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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.