fully realised poems, or rather are they poetic images or sketches/ideas for poems? Is an anchored terset more of a poetic blueprint than a finished product?

Baby shoes

Another key factor in the evolution of the anchored terset is Hemingway’s six-word story, argued to be the shortest story yet written.

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Hemingway’s story carries a narrative microcosm within its brevity. Like the six-word story, the anchored terset questions the notion of how much to say and how much to omit when writing creatively. A poet needs enough words to say what they want to say but no writer wants to use superfluous and unnecessary language. Write too much and you risk losing your reader, write too little and there is nothing to read.

A can of worms

Poetry scholars and academic debate around poetry and poetics asks many of these questions and everything about poetry is contested and constantly developing and evolving.

  • Where does a poem begin and end?
  • Does a poem need to be read aloud?
  • Does poetry have to be on a page?
  • Does it have to rhyme?
  • Does it have to make sense, and is contemporary poetry mindfully obscure and difficult?
  • Does a poem start when the poet first puts pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard or screen – or are its roots in the autobiographical compost fermenting away inside all of us?
  • Does poetry have a purpose?
  • Is poetry part of white, male-dominated European political and social discourse?
  • Why are some poets called page-poets and others spoken word-artists?
  • When we read a poem how are we meant to interpret it?
  • Can we ever be truly objective as poets/writers and or readers? Is truth ever true and do facts really exist?

For a short, 3-word poem, the anchored terset is the opening to an enormous can of worms. On the other hand it really is just three words and a full stop.


Poet Simon Armitage edited a fascinating anthology of short poems – Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems – which can be loaned from NPL and his essay at the beginning of the book talks at length about how short a short poem can get. Armitage describes his early interest in the world’s short poem, entitled “Fleas”.

’ad ’em

Does the NPL anchored terset push the short poetic form as far as it can go? Or do we see a move towards an empty space and silence: three words, two words, one word. No words = silence.

Full stop

In closing it is fair to say that nothing is knowable and perhaps, more than anything, poetry itself reflects this one universal truth: everything is at once unique and universal. As human beings we experience the world in the same and simultaneously very different ways. Poetry, with its shortness and all its space allows the reader to inhabit the text, bringing with them their own ideas and experiences.

Three words and a full stop is one way of articulating the great mysteries of life and we hope, in time, that the anchored terset becomes a familiar form for readers, writers and scholars of poetry. What three words – not forgetting the fourth-line full stop, would you write? Guidelines


For a person who grew up in the 30s and 40s in the segregated South, with so many doors closed without explanation to me, libraries and books said, 'Here I am, read me.' Take time to read.Maya Angelou