In poetry, there are three units of architecture, or structure: words, lines, and stanzas. As with all forms of writing, words comprise the most basic level of form. But what makes poetry unique as a genre is verse—lines—which work as both a unit of sensibility and music. Lines assemble into stanzas, or “rooms” in Italian. Sometimes poems can have sections, too, where stanzas are confined yet relate to one another, and sometimes poems can break from line and stanza into what we call prose poems, which we will discuss later.
Originally, poetry was used as a way to remember stories, which were delivered orally by a speaker or “the poet” to an audience. The units created verse, which in Latin translates to “line,” “row,” or “furrow,” musical measures that were easier to remember. Poetry existed before writing; and even after writing was invented most people could not read. Poetry has been a way throughout human existence for people to pass on history, news, entertainment, and wisdom from one generation to the next. With the spread of literacy, the function of lines began to take on more complexity, increasing auditory and visual impacts. By the twentieth century, typeface allowed poets to place visual form at the center of their art.
It is apt that “verse” translates to “row” or “furrow,” words we also use when speaking of gardens and farms (and also to the lines on our foreheads when we brood!). Think of each line of poetry you write as a row in your garden that is the poem. Every garden is different and the plants in it do not simply lie atop the surface; roots go deep and flourish from the nutrients in the soil. In a poem, those nutrients are the knowledge and emotions of the poet which, like in a garden, we do not see. Instead we see emotions and ideas transformed linguistically into imagery and music. In this analogy, words are the plants and flowers that the poet/gardener has chosen, and they are rooted into the earth, into history, into what came before. Words cannot detach themselves from their meanings and nuances. Each is a seed fallen from a mother plant. Poetry, the garden in which generations of words may flourish, gives opportunities for words to evolve. It is why the poet is known as the “keeper of language,” giving words to the unspeakable, naming the unnameable.
In our gardens, the line is a unit of measurement different from that of sentences. A line can ignore syntax and grammar to create interesting effects. For instance, a line can end on a verb and suspend the object onto the next line. This move can increase speed, or the pace, of the poem, as the reader is propelled forward to complete the thought. The line break can also create an image or idea that can transform when the reader reaches the next line. For example, in Bruce Snider’s poem “Epitaph,” the word “alive” creates one meaning that changes with the turn to the next line:
… I could sense
him down there, satin-lined,
curled like the six-toe cat
we’d found bloated in the creek, alive
with lice and maggots.
As reader we think at first that the cat is alive, only to find that it is alive but with “lice and maggots.” The effect comes from the use of an enjambed line, a line that does not end with punctuation. This enjambment is referred to as hard enjambment because it has so much of an effect and impact on the poem’s reading. Enjambed lines can suggest complex meaning, create images or emphasis, and control the music, or prosody of the poem. In contrast, when a line ends with a form of punctuation, or with a complete phrase, we refer to those lines as end-stopped.
Deciding where to break a line can be determined by a number of things: rhythm, rhyme, emphasis, pace, or the way a poem looks on a page. Classic forms predetermine the form a poem takes, and include rules concerning meter, rhyme, and repetition. Some forms like the Shakespearian sonnet include the element of a turn, or a volta, in which there is a marked change in the speaker in thought, emotion, or rhetoric. Forms are fun to experiment with and assert pressure on the writer in interesting ways that result in surprises that wouldn’t occur otherwise.
Today, most poetry is written in free verse, or vers libre in Latin, not requiring the poet to follow any prescribed rules of form. Robert Frost famously referred to writing free verse as “playing tennis without a net.” And as you saw in the previous chapter, Billy Collins has noted the way free verse poems have come to rely on tone of voice to hold it together.
|Do you tend to write in free verse or in classical forms? Why? How do you determine a line’s length and what belongs on it? Can one play tennis without a net?|
In the following poem, James Wright keeps his lines syntactically intact and uses almost entirely end-stopped lines. Read the poem via the Poetry Foundation.
The pauses at the ends of Wright’s lines are natural in speech and adhere to the formation of phrases, the units of sentences. Incorporating enjambment, Wright could’ve altered the music, meaning, and emphasis of this poem if he had started:
In the Shreve High football stadium, I think
Of Polacks nursing long beers in Titonsville.
You can see in this example how the speaker’s thinking is emphasized more than in the original because now the verb, “think,” falls at the end of the line. This formation also sets up a delay for the reader to find out what the speaker is thinking about. If this were the first line of the poem, we’d initially have more of a focus on the speaker and his thinking, his brooding. Instead, the first four lines of the original end with a place—stadium, Titonsville, Benwood, and Wheeling Steel. In addition, the punctuation enforces more of a pause at the end of the line than the break already does. We sense the separation of the places, yet their connectedness through the stanza that joins them, as well as the last line of the stanza which unites the Polacks, Negroes, and watchman through an action: “dreaming of heroes.” The collective action suggests that the speaker, part of this larger community, is also dreaming of heroes.
The only line not end-stopped with punctuation in the poem happens in the last stanza: “Their sons grow suicidally beautiful,” and this difference, as any change does, makes the line stand out. Even though there’s no punctuation, this line is not forcefully enjambed, as Wright continues to adhere to syntactical units:
Possessive pronoun (Their)—noun (sons)—verb (grow)—adverb (suicidally)—adjective (beautiful)
And because he does, there is little if any jarring with the break to “At the beginning of October.”
Overall, the end-stopped lines and syntactical intactness of the lines moves the poem slowly, one step it seems at a time until it reaches its sum: “Therefore,” at which point the poem loosens its pace and speeds up just for a bit, as if the sons begin to “gallop” or run, as the line itself runs over into the next.
At the end of another one of Wright’s poems, “A Blessing,” enjambment is used to surprise the reader with an image that changes as the penultimate, or second to last, line gives way to the final line:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
The hard enjambment between “break” and “blossom” creates an initial image of breaking in which the tone is harsh, violent, a loss, a break in need of repair. But the last line changes the tone with the image of a body breaking into blossom rather than simply breaking.
In contrast to Wright’s poem, the following poem by Aimee Nezhukumatathil employs mostly enjambed lines that ignore syntactically complete units in this poem about the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark:
Lewis and Clark Disagree
Because Meriwether ate the last berry
the prairie dog only let William feed
gave one a necklace of purple quartz
gave Meriwether hives. Because a grizzly
high for hours. Because “Someone” tucked
when he wasn’t looking. Because after walking,
cutting, all they really wanted was a name
“Lewis and Clark Disagree” from Miracle Fruit, published by Tupelo Press, copyright © 2003 Aimee Nezhukumatahil. Used with permission.
The form is almost the exact opposite of Wrights’: ten enjambed lines followed by two end-stopped, then an enjambed line, then an end-stopped line. In this poem the lines break sometimes on the first word of the next sentence. If we were to layout the lines in terms of sentences, we would be left with an almost bullet-pointed list of reasons for why “Lewis and Clark Disagree” and they would look like this:
Because Meriwether ate the last berry without consulting William.
Because the prairie dog only let William feed it dried corn.
Because the Nez Perce gave one a necklace of purple quartz and not the other.
Because Osage oranges gave Meriwether hives.
Because a grizzly chased William into an oak tree, left him high for hours.
Because “Someone” tucked buffalo chips into Meriwether’s knapsack when he wasn’t looking.
Because after walking, rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling, cutting, all they really wanted was a name for a fruit one found sour, the other, so sweet.
Because, because, because, because, because. Instead, verse allows Nezhukumatathil to tone down the repetition of “Because” while also allowing her to manipulate rhythm and layer meaning. Take, for instance, the following lines:
… Because a grizzly
chased William into an oak tree, left him
high for hours. Because “Someone” tucked
buffalo chips into Merriwether’s knapsack
when he wasn’t looking. Because after walking,
The break after “left him” allows the image and idea of abandonment to linger before its meaning evolves into the complete thought “left him high for hours.” The next two lines use the break to emphasize the alliteration of “tuck” and “-sack,” which even continues beyond that couplet to the next with “walk.” “Walk” and “Tuck” also being verbs, we are propelled forward to the next line by action. As for meaning, we come to “tuck” and think: tucked what?
With lines, generally the first and last words will take on extra emphasis, and in “Lewis and Clark Disagree” they have multiple effects. Some lines begin and end where they do to emphasize meaning: “left him” and “when he wasn’t looking” suggest tension that feeds back to the relationship between Lewis and Clark; abandonment and sneakiness aren’t marks of kindness. We read “left him” and think how terrible! We turn to “when he wasn’t looking” and think, oooooh sneaky.
Like Wright’s poem, this poem changes its pattern, moving from enjambed lines to end-stopped lines. The last sentence of the poem is strung out over four lines and arranged in a way so that the acoustics develop the feel of a burden or a long list:
… Because after walking,
rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling,
cutting, all they really wanted was a name
for a fruit one found sour, the other, so sweet.
Listen to how the rising pitch in the first line gives way to a list of actions that propels us into the penultimate line:
. . . walking, [↑]
[→] rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling, [a big pause]
There is a long pause between “pulling” and “cutting” produced from the break of momentum in the list of actions. Nezhukumatathil could’ve placed all the verbs on one line to create an entirely different feel:
walking, rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling, cutting
But instead, in order to keep the inflection and pitch varied, she rearranges words on a line differently, regardless of their syntactical relationships.
|Choose a poem from the Poetry Foundation and erase the lines by placing the poem into complete sentences. Rewrite the poem experimenting with different line breaks. How much of a difference do your new lines make? What happens to tone? Images? Mood? Music?|
Once the lines of our poem begin to find their length of breath, the next structural concern is how to break the lines into stanzas. In classic forms stanza lengths are predetermined. A ballad is written in quatrains, or stanzas containing four lines; a roundel has three stanzas; and a villanelle five tercets, or stanzas containing three lines. But in free verse, the poem’s stanzas are determined by the poet.There are no rules when it comes to deciding what kind of stanzas to use in a poem and usually any reason that seems to intuit itself to the poet is justification. The decisions are based on personal taste with consideration to how it looks on the page, how it affects rhythm and pacing, and what it emphasizes in the poem. Like many moves in poetry, stanzas should be organic to the poem and not feel forced or hokey. And like many of the techniques of writing poetry, knowing what to do comes with practice and fine-tuning our attention to language and the effects of poetic elements.
Like rhythm and line length, there is a nomenclature that permits us to talk about stanza length. These terms are used to speak about metrical verse, as well as free verse:
Couplet: a stanza of two lines
Tercet, or Triplet: a stanza of three lines
Quatrain: a stanza of four lines
Cinquain, or quintain, or quintet: a stanza of five lines
Sextain, or sestet: a stanza of six lines
Septet: a stanza of seven lines
Octave: a stanza of eight lines
There is no way around the fact that stanzas, which dictate the way space is used on the page, create unity and separation. Even if the motive is to break a poem into stanzas to make the poem easier to read on the page—a huge chunk of text can be intimidating and heavy—or even if the motive is to control the music of the language by adding longer pauses—breaking a poem into stanzas invites the ideas of division and unification into the poem.
Just like the rooms of houses, walls say “This is the den (let’s relax!),” or “This is the dining room (no clutter allowed!).” Rooms help us create space and define the tone of that space. When I was young, my sister and I shared a doorway with no door. Our bedrooms flowed into and out of each other, but the walls still defined our own individual space. We were connected as siblings, could see into each other’s rooms, but still had control over what we wanted in our private space. Like my childhood bedroom, stanzas in poems can suggest connection, or confine ideas, images, and sounds to their own space while still sharing the same roof. Punctuation and other devices in the last and first lines of a stanza suggest whether the doorway is open like mine and my sister’s bedrooms, or whether it contains a titanium door.
There are endless ways to organize stanzas and infinite decisions that can be made in the process of doing so. Usually stanzas are built on more than one idea, for more than one reason (like all aspects of a poem). Lines are part of stanzas, and words are part of lines. These three elements—words, lines, and stanzas—work together to cause all sorts of effects from creating music to drawing parallels between ideas and images. There is no way to provide a comprehensive review of what stanzas do, but the following examples will offer a small sampling of what stanzas can do.
In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
will give up on his father.
Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
the day this boy will go. Don’t go!
Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
Let me tell it!
(Li Young Lee, from “A Story”)
In Lee’s poem, the first stanza is delivered in the present tense and the second brings us to the future with “lives far ahead.”
My grandmother crowns the hill,
through rye then cotton
a little nameless river
aimed down the highway by a boy
somnolence of a cowboy radio?
blind into the fog.
so many lines of cause and effect
with his mother’s ribs broken,
of someone else’s child
Everyone is bleeding and starlight
long enough to trace the flight
its wings underlit by brake-lights.
to clatter over the bluff
born. In most,
is rushing the ambulance
moves through telephone wires
with the boy expiring in his arms,
seers his eyes forever.
I listen to the first fire.
Copyright © Chad Sweeney. “The Mile” is licensed CC-BY-NA-SA.
Here, Sweeney’s stanzas bring us on a journey. We move with the grandmother over the hill, then through the grain fields, then beside a river. The lack of punctuation between the stanzas unifies the locations and makes the transitions feel like one journey. Had punctuation such as periods been used at the end of each stanza, there would be a stronger sense of isolation:
My grandmother crowns the hill,
her headlights lathing the dark.
A farm route
through rye then cotton
then the red and gold of wheat.
Then, the scrub oak crowding
a little nameless river
where fog holds to low places.
Stanzas can mark transitions between narrative and lyrical modes, descriptions and questions, and shifts in tone or perspective.
We went to either the Canton Grill
From Gaze by Christopher Howell (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, ). Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Howell. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org
In each stanza we hear a shift in voice. The first opens in a narrative mode as we are given a place and time, a description of the street on which the restaurant the speaker and his dad go to eat. In the second stanza, the voice shifts into an interrogative mode, asking questions about what will be ordered. Though the third stanza also begins with a question, this is a different type of question than what is posed in the second stanza. Here, the voice becomes lyrical and introspective: “Among such succulence, what did it matter?” In the last stanza the voice shifts to answer the question posed by the dad in the end of the third stanza and in this way, the first line of the last stanza directly addresses the dad. In Howell’s poem each stanza is used to mark a slight shift in voice.
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
(Billy Collins, from “Litany”)
As in Howell’s poem, in Collins’ poem there is a shift in the voice’s pitch. But in “Litany,” the stanzas emphasize moves in the thought process that build upon the ideas established in the preceding stanza. You can follow these turns of thought by the transition words that begin them: “You are”…“However, you are not…” “It is possible that you are…”
Passover: The Injections
Clouds pass over, endless,
We lie down in the field,
Soldiers come toward us,
They bend over to the babies.
“We are living in Biblical times,”
Rarely is there one reason for the way stanzas are arranged. In the above excerpt, the stanzas isolate images, but they also organize space and actions. Each stanza is end-stopped, further emphasizing the divide between the fields, the prisoners, the soldiers.
Even the tumbleweed
is a stowaway sneaked in
with the grass seed, given
an easier-to-say name. It became
American. We are lonely
when it stumbles by, but it’s just
a weed. We made it
a thing sadder than itself,
like a nursing home lunch.
(Bethany Schultz Hurst, from “Settler”)
The stanzas used by Hurst accentuate the way the enjambment affects images and sounds. Each stanza break makes the line break even harder. When we end the first stanza, we are left with the idea of sharing or giving something away. There is connection: “Even the tumbleweed / is a stowaway sneaked in / with the grass seed, given.” It sounds thoughtful. It sounds like we are receiving—“given.” But moving to the second stanza, the meaning changes: “given // an easier-to-say name.” This happens again in the transition from the second to third stanzas with the meaning of “just” changing from the idea of justice or fairness—“but it’s just”—to something different: “but it’s just // a weed.” The beginning of both the second and third stanzas undercut the sentiment we are left with at the end of the preceding stanza and the way the stanzas are formed emphasize this change.
In the following examples, one poem ends each stanza similarly and the other begins each stanza similarly:
They grow ethereally, the wild
The crystal sun grazes through
With courteous hands an old man offers
Georg Trakl, trans. Stephen Tapscott, “Age” from Georg Trakl: Poems, Oberlin College. All rights reserved.
If you rub too eagerly
and the head falls to your feet,
you can hollow its skull
and fill it with seeds.
If the eyes are dull
like your clay-covered fingerprints,
it’s best to bend it to a turtle’s shell
and fill it with water and hot stones.
If the mane starts to curl
like a hawk’s talons
before it flies, bite your tongue,
and push the lion to the hearth.
(Tom Holmes, from “The First Potter’s Advice”)
As we go deeper into the craft of poetry the more we find elements to be connected. Stanzas cannot stand independently from choices made about music, line, and diction. Building on the components learned in this chapter, the next two chapters will introduce you to the particulars of sound and then some forms.