Getting Your Poems on the Page: Shaping Poems with Stanzas

By Sage Cohen
Sage CohenA stanza is a series of lines in a poem grouped together to comprise the body of the poem. If a snowman were a poem, each snowball section of him would be a stanza. The size and shape of each are unique to express each individual part, but are also similar and related. Together, they add up to the whole of snowman. In a similar way, the parts (stanzas) of a poem add up to the whole shape and continuity of the poem.
Stanzas also influence a poem’s momentum. Line breaks are the place where the reader lingers an extra beat; the space between stanzas brings the reader to a hard stop. Therefore, a two-line stanza will have a different impact on pacing (typically more halting) than an eight-line stanza, which allows language and images to flow a little longer without interruption.
Unless you are writing in a specific form that dictates stanza length, how you navigate the shape and heft of your stanzas is entirely up to you. Some stanzas are two lines, and others are the length of an entire page-or more. Some poems have a series of similar stanzas (each with four lines, for example) and others have stanzas of varying line lengths (one might have four lines, another eight, the next three, the last a single line). Your choices are literally infinite.
Over time, you’re likely to develop your own aesthetic sense of how stanzas work and what your choices mean. For example, there was a period of years where I wrote mostly in very long stanzas of uneven length. I’d break the stanza when I was starting a new idea. A few of my poems about disappointment in love found their way into short-lined couplets (stanzas of two lines.) I felt that paired lines mirrored the yearning to partner. Clipping the lines short created for me a kind of tension. And the white space around the couplets contributed, in my mind, to the melancholy of the poem.
A poem intended to be a rant or chant might have no stanza breaks and either very long lines to give a feeling of streaming momentum or very short lines to communicate intensity. And a poem about a Zen garden might have lines that are precisely the same length, with four stanzas, each comprised of four lines, for balance.
There’s no right or wrong when shaping stanzas-only your own sense of visual aesthetic, rhythm, pacing and meaning. The best way to find out what feels right is to experiment!
Your turn!

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Writing the Life Poetic by Sage CohenPoetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, andVoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

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