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A Floor Plan for Your Poem: How to Use Stanzas, Titles, Endings
Moving from Room to Room
A first draft of a poem may just be a blurt on the page–but as you revise, you want the poem to make more of a distinct impression. One of the best ways to do this is to use stanzas–and to use the stanzaic arrangement that is tight for your poem.
The word “stanza” in Italian means “room.” This is a fascinating spatial or even architectural way to look at a poem. It means that each stanza is intact, and has its own flavor in terms of both meaning and music. Poems can be written in various traditional stanzaic forms. The choice of stanzaic form is important to each poem–it gives structure, and even mood.
Here are the possible stanzaic arrangements:
0. No stanza. The poem is just arranged as a whole on the page. This is fairly common. It simply uses other techniques to create its flow.
1. One line stanzas. This is difficult, as each line needs to be strong and individual. Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze does this to good effect, perhaps because he is influenced by Chinese poetry which is written in intact vertical lines. Sze writes:
nine purple irises bloom in a triangular glass vase–
a pearl forms an oyster–
she folds a prayer and ties it to a green cryptomeria branch–
(from “Dudyma” in Quipu, Copper Canyon Press)
His use of one line stanzas allows images and thoughts to stand alone, and yet feel connected to a larger whole.
2. 2-line stanzas. Couplets are basic, and solid. They can rhyme or not. Think of them as half of 4–not just obviously, but as doing half the work of a quatrain.
3. 3-line. These are triplets, or tercets. Like tripods, they are stable but also less obviously solid than 2 or 4. Use them for a more tripping or musical effect of flowing from line to line.
4. 4-line stanza. This might be considered the basic unit in English and in other languages as well. Ballads, which are a pan-European form, work as 4-liners. Like a table with four legs, quatrains are solid. They are a good choice for a longer poem or one that tells a story. A classic quatrain opens a traditional ballad. :
Come all you fair and tender ladies
Take warning how you court your men
They’re like the stars on a summer’s morning
First they’ll appear, and then they’re gone.
5. 5-line stanza. You can look at this as a combo of a 2 and a 3. It allows for a lot to happen. Japanese poetry is based on the 5-line stanza–the tanka form. The 3-line haiku is broken out of it. The 5-line stanza feels complete, it can make its own poem. Here is an example of a 5-liner by Elizabeth Searle Lamb:
there is a music
in the fall of white petals
from the peony
onto the camphorwood chest
a bride’s gift sixty years ago
6. 6-line: The sestina is built on 6-line stanzas. You can also consider it as 2 threes or 3 twos. Longer stanzas tend to be built on modular units of shorter ones. For example, 8-line stanzas might best be understood as 2 fours.
An Architectural Plan
To summarize, in English, the most important stanzaic arrangements are 2, 3, and 4. Longer ones tend to be built on shorter ones. To give a poem you are working on an immediate sense of structure, pick one of these and see how you can arrange the poem on the page. Some poems of course are in free verse. Free verse stanzas are just that–stanzas broken for sense or musical quality wherever you like. However, it can be useful to play around with various arrangements–try ending on a couplet, for example, or pairing up quatrains and triplets as if they were geometric shapes or colors of a quilt.
Look at this short poem by Philip Whalen:
“What do you want
done with that?”
Here a series of funny aphoristic one-line stanzas end on a more solid couplet.
Enjambment is a very useful technique that is often ignored by beginning poets. It simply means that the sense or sentence run over the line and into the next. That is, not every line is a complete thought or grammatical phrase, and you can put a period in the middle of a line. In an example from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, enjambment in the last two lines lets the poet create a sense of emotional urgency:
The fire coals of a violet twilight
leave smoke behind the black cypresses.
In the shaded summerhouse a fountain
with its stone Eros winged and nude.
He sleeps, silent. In the marble basin
the dead water doesn’t move.
(from Border of a Dream: Selected Poems, translated by Willis Barnstone. Copper Canyon)
In arranging your poem physically on the page, there are various options. The old fashioned method is to use left hand margins, and keep the poem flush. Each line can be capitalized, or in a form more favored by contemporary poets, the start of each sentence is capitalized. Some poets like a free form approach, with lines scattered any which way on the page. If you do like this, make sure there is some meaning to the arrangement so that it doesn’t look completely random. For example, indent for emphasis, or to introduce a list or change of mood.
The End and the Beginning
The end of a poem is like the end of a piece of music–after it is silence. The last line is always an important one, but don’t necessarily wrap up the poem’s meaning in a too obvious way. It can be an echo of the meaning of a whole. And happy or sad, the last line is always a little bittersweet because the poem is over.
Titles may come first, but are often written last. Avoid cliched one-word titles that are too abstract, like “Life” or “Soul.” A title can function as a first line to the poem, or can be a contrast to it. Titles can be aphoristic or proverbial, or they can create an impression, like the title of a painting.
A. Write a poem in a particular stanza form. Decide first what you want to do, and then try it to see if it works. You can take an old poem and revise it this way. What pattern might be best?
B. Use enjambment, or run the lines over, to keep the lines an even length. You can even run syntax and sense over from one stanza to another.
C. Settle on what left-hand margins you will use, and standardize where to capitalize.
D. End on a note that works with the mood of the poem.
E. Pick a title that adds to the poem rather than constricting it.
You have now “built” your poem, not just room by room but with a front porch and basement as well! It is ready to hospitably invite in your reader.
This article first appeared in WRITER’S DIGEST. Copyright Miriam Sagan.
I saw this on waking…
a clearing in the dream thicket
deciduous woods, like childhood
wherever that was, and snow ankle deep
goose girl, you’ve run again
from those who would rape and starve you
with a pocket full of berries
or Red Riding Hood, you put on your hat
the silly mittens
with every finger knit a different color
and finally the hoodie
the color of what is supposed to stay inside but
doesn’t always comply—blood, rage, a desire
to put yourself first
to not bring the basket of delicacies
to the demented grandmother
who asks repeatedly
is that for me?
and—where are my car keys?
better to sit and drink the wine yourself
as if there were no wolf
because maybe there isn’t
and to walk
in the opposite direction
of what you were told to.
Yes, I’m off the wagon. I’m reading slush again. Not so long ago in these very blog pages I announced that my editorship in one venue was over. Now I’m back in another (which I will not yet reveal, for fear of MORE slush).
And I’m ever so happy. At peace. It’s really odd, but I find reading slush ultra-relaxing. Right now, on these cold winter days, my favorite things to do are roast eggplant (it might also be brisket, but my significant other is vegetarian), knit, and watch Bollywood movies. All of these activities are leisurely, predictable, yet not without worth. (OK, Bollywood the least, but I tell myself I’m learning about culture and I do dance to all the songs.)
What is slush? Unsolicited submissions to a literary magazine, as a rule. Why is it called slush? I have no idea, except that it isn’t a compliment.
I enjoy it because the pattern is so clear (like roasting, knitting, and Bollywood). A bad poem consists of:
1. A dull underutilized title, often one word, like “Love.”
2. An opening that over sets context: I was in the kitchen, it was snowing, on Tuesday I went shopping.
3. A simplistic metaphor carried all the way to the end. (Hopefully not roasting eggplant is like reading slush).
4. An unambiguous emotion—I’m depressed, suicidal, happy I won the lottery.
5. An ending that reiterates context and wraps up already wrapped emotion.
6. No form, structure, or technique except for some predictable rhyme.
7. A self-satisfied, melodramatic, or cutesy tone.
I’ve left off many things, including word choice, but basically I’m scanning for the above. My reading slush is essentially a negative process of omission. If a submission DOES NOT have the above faults, it goes into the maybe pile.
Oh, and the cover letter. I don’t really care if you are in Yonkers, or prison. Write for therapy or have published in dozens of magazines. I don’t care if you praise the publication I’m reading for, and surprising even to me—I don’t care if I know you. I’m rejecting work by famous poets and accepting work by friends of mine (who to their credit didn’t know I was reading) with complete equanimity because I’m reading all submissions equally.
Once things are in the “maybe” pile, then my taste kicks in. I was hired to have that taste, so now I’m less objective. I love short work. I like the quirky. It’s possible I can be seduced by my favorite subject matter. Here again, I’m at peace. I’ve run an objective grid on the poem.Then I’m checking it against what I like.
I’m accepting and rejecting. Stirring the eggplant, finding a dropped stitch, doing fake Indian dance hand gestures.
Call it winter’s day—with slush.
Remembering a poet: Nigel Jenkins (1949-2014)
This upcoming Thursday, January 28th, is the 2nd anniversary of the death of Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins. Nigel was the co-founder and director, along with Stevie Davies, of the Creative Writing program at Swansea University in Wales, when I went there in 2009 to start my PhD.
I met Nigel at a new student gathering at the University a few days after arriving in the U.K. I was still very jet lagged, muzzy, and beginning to wonder what in the heck I had gotten myself and my husband into … moving us thousands of miles to attend a graduate program in another country where we knew no one and had no real means of financial support. Nigel was gracious and jovial at the meeting. Since the department had been too stingy to have any supplies brought in for the party, Nigel had brought wine and treats himself. He mentioned a walking tour he’d be giving the following week through Swansea for all interested.
A week later on a wet afternoon (the rain had cleared just in time), Nigel led about a dozen of us from the University, through Singleton Park to the Uplands, by Dylan Thomas’ childhood home and through Cwmdonkin Park (mentioned in a couple of Thomas’ poems), to Townhill – with its post war “Council Estates” (which I came to learn could be roughly translated into American English as “The Projects”. Townhill gave us a stunning view out over Swansea Bay, across the Bristol Channel to Devon. We traipsed back down into the town centre, across the busy Kingsway, past the Market, over the Tawe River to the docks. Nigel was a stellar guide. Each place, each path, each building had a story for him. Whether it was the 9,000 year old tree stumps visible at low tide in the Bay – a reminder of the fertile river valley which existed there before the sea swept in at the end of the last ice age, or the clock tower which served as a landmark for German pilots on bombing runs during WWII, or the hotel where Allen Ginsberg once stayed while doing a reading at the University. We ended up at a narrow pub on Wind Street (just past “Salubrious Passage”) drank beer and ate snacks, talking poetry and geography.
Over the years I was at Swansea, I can’t remember one poetry reading or student event which Nigel did not attend. He was a regular at the monthly open poetry readings at the Dylan Thomas Centre (“Poets in the Bookshop”). He sat through the poetry of rock-stars-poets, students, and Swansea retirees alike and every so often, if we were really lucky, he would get up a read something himself – his deep, melodic Welsh accent turning every line into music.
In addition to 15 books of poetry and 9 of prose, Nigel authored radio plays, stage plays, and articles. His prose largely centered on what he called, Psychogeography (with its Situationist, Dadaist, and Surrealist roots). He wrote two books on Swansea, “Real Swansea” (1 and 2) – far surpassing the pedestrian notion of either guidebook or urban history. The books wander, much like his walking tour, through a landscape peppered with history and memory, playful, often irreverent, and always deeply heartfelt. The books are filled with both his poetry and his dry wit. He also wrote two books on the Gower Peninsula which abuts Swansea. Gower is a wildish peninsula of beaches, cliffs, little villages, old stone churches, gorse, farms, sheep, and wild ponies, which was Nigel’s childhood home. These books, with gorgeous photos by David Pearl, are filled with his haiku and poems.
The images here are my own from ramblings on the Gower and I am including a few of the haiku which Nigel included in his book, “Gower.” And here is a link to Nigel reading what I think is one of his greatest poems, “Snowdrops.” A chance to hear Nigel read his own words is well worth clicking the link: http://www.nigeljenkins.com/aa_film/film008.htm
in anchored flight
from the barbed fence –
Whit Monday high tide –
the jellyfish that happens
to be a balloon
breeze in the treetops
my neighbour’s wind chimes
(Haiku Canada Review Vol. 9 No. 1, 2015)
traffic circles the climate change debate
(Haiku Canada Review Vol. 8 No. 1, 2014)
warm south wind
biopsy results normal
(Haiku Canada Review Vol. 6 No. 2, 2012)
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada