Poetry workshop: The stanza break

blocks stanzasA lot of new poets do one of two things – they either write all of their poems in blocks with no stanza breaks, or they use lots of stanzas (or verses) without understanding why they’re doing it. I was in the first group for a long time. It was as if a stanza break with all that white space was too scary, too much of a decision!

There is always a case for a poem with no stanza breaks. You might want something that feels totally cohesive and complete, or a stanza break or two may create pauses in the poem that you don’t want. If the line break is like half a comma, then the stanza break is 2/3 of a full stop. That’s about how long it takes for your eye to move down and across again.

There are two ways to end a stanza. One is with a full stop. It creates a feeling of completion of the idea in that stanza, or that part of the poem. When the reader reaches the full stop and end of the stanza, the pause is longer, and they have a tiny amount of time to reflect before moving on. For example, in Dylan Thomas’s poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, every stanza is end-stopped.

The other way to “end” a stanza is not to end it at all, but to run it on (or enjamb it) into the next stanza. In Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, We Real Cool, every stanza runs into the next one. If you want to look at a poem that uses both, try They Were Not Kidding in the Fourteenth Century by Maureen N McLane.

So how can you decide about stanzas in your poem? Firstly, look at what kind of poem it is. If it’s a poem of memories, giving each one its own stanza mimics the way we remember things, so it’s a series of natural pauses. You might want to shift the poem in the middle somewhere, providing a sense of a new scene or slightly different mood, or even a different time (e.g. a past and present poem).

If you want to create a sense of shifting and movement, look at where your line breaks are already suggesting a feeling on “running on” – think about what a stanza break would achieve, how it might heighten the feeling. On the other hand, if you think the poem’s content is delicate and too much white space would fragment what you want to say or show, then don’t use any stanza breaks at all.

Sometimes stanzas can create a satisfying pattern. You can write in couplets – if your lines seem to fall into lots of two, this can feel more musical. The same applies to tercets (three lines). Those who write rhyming poetry often fall into four-line stanzas as part of the rhyming pattern (abab or abcb), but if you don’t want the rhyme to be too obvious, you can play with this.

Just as with line breaks, study poems for their stanzas and patterns, and then experiment with your own poems. Write a poem in a single block, then try breaking it into couplets or tercets. Look for shifts or changes in the poem that suggest stanzas, and read it out loud. Sometimes, in the end, reading aloud can show you the natural breaks that you might not otherwise “hear”.


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