Back To Basics: Stanzas

Hello everyone! Welcome to the first blog in the mini-series ‘Back To Basics’. Over these next few weeks, we’ll be covering some of the core fundamentals of writing poems. This series is for those who want to write evocative and strong poems, but don’t quite know how to, and for those who are just intrigued with the mechanics of other people’s poetry.

In this blog we’ll be covering stanzas—what they are, and how to write them. But first, I need to answer this question: What is a stanza?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a stanza is defined as “a group of lines of poetry forming a unit”[1]. Sometimes stanzas are (and can be) called ‘verses.’ In a poem, their purpose is to create the visual and aural effect of a unit of sense. In layman’s terms, stanzas make sure all the lines/sentences of a poem are structured to make sense to the reader, rather than appearing like a jumbled mess of words that’ll only distract the reader from the actual point of the poem.

Stanzas are often compared to paragraphs for the reason shown above. After all, paragraphs also help to create coherency and visual organisation in prose writing. But, such a comparison ignores some of the core differences that make writing a stanza an entirely different beast from writing paragraphs.

  1. A stanza places greater emphasis on the blend of “white space” and “black space”. Unlike a paragraph, a stanza has a lot of “white space”—the parts of the page that are unfilled by lines. The “white space” emphasises the “black space”—the parts of the paper occupied by stanzas and lines of poetry. In other words, the white space of a stanza is telling our eyes ‘hey, these lines here, they’re together, in stanzas’.
  2. While a paragraph can only work with the sentences, the poem can work with or against them. Paragraph sentences will always end with punctuation (e.g., a full stop or comma). However, a poems sentences might end whenever the stanza does (that way, the stanzas remain a clear unit of sense in the poem), or they might flow from one stanza to the next by means of enjambment. Enjambment is “the running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation.”[2] Below are some examples of when enjambment is used well:

There are a few important principles when it comes to writing stanzas. Arguably, the biggest is that there’s no set length when writing stanzas. And here’s why:

The greatest reason why each stanza comes in a different length is because the writer chose to do it that way. Perhaps it’s because the writer wanted a smaller stanza, so the best lines aren’t sandwiched between many meh ones; or perhaps the writer’s obeying the rules of a certain poetic form—many of which require stanzas to be X Length at Y moment.

But, as with human’s inherent desire for things to make sense, each type of stanza has a technical name according to its length. For example:

  • Couplet: A stanza created from two lines.
  • Tercet: A stanza made up of three lines.
  • Quatrain: One stanza composed from four lines.[3]

These kinds of stanzas are the most encountered in poetry, alongside the Octave and Sestet (although these are often seen in Sonnets, a type of poem made famous by Shakespeare). However, just to reiterate, it’s down to the writer’s idea for what their poem will look like that’ll decide the stanzas used.

But I’m sure these terms will come in handy when you’re trying to beat your big-brained uncle in the family’s next zoom quiz!

Since there’s no hard and fast rules when it comes to a stanza’s length, this also means that all of the stanzas in a poem can be the same or a different length.

Some might have stanzas of the same length, such as Emily Dickson’s poem Hope. Others contain stanzas of all shapes and sizes—look at the ‘instapoetry’ below. Or, you throw the concepts of stanzas out of the window, and just have all of your lines thrown into just one continuous ‘super stanza’ (there’s plenty of poems on social media platforms, such as Instagram, that do this).


Of course, you shouldn’t think that one way of constructing stanzas is any better than the other. Every known kind of stanza has its positives and negatives. An octave stanza with its eight lines can feel like they go on forever, so they run the risk of losing the reader’s interest as they go on. Now, this might make you think that a couplet stanza is better. After all, it’s only two lines long, so surely its lines are going to be the most hard-hitting ones that can possibly be conceived? It’s true that a couplet is punchier than an octave, but your hands are effectively tied with the little space you’ve got.

Ultimately, what stanzas are chosen is down to you, the writer. If you think a tercet will get your point across more effectively than a quatrain, then do use them! If your writerly gut instinct is telling you that having your stanzas all the same length is the best option, then go for it.

If all of this is too much, then remember just this: Your ideas define the stanzas in your poetry, not the other way around.

That just about wraps it up for this article. I hope that you’ve found some measure of inspiration from what I’ve covered. Stay safe and keep writing!

Tom.


[1] stanza (n.d.) Cambridge.org. [Online] [Accessed on 13 February 2021] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/stanza.

[2] Poetry Foundation (n.d.) Enjambment. Poetryfoundation.org. [Online] [Accessed on 13 February 2021] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/enjambment.

[3]Poetry 101: What Is a Stanza in Poetry? Stanza Definition with Examples (Last updated: Nov 8, 2020) Masterclass.com. [Online] [Accessed on 13 February 2021] https://www.masterclass.com/articles/poetry-101-what-is-a-stanza-in-poetry-stanza-definition-with-examples.

One thought on “Back To Basics: Stanzas

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