I. What is a Stanza?
In poetry, a stanza is a dividing and organizing technique which places a group of lines in a poem together, separated from other groups of lines by line spacing or indentation. Stanzas are to poetry what paragraphs are to prose. Stanzas can be rhymed or unrhymed and fixed or unfixed in meter or syllable count.
II. Types and Examples of Stanzas
There are numerous types of stanzas ranging in complexity and length. Here are some of the most common types of stanzas:
The couplet is a couple of lines, a stanza made of two lines. Often, couplets are used to mimic togetherness and are found in love poems, though they can be used for all manner of subjects. This excerpt from Ciarán Carson’s “The Fetch” is an example of a poem using the couplet form:
I woke. You were lying beside me in the double bed,
prone, your long dark hair fanned out over the downy pillow.
I’d been dreaming we stood on a beach an ocean away
watching the waves purl into their troughs and tumble over.
A tercet is a stanza consisting of three lines. Each haiku, by definition, is a tercet consisting of lines of five, seven, and five syllables:
The crow has flown away:
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.
Natsume Soseki’s haiku is an example of a poem consisting of one tercet.
A quatrain is a stanza of four lines. Quatrains are very common in poetry. Here is an example of a quatrain from Pablo Neruda’s poem “One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII”:
I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.
A quintain is a stanza of five lines. One prominent example of the quintain is the tanka, a five-line traditional Japanese poem:
This feeling will vanish.
How sad the end will be
When even the smoke becomes a cloud
That leaves no trace behind.
This tanka, written by the poet known as Shunzei’s daughter, is an example of a poem consisting of one quintain.
The list only goes on: there are seven-line sestets, eight-line octaves, Spenserian stanzas, décimas, and numerous other stanzaic forms.
III. The Importance of Using Stanzas
Stanzas are important because they meaningfully divide poetry on the page, setting it apart from prose and allowing certain ideas, moments, and themes to be organized uniquely according to the poet’s intention and message. Stanzas create structure physically on the page and with certain rules like syllable counts and rhyme schemes that go along with them. Conversely, poems which lack stanzas can communicate a lack of organization or a sense of forward movement, run-on, or chaos. The decision to use stanzas or not to use them, and of what type, is an artistic mode of thought practiced by poets.
IV. Examples of Stanzas in Literature
Stanzas are a necessary and prominent aspect of poetry.
Excerpts from Carl Phillips’ “Cortège”:
If the sea could dream, and if the sea
were dreaming now, the dream
would be the usual one: Of the Flesh.
The letter written in the dream would go
something like: Forgive me—love, Blue.
One says without actually saying it
I am sometimes a book of such poems,
I am other times a flower and lovely
Did you say to him something?
I could not speak, for hunger.
Stylistically and in regards to stanza, this poem constantly changes. It begins with a quintain or five-line stanza, then moves into question-and-answer style couplets, then to tercets, and back and forth again. Phillips shows that poems can become greatly complicated and interesting by stanzaic choices of the poet.
Excerpt from “April to May” by Joyce Peseroff
It is cold enough for rain
to coagulate and fall in heavy drops.
Tonight a skin of ice will grow
over the bones of the smallest bush,
making it droop like the wrist
of someone carrying a heavy suitcase. This moving on,
from season to season, is exhausting
and violent, the break from the Berlin Wall
of winter especially. Like a frostbitten
hand coming to life, I color
first with warmth,
then with pain. Thawing, letting
the great powers go
their own way, in rivers and in flesh,
frightens me, as this day
warns me of an icy night.
On the other hand, sometimes stanzaic decisions are simpler and more uniform. In this poem, the poet chooses to use quatrains for a clean and orderly poetic form.
V. Examples of Stanzas in Pop Culture
Stanzas are not found in pop culture, as stanzas are only used in poetry. Verses are the song’s equivalent of the poem’s stanzas.
Excerpt from “Let it Be” by the Beatles
Don’t let me down
Don’t let me down
Nobody ever loved me like …
Just as stanzas divide poems, verses divide songs based on different parts of the song, varying speeds and moods of singing, and different sections of the song.
Excerpt from Astronautalis’ “The River, the Woods”:
No ax has seen these woods since before your father stood
The path is beaten good from the feet of all who wandered through it
Old growth, holds hope, let the brambles scrape your skin
Scars are storybooks, the blood will wash away your sins
Now let that sun slip, then let that moon rise
Follow in no footsteps, listen for the true guides
Woods will play tricks upon pretty blue eyes
Is that glimmer the river, or your village finally brought back to life?
Follow me tonight, I’ll show you what’s it like
To be alive
I know it seems like we’re all lost, we see the secrets, we know the unknown
Know the unknown
Know the unknown
Keep close, hold my hand now, just be strong
We can follow this river right back to your home
Back to your home
Back to your home
As this example shows, verses have various forms and types as well, including numbered verses, bridges, and hooks. The bridge is a pause and reflection on previous lyrics and the hook is typically a short and repeated phrase meant to “hook” the listener.
VI. Related Terms
Lines and Lineation
Stanzas are used to divide lines. Lineation refers to the poet’s technique and practice of dividing lines by line-breaks and then organizing and dividing lines into stanzas.
Verse has many definitions; it is a line within poetry (usually with meter and rhyme) or even a synonym for poem. Verse is also the songwriter’s equivalent of stanza. This can be confusing in that sometimes stanzas are also referred to as verses, but the more technical term for divisions of lines in poetry is the stanza. Singers divide their song lyrics similarly to poets, though the divisions are referred to as verses rather than stanzas.
VII. In Closing
Stanzas are of the utmost importance in poetry in that they organize poetic lines based on a variety of factors ranging from mood to meaning. Although stanzas are only found in poetry, their equivalents include the paragraph in prose and the verse in song.