Poetry, like any art form, combines creativity and technique to produce realized concepts within a certain medium. One of the techniques used to achieve a poet’s ideas is the use of stanzas. Stanzas are both a functional and creative tool that influences a poem and how it is read. What is a stanza in a poem used for? In this article, we’ll take a look at the stanza definition and how they are used to influence a poem. We’ll also look at the different forms that poet’s have at their disposal.
What is a Stanza in a Poem Used For?
First, let’s define stanza
Before we dive into their types, functions and the various ways they can be used in poetry, we must first look at the stanza definition.
What is a stanza in poetry?
A stanza is a set of lines that are grouped together in a poem. Stanzas are separated in order to divide and organize a poem. In poetry, they function similarly to how paragraphs function in prose. There are various types of stanzas that are typically defined by the number of lines. Stanzas are used by poets to influence a poem’s structure, rhythm, shape, and organization.
What is a stanza used for?
What is a Stanza Used For?
Why are stanzas important?
Stanzas are used for both logistical and creative reasons in poetry. They are a tool a poet can use to influence how a poem reads and appears.
The most fundamental reason stanzas are important in poetry is because they provide a poem’s structure. Every poem relies on some sort of structural framework. Stanzas are able to create this framework by dividing lines and chunks of words into different segments.
This poem titled There is another sky by Emily Dickinson has two stanzas that creates the structure of the poem and divides it into two separate parts.
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
There is another sky by Emily Dickinson
Just like paragraphs are used in prose to organize different topics within a larger essay or body of work, stanzas are used for organization in poetry. For example, the first stanza in a poem may explore one topic and as the poem transitions into another topic or idea, a new stanza is introduced.
Some poets use stanzas to create the visible shape of a poem. Lines within a stanza can utilize empty, negative space or words to create positive space. This creates a composition that influences the overall shape of a poem.
For example, in this poem titled Easter Wings by George Herbert, the lines are used to create the shape of literal wings.
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Easter Wings by George Herbert
Lastly, stanzas contribute to the rhythm and meter of a poem. Lines within the same block are often read together creating the author’s intended rhythm as the reader reads it. A break in between stanzas will often create a pause or hesitation in the reading of a poem, further contributing to a poem’s rhythm.
This technique is used in Into the Wild, which inserts a stanza break where there isn’t one in the original poem. Check it out in the script, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software:
Sharon Olds’ original poem is all one stanza, but screenwriter Sean Penn inserts a pause between the rest of the poem and the final line, to emphasize its impact.
To utilize these functions, poets enlist various types of stanzas to create different shapes, rhythms, and structures.
What Does Stanza Mean in Poetry?
Types of stanza forms
Stanzas are typically defined by the number of lines within them as well as the rhyming pattern. There are various stanza forms that exist. Their names derive from the Latin roots of the number of lines within the stanza.
A monostich is a one-line stanza structure in poetry. A monostitch can stand alone as an entire poem or it can be used to break up the rhythm of a poem.
Poet Gavin Ewart has written a few monostitch poems. Here’s one of them, entitled, “A Person”:
She’s mean and full of minge-water.
A Person by Gavin Ewart
That’s it. With a monostitch, every letter is important.
A couplet is a stanza structure with two lines that usually rhyme. Couplets are one of the more common types. Learn more about couplets in the video below.
Shakespeare used couplets all the time, especially to conclude his sonnets. Take this one from Sonnet 55:
So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Heroic Couplet by William Shakespeare
This particular couplet is called a Heroic Couplet, because it is written in iambic pentameter.
A stanza made up of 3 lines is called a tercet. In a tercet, all three lines rhyme or the first and third line rhyme (also called an ABA pattern).
Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” follows the ABA form:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Ode to the West Wind by Percy Shelley
In “The Eagle,” Alfred Lord Tennyson rhymes all three lines:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The Eagle by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Guess what he’s describing. Hint: it’s a predatory bird.
A quatrain has four lines where the second and fourth lines typically rhyme. Emily Dickinson uses the form masterfully with her poem “Because I could not stop for Death–”:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
— Emily Dickinson
A quintain, sometimes called a cinquain, is contains five lines. A common form of the quintain is the limerick, a goofy short poem, like this one from James Joyce’s Ulysses:
There's a ponderous pundit MacHugh
Who wears goggles of ebony hue.
As he mostly sees double
To wear them why trouble?
I can't see the Joe Miller. Can you?
Ulysses by James Joyce
A sestet, sometimes called a sestain, is a stanza with a total of six lines. The sestet can often be found in the second half of an Italian sonnet, which is made up of two stanzas: an octave (we’ll get to this) and a sestet.
But they can also be found in poems like Edgar Allan Poe’s "Annabel Lee", which uses a few sestets. The first of them:
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me.
Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe
Sometimes called a “rhyme royal,” a sepet is a stanza with a total of seven lines. Geoffrey Chaucer of Canterbury Tales fame is also of septet fame. Most of his poems utilized the form, like in this open stanza of “A Ballad of Gentleness”:
The firste stock-father of gentleness,
What man desireth gentle for to be,
Must follow his trace, and all his wittes dress,
Virtue to love, and vices for to flee;
For unto virtue longeth dignity,
And not the reverse, safely dare I deem,
All wear he mitre, crown, or diademe.
A Ballad of Gentleness by Geoffrey Chaucer
A stanza consisting of 8 lines in iambic pentameter (ten syllables beats a line) is called an octave. As previously mentioned, this is often found in sonnets, but can also be found elsewhere. The traditional octave follows an ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme, like in Christina Rossetti's “Remember”:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Remember by Christina Rossetti
A heterometric stanza is one in which every line varies in length. Rapper Billy Woods uses a heterometric structure on his song “Spongebob”:
Bend at the knee, rolled up half of Guam
Lost no sleep over the fate of your white farm
What goes come back around
So when they came for me, I wasn't alarmed
Get fished out the hole like Saddam
Tough guys, won't go alive, get found unarmed
An object in motion stays in motion,
I wait 'til the sea calm
Spongebob by by Billy Woods
As you can see, there are quite a number of different types of stanzas that depend on the number of lines and the rhyming pattern used. Understanding stanzas is important for a poet looking to use technique to realize their creative concepts. Think of stanzas as a tool to be used both in the creation of poetry as well as a way to understand poetry.
What is a Stanza?
Stanzas in Music
What are lyrics if not poetry meant to be sung? Like poems, lyrics also have stanzas, and because lyrics can be found in almost all genres of music, so can stanzas.
Let’s look at some stanzas from one of modern music’s most famous lyricists, Bob Dylan. Here are the last two stanzas of “Standing in the Doorway,” off his album Time Out of Mind:
It always means so much
Even the softest touch
I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There's no words that need to be said.
You left me standing in the doorway crying
Blues wrapped around my head.
Standing in the Doorway by Bob Dylan
Here, Dylan uses two different types of stanzas: the quatrain followed by the couplet. The brevity of the couplet emphasizes the stark sadness of the narrator.
But sometimes lyrics don’t follow such straight-forward structuring. MF DOOM was known for his complex rhyme schemes and stanzas. Take a brief snippet from one of his most famous songs, “Doomsday”:
Came to destroy rapI
It's a intricate plot of a B-Boy strapped
Femstat cats get kidnapped
Then release a statement to the press, let the rest know who did that
Metal Fist terrorists claim responsibility
Broken household name usually said in hostility
Um what is MF? You silly
I'd like to take “Mens to the End” for two milli'
Doomsday by MF DOOM
This is just part of a much larger stanza. Notice how each line ranges in length– DOOM is writing in a heterometric form. This allows him to insert rhymes within longer lines (e.g. “press” and “rest,” “Metal Fist” and “Terrorist”), while shorter lines simply adhere to the larger rhyme schemes.
Types of Poems and Poem Structures
If you’re interested in learning more about poetic devices and techniques, check out our next article. We dive into different types of poems as well as various poem structures. We also take a look at various poem examples to better understand these concepts.