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What is a stanza in a poem?

By BBC Maestro

A stanza is simply a section of a poem. Lines are grouped together to form shorter segments of the poem, rather like a paragraph in prose writing or the verse of a song. 
 
Stanzas come in all shapes and sizes, and are most commonly defined by their length – a stanza can even be as short as two lines. A stanza might also follow a specific metre or rhyming scheme.  
 
Let’s take a closer look at the role and the format of the stanza in poetry. 

Why are stanzas important? 

A poet uses stanzas to define the poem’s structure and to organise its content. Imagine a poem without these breaks: it might appear confusing and rather breathless. and you certainly wouldn’t want to read it out loud. 
 
It helps when you know that the term stanza comes from the Italian for “room”. Think of the stanzas in a poem like rooms in a house, each one going towards the structure of the whole building while performing its own special function. 

What is a stanza used for? 

The stanza plays several important roles in a poem: structure, rhythm, organisation and shape. Taking a much-loved and well-known poem as an example, let’s look at how stanzas are used to shape and reinforce the poet’s words.  
 
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by American poet Robert Frost was first published in 1923. This famous poem is written in a quatrain form, which is a rhymed grouping of four lines. For reference, here’s the full, four-stanza poem. 
 
Whose woods these are I think I know.    
His house is in the village though;    
He will not see me stopping here    
To watch his woods fill up with snow.    
 
My little horse must think it queer    
To stop without a farmhouse near    
Between the woods and frozen lake    
The darkest evening of the year.    
 
He gives his harness bells a shake    
To ask if there is some mistake.    
The only other sound’s the sweep    
Of easy wind and downy flake.    
 
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,    
But I have promises to keep,    
And miles to go before I sleep,    
And miles to go before I sleep. 

Structure 

The stanza in poetry is used to create the poem’s framework, like the architecture of a building. Lines are divided into smaller groupings, in this case, four stanzas in a quatrain format.  

Organisation  

Like a paragraph, the stanza creates natural pauses and indicates a new thought or change in the narrative. For example, in the poem above, the poet’s thoughts switch from the woods’ owner to wondering about what his horse must be thinking. At the start of the third, the horse breaks his train of thought by shaking his bells. 

Mood changes 

Alongside this, stanzas can be used to subtly shift the mood of the poem. In our example, there’s a definite move from the aural descriptive writing in the third stanza to the ruminative mood of the fourth.  

Rhythm 

The rhyming scheme of the quatrains is used to give the poem a rhythm. Its first three stanzas have an AABA rhyming scheme, with the fourth and final stanza switching to an AAAA rhyme, which creates that thought-provoking repeated ending. 
 
It also features a chain rhyming scheme, which gives it a pleasingly flowing rhythm. In the second stanza, the B line becomes the A line, and this is repeated in the third stanza. The fourth stanza deviates slightly, but still returns to the B rhyme from the previous stanza. 

Shape 

The four stanzas of four lines each gives this poem an easy, almost sing-song feel. However, in some cases, the stanzas are used to create a visual structure. One of the best-known examples of this is Easter Wings by George Herbert, which uses the words and the spaces to create the shape of wings on the page. 

What are the different types of stanzas? 

A poet has a wide range of stanza formats to choose from. Here are some of the most commonly used types of stanza. As you’ll notice, they are mostly categorised by their number of lines. 

  • Monostich. Yes, a stanza can have just one line. A monostich can even be the entire poem.
  • Couplet. This stanza structure consists of two rhyming lines, and features at the end of the Shakespearean sonnet.
  • Tercet. These three-line stanzas often have an ABA rhyming scheme, or occasionally AAA.
  • Quatrain. A four-line stanza, as in our example above. There are lots of different types of formal quatrain, based on rhyming scheme and metre.
  • Quintain. A five-line stanza, like a limerick.  
  • Sextet. Six lines, sometimes found in the second part of an Italian sonnet.
  • Septet. Seven lines – a style used by medieval poet Chaucer.
  • Octave. To be a classic octave, the stanza has to be written in iambic pentameter as well as featuring eight lines.
  • Heterometric. In this type of stanza, every line needs to be a different length.
  • Isometric. Every line in an isometric stanza has the same metre. 

When do you decide what type of stanza you need to use? Poet Carol Ann Duffy recommends getting the words down as an initial draft, and then formatting the poem’s shape. “Once you enter the poem, and you’re journeying into the poem, you need to think what shape that poem wants to be,” she says in her BBC Maestro course. And by this stage, you will be “seeing a shape” in your words. 

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Some famous stanza examples 

To better understand how the stanza can be used to shape a poem, let’s take a look at some examples of different types of stanza in action.  

The couplet: Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare 

While we usually think of a sonnet as a single form, it’s actually made up from several sections. The Shakespearean sonnet comprises three quatrains followed by a couplet. Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? ends with a two-line stanza: 
 
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. 
 
Towards the end of a sonnet, the poet makes what’s called a volta. This is the turning point in the poem where the poet’s perspective shifts or when an idea is explained or expanded upon.  
 
By changing the rhyming scheme to end on a couplet stanza, the poet is drawing attention to the volta. In this case, the perspective shifts from the transience of nature and life to the permanence of verse: his beloved is immortalised in the sonnet. 

The tercet: Villanelle by William Empson 

The highly structured villanelle format is made up from five tercets and a concluding quatrain. Carol Ann Duffy comments that it’s not a form she uses much but it’s a “fun form to practise”. Not only do the stanzas follow a set pattern, but there’s a rigid form of line repetition. The first and third lines of the opening stanza are repeated as the last lines of the following stanzas, until that final quatrain stanza. 
 
William Empson simply calls his poem Villanelle
 
It is the pain, it is the pain endures. 
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through. 
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours. 
  
What later purge from this deep toxin cures? 
What kindness now could the old salve renew? 
It is the pain, it is the pain endures. 
  
The infection slept (custom or changes inures) 
And when pain’s secondary phase was due 
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours. 
  
How safe I felt, whom memory assures, 
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew. 
It is the pain, it is the pain endures. 
  
My stare drank deep beauty that still allures. 
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you. 
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours. 
  
You are still kind whom the same shape immures. 
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue. 
It is the pain, it is the pain endures. 
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours. 
 
The tercets create a flow and sense of movement, with the repeated lines emphasising the villanelle’s origins as a dance song, even when the subject is as sad as Empson’s lost love.  
 
Like the change in structure highlights the volta in a sonnet, the final quatrain shakes us out of the easy rhythm of the tercet stanzas. Together with a final repetition of the original first and third lines (now in a couplet), this change of pace signals the new perspective: kindness endures, but this makes the pain of heartbreak even worse. 
 
This concluding four-line section leads us neatly onto another type of stanza, the quatrain. 

The quatrain: Liverpool by Carol Ann Duffy

The quatrain is a grouping of four lines, typically rhyming (there are 15 different variations on the rhyme scheme for a quatrain). It’s a traditional format for longer narrative poems: with its flowing rhythm and paragraph-style structure, it’s an easy style to learn and/or recite. As Carol Ann Duffy points out, a lot of our nursery rhymes are written in this form. From Jabberwocky to In Memoriam A.H.H., you’ll find examples of quatrain stanzas across all genres of poetry. 
 
The quatrain also makes up the bulk of the sonnet’s structure, and it’s this style that inspired the format of Carol Ann Duffy’s Liverpool, her moving poem about the Hillsborough tragedy.  
 
The Cathedral bell, tolled, could never tell;  
nor the Liver Birds, mute in their stone spell;  
or the Mersey, though seagulls wailed, cursed, overhead,  
in no language for the slandered dead…  
 
not the raw, red throat of the Kop, keening,  
or the cops’ words, censored of meaning;  
not the clock, slow handclapping the coroner’s deadline,  
or the memo to Thatcher, or the tabloid headline…  
 
but fathers told of their daughters; the names of sons  
on the lips of their mothers were prayers; lost ones  
honoured for bitter years by orphan, cousin, wife –  
not a matter of football, but of life.  
 
Over this great city, light after long dark; 
and truth, the sweet silver song of the lark 
 
She chose the sonnet form, Carol Ann Duffy explains, because the rhyme and metre are “easy to memorise, a bit like prayers, which felt right for the subject matter.” It ends on a couplet, on a note of optimism after the raw details of the three quatrain stanzas. 

Try your hand at writing different types of stanzas. Do you like the flow of a tercet or the narrative tone of a quatrain poem? Which format makes it easier to shift perspectives or move through a train of thought? As Carol Ann Duffy says, sometimes you will simply “see the shape” once your original thoughts are down on the paper.

Find out more about how to structure a poem from former Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. During her BBC Maestro poetry course, she takes you through all aspects of writing poetry, from finding inspiration to how to choose the right poetic form for your work.

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