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Stanzas



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Stanzas


Welcome!

This article will cover the differences between lines and stanzas, the names of stanzas and special rhyme schemes, the reading of stanzas, where to break a poem to create stanzas, the white space created by stanzas, enjambment, and how stanzas have changed over time. To begin with, let's talk about what a stanza is.

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Aley says...



Stanzas and Lines

The basic definition of a stanza is that a stanza is a set of lines offset from another set of lines. In most cases, people will refer to stanzas as unique entities within the poem. They are also thought of as the "paragraphs" of the poetry world. While these distinctions work as a beginning to understanding, once you get into writing poetry, it becomes much more complicated.

A stanza becomes a section of a poem that holds together as a single idea. The words within the stanza often relate to one another in a way that is deeper than just being a single sentence, or sentences. The words within stanzas often interact via their locations in the lines relative to one another, and where they lie on the page.

For instance, a poem can change dramatically depending on your choice of what word should end or begin lines within a stanza. If you put words like "and" or "but" at the beginning of lines in a stanza, it becomes a softer, more unsure poem, versus putting them at the end of lines. This is complicated by comparing what words end or begin lines between stanzas. One stanza can be weak because it begins or ends with "off" words like prepositions and conjunctions, while another can be a strong stanza because it has all "on" words at the beginning and end like nouns and verbs.

That being said, the relationship between lines and stanzas is incredibly important to the idea of what a stanza is. A stanza is made up of lines, and those lines are made up of unique pairings of words and phrases. These words are supposed to relate to one another outside of just the connotations of the sentence, and are supposed to evoke new understandings when combined independent of the rest of the sentence. If you read a single line of a poem, it should be an idea which develops a new comprehension of the poem in some way.

This is a tall order for something as necessary to poetry as stanzas seem to be. If you spend every moment of writing a poem thinking about the lines, you would never get to the stanza. That concept of unique development of ideas, of comparing words to create meaning, is nearly the same as for a stanza. The difference is that stanzas compare words above and below one another on the page just as lines compare words next to one another.

Another way to look at it is that stanzas compare in context and meaning where lines compare in denotation (definitions) and connotation (implied meaning). If you look at the stanza of a poem, you're more likely to be looking at the "big picture" or the overall message of the piece rather than the specific words.

That being said, stanzas are also the witty part of poetry, the challenge for many older poets, and the outline for many new ones. This is where stanza names come into play. Many of these stanza names carry a connotation along with them that when you use that name, you are creating a structured unit within the poem where the conventions of that named stanza are in place.

As a brief example, when you use a couplet, a set of two lines, it is an intimate thing, maybe even a turn of the poem, or the ending. It is either a strong thing, or a revealing weakness depending on the subject. Quatrains, the other really common stanza, are four lines together, and as two couplets, they are more the explanation, the description, and the story. They are the body of most structure, and even longer structures are based in quatrains because they have the basics of rhyme covered. Those rhymes create a whole new level of relationship in the poem. Two rhymed lines should be lines that read together and make a new meaning fitting within the meaning of the stanza and the actual meaning of the sentences of the poem.

The funny part of all of this is that most poets don't pay two seconds of thought on where their stanzas go. They just hit enter a few times when they think they're done with an idea. Oftentimes, this works perfectly fine, but it misses some of the complexities that can be embedded into the poetic universe of stanzas.

  





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Stanza Names

These names may be familiar to some of you as some simple ones like couplets and quatrains are still in use today. All of the names I'll be listing will be under a number corresponding to the number of lines per that stanza's name. For example, a couplet is a two-line stanza, meaning that within the stanza, there are two lines. Some numbers will have more than one name listed because of the evolution of stanza names over time.

    2
    Couplet

    3
    Tercet

    4
    Quatrain

    5
    Quintet
    Quintain
    Cinquain

    6
    Sexain
    Sextet
    Sextain
    Sestet
    Hexastich

    7
    Septet

    8
    Octave

Five and six-line stanzas have a plethora of names, some of which have a variety of uses. The cinquain, for instance, is a structure as well as a name of a five-line stanza. So as not to confuse the two, most people use quintain for a five line stanza without that structure, and cinquain for the poetic structure.

Six-line names don't have as many structures that correspond with the different names, so using the names becomes a personal preference. I prefer hexastich because it's fun, but another popular choice is sexain. I'll be sticking with hexastich because it is more fun to write.

  





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Rhymed Stanza Names

Similar to the list above, I will be breaking the list of names into sections for each number of lines in a stanza, but I will also add a rhyme scheme pattern after each name. Each letter represents one line in the stanza and each letter [aside from x] corresponds to a rhyming set. When you see two of the same letter, such as aa, they are two lines that rhyme together. "x" is the exception because that will mean an unrhymed line. This means axa, the triplet, is a line that rhymes with the last line, and not with the center line.

For the sake of ease, I will capitalize all names of stanzas but I will not capitalize structure names unless the structure name is also the stanza name.

Now for the complicated part. It is an acceptable practice when talking about stanza rhyme schemes to talk about larger stanzas in terms of smaller sub-stanzas to explain the rhyme scheme. For instance, you can write a sonnet in a single stanza, but when describing the style, you would say you used "three cross-rhymed quatrains, and a rhymed couplet" despite formatting the final poem as a single stanza. You could also say that you used "three enveloped quatrains and a rhymed couplet" regardless of if your poem contains only one stanza, or two stanzas, or is split into all four individual parts. However, the sonnet would still be most simply described as "three quatrains and a couplet" when talking about the poem because of the rhyme pattern.

If you want to know the particulars about any of these names, look them up! The information down here is not enough to write in certain structures.

    2
    Rhymed Couplet - aa

    3
    Triplet - axa

    4
    Cross Rhyme – abab
    Envelope Rhyme – abba
    Quatrain of couplets – aabb (also a clerihew)
    Monorhymed – aaaa
    "Ballad" – xaxa (in iambic)
    "Ode" – xaxa (in iambic pentameter)
    Elegaric Quatrain – xaxa (in iambic pentameter) (also a Heroic Quatrain)
    Rubai – aaxa

    5
    --

    6
    Venus and Adonis – ababcc (more frequently known as a cross rhymed quatrain and a rhymed couplet)
    Burns Stanza – aaabab (a has four feet, b has two) (also a Scottish stanza or Standard Habbie)
    Sextilla – aabccb or ababcc (8 syllables per line) (also a sestina)

    7
    Rhyme Royal – ababbcc (iambic pentameter) (also a trolius stanza)

    8
    Ovatta Rima – abababcc (10 or 11 syllables per line)
    Ballad Standard – ababbcbc
    Huitain – ababbcbc or abbaacac (8 or 10 syllables per line)
    Sicilian Octave – abababab

    9
    Spensearian Stanza – ababbcbcc (First octave in pentameter, last a rhyme is hexameter)

As you can see, some of these rhyme schemes are rather tedious to remember, which is why a list is nice. Any rhyme scheme can be broken down into smaller chunks and still be explained, however. As I said earlier, these stanza names are not always offset as stanzas on their own.

This also goes back to the idea of internal meaning and complete ideas because you can consider any four lines which have a single grouped meaning a quatrain even though they might not be offset as a stanza on their own. For that reason, you can think of these as ways to talk about sets of lines in a poem rather than as whole stanzas that will always have to be offset.

You can build your poem's structure by talking about the sub-stanzas rather than the stanzas with white space. For instance, you can use words like couplet, quatrain, and triplet to describe what you're using to make the sub-stanzas. This approach can be confusing when looking at descriptions of structures, so it is best to find examples of those structures and mark up the poem to see how the author interpreted the stanza instructions. Shadow Poetry will often provide rhyme schemes like aba bcb … to explain their structures, which is incredibly helpful, and why that site is one of my favorites.

  





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Reading Stanzas

Reading Stanzas seems like it should be straightforward, but if you have ever talked to a poet about how to read a poem, or seen a beat poet perform and then read the transcript of the poem, you will quickly understand that the written word is not always easy to translate to audio, or vice versa.

Stanzas started out pretty straightforward, and most, if not all, stanzas ended with end punctuation of some sort. They had a period, exclamation point, or question mark at the end of the last word of the last line of the stanza. That made it easy to read -- you stop, give a little more of a break than if you were reading the end of a line that has end punctuation, and then keep reading.

Today, not all poems always have punctuation and not all stanzas end with a punctuation mark. That being said, reading the end of a stanza becomes more confusing. Do we pause? Do we not? Do we take our best guess and just go with it? Usually the third one is the best choice, but here are some general rules for how to figure out what the poet wanted when they wrote the poem.

Usually a poet who wants you to stop at the end of a stanza will make it easy and actually put in the end punctuation at the end of the stanza. When you don't see end punctuation in one stanza, but you do in others, chances are they want you to read through and follow the punctuation. Punctuation in poetry is the reader's guide for how the poet wants them to read the poem. Capitalization is also a good indicator. If a stanza doesn't have end punctuation, but the next line has a capital, usually that means the poet wants a bit of a pause or for the reader to exaggerate or heighten the sound of the next word vocally if they read through it without end punctuation.

If the poem isn't using any punctuation, chances are it is up to how you're reading the words, and what you're putting together as sentences. Read it in a normal speaking voice and feel your way around the words. Try repeating them, or re-reading if something sounds off. Don't be afraid to play around with different ways of reading the poem, either.

Some of the things you can do if you're unsure of how to tackle a stanza end is to say the last word longer, draw it out, and then read through as if it is all one sentence. If it is a single sentence and you see the end punctuation down below, then read through the break without pausing because the break is a visual aspect of the poem that isn't as important audibly as it is visually. The poet is probably trying to create some depth to the last stanza by splitting off the last phrase of the sentence. That's not something you can read into a poem with a simple pause, but it might be a good spot for a breath if you're breathless. You can also change tempo to indicate that type of split.

In the end, the rule of thumb when reading poetry with punctuation is to read it as it is punctuated, and not like it is split into stanzas and lines. When a poem doesn't have punctuation, read it for capitalization, and when it has neither, read it for how the words sound together as sentences or ideas to you. It's basically a free card for reader's discretion in a poem.

  





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Breaking Into Stanzas

When you're writing a poem, it's completely acceptable to just hit enter whenever you think the poem "needs" it. However, there are some general guidelines for how to make effective stanzas that are good to keep in mind when you're going back through a poem and editing it.

One of my favorite challenges for people is to have them put their poem into a single block of text, a single paragraph, and then break it into lines and stanzas from there.

Start with the stanzas, and break away ideas that you think sound good together. Don't rely on sentences completely, but look at the poem as if it had no punctuation, and put ideas together into groups of ideas, and break the stanzas like that. Once you have your stanzas, start breaking them into lines. Each line should be a unique idea that fits together both within the context of the sentence, and within just the line itself. No boring lines without any new ideas like "and then they" or "so then" which don't do much heavy lifting when it comes to engaging the brain.

Now that you have my favorite challenge, let's get into some of the complexities I was talking about earlier in the section about what makes a stanza. I want to talk about the reader reactions to stanzas, and white space. These topics are important because they can dramatically change how you use stanzas in your poems.

Reader Reactions

Today, poems are not widely accepted as anything but a niche thing. Many people "do not like" poetry and will complain if you try to do anything poetic with them. Because of that, the look of a poem when you first see it is important. Stanzas make up a part of that idea.

Usually when a reader first sees a poem with stanzas, they are more likely to read it because it looks shorter. They will then check the length of the poem to make sure it isn't an optical illusion. Having space to rest your eyes is nice for most readers. It creates a feeling of reading little quotes or sayings rather than a whole poem. A poem without stanzas can give the impression of being imposing, a bit too much to read for some readers, but they can also give the impression of being loose or informal.

Having stanzas in a poem makes the poem seem more rigid in its ideas. The ideas are already grouped for the reader, so the reader has to work "less hard" to see the ideas even though stanzas create another layer of interpretation.

Deciding if you want to have stanzas in your poem or not really comes down to how you want the poem to appear when you first look at it. The same aesthetic consideration also applies to the lines. Do you want a uniform look? Make all of the lines similar lengths, and have the same number of lines in every stanza. Do you want a poem to look looser? Have the line lengths differ, even dramatically change from line to line, and then dramatically change how many lines are in a stanza.

The more lines in a stanza, the more a reader can interpret the mood of the stanza as frantic, calm, dramatic or secretive. It depends on the poem and the reader, but exploring all of the variations is a good idea if you're unsure how you want to split stanzas.

A simple approach is to think about how you respond to reading a poem with stanzas, and assume that other readers are the same. Do you like the dramatic ending of a single-line stanza with just three or four words? Use it. Don't want to be a dramatic writer? Don't use it. It is all about perception.

That being said, white space is a huge part of how a poem is perceived upon first glance.

White Space

Just as in art and decorating, white space is the area that is left blank on purpose. In a poem, white space is made up of the area that is not filled by words, including above and below each letter. For readers, it can create a subconscious feeling of emptiness, or loneliness, in a poem.

Remember the example I used of a single-line stanza? They can be really effective ways to create very important lines in a poem. A line that is worthy of being a stanza alone is a line that poetry analysts will examine closely, and that readers will regard as the gospel of the poem. Using single-line stanzas effectively can make or break a poem.

It all comes down to white space.

The white space around and within a poem works as a place to rest the eyes. Sometimes a poet uses white space in unique ways that help balance the meaning and the words on the page. One of the ways that a poet does this is to set certain important lines away from the rest of the text, like I have done with the previous paragraph, offsetting it as just a single line. In a poem, this makes that sentence feel, or look, more important, or it can make the line appear isolated and lonely. It depends on the tone of the poem. In contrast, clumped lines will often look more comfortable and tucked together.

White space also includes the vertical areas, or margins, beside the lines, such as all of the space before and after "down to white space." which fills out the rest of the page. This area can often create designs and/or a feeling of symmetry, disjointedness, or unity depending on the tone of the poem and how it is used. This is one of the reasons why many older poems were centered on the page as the themes of symmetry and unity were common, and sometimes required, for certain forms. Today, centering your poem makes it look childish and like song lyrics. Oftentimes a poet will avoid centering a poem as a taboo in today's style of writing due to the connection with amateur writers.

Marginal white space can be invaded by a line in order to create the drama that a mostly-symmetrical poem needs. Take, for instance, the following poem excerpt.

    We would see the sun;
    the moon would set.
    Noon or Midnight could be a new day
    We would have to pick.

The line with "Noon or Midnight" can be seen jutting into the white space around it creating an imbalance in the poem. Given many stanzas like this, the poem can look symmetrical, but if the majority of the lines are no longer than the first or fourth line, then that particular line is going to draw more attention and "be a new day" will be weighed heavily as something important to readers.

Another way white space works in poems is that the words can be seen as something invading the white. This often comes up in poems talking about writers block. The idea is that if you flip the white-space, you can create images with the poem, or, you can use the outline of the words as a drawing tool. e.e. cummings was famous for this type of shape poetry, and it revolutionized how poets use white space upon the page. For instance, today, a poem can drift across the page and begin the line towards the middle or edge of the far side, and that can create an image of waves, or bunch words together vertically.

If we look back at the previous example, the words "sun", "set", "pick" all line up. They're also at the end of their lines too. From that, we can interpret that they're all bunched together. If we change the poem, we can make different words, or word groups, bunch together simply by moving the words.

    We would see the sun;
    the moon would set.
    Noon or Midnight could be a new day
    ---------------------------------We would have to pick.

By moving the last line over, it creates a stronger connection with "could be a new day" and balances the awkward line which sits out in the middle of nowhere. This type of vertical white space is used to help make refrains stand out, develop ideas of change and opposition, and create a sense of unity, all depending on the tone or subject of the poem.

Explore how white space works for you, and as you read poetry, look at how the poet decided to use white space in the poem. Look at where text isn't, and ask yourself why the poet didn't put text there.

Usually, it's because the poet wanted short lines, but the reason for that could be something complex, like wanting short lines to make the poem feel small or to read faster. In the end, your interpretation can help the poet understand their audience, so including it in your review is a good idea.

  





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Aley says...



Old and New Stanzas

Over the centuries of poetry, the idea of what a stanza is has changed. Remember that earlier definition of a stanza? An offset of lines from other lines? Well, stanzas got complicated when the idea of a "Canto" vanished from how we talk about poetry. A canto used to be a "chapter" of a poem, and a stanza used to be one "paragraph" of that chapter, with each line being a "sentence" of the paragraph. Today, a grouping of lines under a header is considered a stanza, as is each grouping of stanzas within that "stanza", because the header sections became too small to be considered "chapters" around the time Walt Whitman began to write poetry.

An old stanza used to be a complete idea, but that idea didn't always end at the end of the stanza (or where there was a white space line, or split-off lines). Sometimes the stanza (the group of lines forming an idea) meshed together with other split-off lines, or even sat within a grouping of lines, but a stanza at its core was considered a single argument.

Today, that has changed because a single stanza could be multiple ideas, or images, or just a single section of a page. Our definition is looser, more inclusive of new ideas, and it encourages development of new ways to interpret poetry.

For example, the traditional idea of a "quatrain" isn't simply a set of four lines offset from other lines by white space like we tend to think about it today, but an offset of an idea from another idea. Today, as our ideas in poetry become more fluid and span more of a poem, the names die off. The idea of a couplet being a single idea which holds importance and power over the rest of the poem has developed into a general notion that couplets are impactful parts of a poem which we need to read closely. We have lost some of that connotation that it is a singular idea, and could be read as a poem all alone although has more impact together with the rest of the poem.

These changes have their good and their bad sides. The language surrounding poetry has been simplified as less people know what a hexastich or a septet is, but we also have lost a valuable concept of stanzas as a group of coexisting ideas.

These ideas become sentences in poems today, and those sentences stop at the end of stanzas, and we begin to revolve back around to losing the enjambment of stanzas and lines of poetry. This loss is felt deeply by those of us who love the enjambment of old poems where an idea is complete before a sentence is, and the end of a sentence is a new concept.

Enjambment is a thing unique to poetry as poetry is one of the only avenues of literature where splitting a single sentence into multiple lines is accepted and mostly encouraged. This idea translates into stanzas because you can split a single sentence into multiple stanzas and create unique poems by taking off the end or beginning of sentences which set up the story, or idea. Removing these elements from sentences can often develop a new idea that the inner bits of the work are strongly related, while the intro and conclusion of the bits are less important.

Such a technique can be incredibly useful when talking about love, or simple concepts with repetitious phrases. However, to really get enjambment you have to have two sentences in a single line. They don't have to be there in their completion, but if you are just splitting up a single sentence into multiple lines, and you have that sentence end on its own line, without another sentence starting on the line that sentence ends on, it isn't enjambment.

    Not Enjambment

    I saw you here
    laughing at me like
    a new born cat.
    You were so clear.

    Enjambment

    I saw you here
    laughing at
    me like a new
    born cat. You
    were so clear.

The bolded line is considered enjambment in the second example.

This splitting off of unique poems within a poem is manifested now more frequently in works that lack punctuation and capitalization because to have punctuation and capitalization means to conform to some of the basic schools of poetry we have today. Few of which actually handle stanzas as anything more than a group of lines, missing that it is a complete idea, a bigger idea than a sentence, but not constrained to needing sentences as it's base.

  





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Conclusion

In short, stanzas are more complicated than they appear. Any way that you want to interpret them is acceptable in the eyes of the poetic community.

The best way to handle learning stanzas, and how to use them, is to write poems and then practice breaking them up in different places into new line and stanza configurations until you feel like you can understand how a reader is going to respond to different combinations of white space and text.

In the end, it's a good idea to learn how you like to make stanzas so that when you're playing with poetry, offsetting stanzas comes naturally instead of being a struggle.

  








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