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Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Poetry Writing » Resources » info | Stanzas & Lines

The Stanza and the Line

For most, poetry is distinguishable from other genres because it's broken into stanzas and lines instead of paragraphs and sentences.

The idea of the "line" in verse, whether it's a song lyric, a poem, or a block of prose, comes from weaving: just as the ancient Egyptians used flax to create papyrus, from which the word "paper" is derived, they also created linen, a textile, from which we take our word "line." (We also derive the idea of a "text" from the concept of "textile" which comes from a Latin word for "weaving.") In short, the making of paper and the writing on paper was, for the Egyptians and other cultures, a process of weaving. Consequently, a line of poetry is a thread used for weaving a story or an idea. Not every woven thread, however, is tied off at the end of the line. Most, in fact, are woven back and downward to draw the weft of the thread cohesively through the warp of the cloth. So it goes with a poem.

What determines a line?

The answer to this question is very subjective, and poets are guided by different criteria. To answer this for yourself, however, you have to consider the elements that make up poetry: language, imagery, and form. 

If you're used to writing rhyming poetry only, you might say the line is determined by the form and the rhyming sound. There's much more to a line, however, than its music. In general, a line is determined by its “center of gravity”: that one word or group of words standing out from the others in the same line, and possessing their own lyrical quality or imagery. A center of gravity is the line's dominant expression, which gives it an impact or makes it memorable. In a nutshell, a line has within it a central unit of expression that gives importance or weight to the whole:

her silk scarf, a loosely draped peel of Granny Smith
a mad coin minted in back-flips across the floor
he waits for oily moments to pour

This isn't to say that other words are unimportant, but rather that certain words, images and phrases in the line give us something to hook into. 

As a general rule, it’s best to strive for one center of gravity per line. More than one, and they compete for the spotlight: one has to be upstaged by the other. Furthermore, a line becomes too crowded with more than one use of special language and imagery. Take any three of your favorite songs and play them all at exactly the same time, and the result is always noise. The same phenomenon happens when you crowd the line with too much good stuff:

Holsteins graze lugubriously fractured into continents 
of brown hide ambling against skeletal white.

In the first of the two lines above, note how “graze lugubriously” fights for attention with “fractured into continents." In the second line, the action of hide “ambling” competes with the image of “skeletal white.” It’s possible to rewrite the line so that these become one cohesive image (e.g., “ambling brown into skeletal white hide”), but a better strategy might be to re-break the lines more effectively.

What determines a line break?

A line's "break" is the effect made by how the line ends and turns to the next line or stanza. In formal verse and most song lyrics, lines break because a pattern of beats, rhythms, and rhymes that give the verse its shape. Syllabic verse, for example, arranges lines that possess the same number of stressed syllables. Iambic tetrameter breaks the line according to an arrangement of four iambic feet. In most contemporary poetry writing, however, poets attempt a more organic method to break lines, following the internal rhythms of the unrhymed lines they’re writing, or listening to the free-form music that comes from the language of experience or catharsis. Regardless of whether you’re writing formally or in free-verse, what determines a line break overlaps with what determines a line. Consider the overwritten example above, and how it might be broken more effectively into several lines:

Holsteins graze lugubriously fractured 
into continents of brown hide 
ambling against skeletal white.

However, the addition of enjambment opens up more opportunities to use the line-break to best rhetorical effect.

What is enjambment?

If you're thinking of a door jamb when you hear the word "enjambment," you're right on the mark. A jamb is something that constrains and re-shapes the space of the wall to suit the purpose of the window or door. In poetry, enjambment is used to constrain and re-shape the space of the sentence to suit the purpose of the line.

Whether you are weaving a formal poem and finishing the margins with a certain rhyme, form, or meter, or whether you are composing something more free-form and organic, a line needs to thread itself downward through the poem in a way that creates a cohesive tapestry. We don't always want to knot it off at the end of the line with a period, comma, or other end punctuation. Instead, poets intentionally enjamb—they move the end punctuation to inside the line. If lines are a poem's weft, where they break gives the poem its warp. Enjambment creates a lengthwise movement that carries the text downward.

Enjambment isn't a requirement for every line of your poem, nor is it always a technical necessity. In moving the end punctuation inside the line, you give yourself more flexibility to use the line break (the warp movement) to highlight language and rhetorical effects, create emotional pauses and thoughtful hesitation, which helps to create a more distinctive voice for the poem's speaker:

Holsteins graze 
lugubriously fractured 
into continents of 
brown hide ambling 
against skeletal white.


What determines a stanza?

The term “stanza” originates from an Italian word derived from the Latin for “standing” or “staying.” It’s a place where things stay put. Although some forms of poetry (villanelles, rondeaux, sonnets, etc.) have specified stanzaic forms, in free-verse and less constrained formalism there are no set rules about how many stanzas the poem should have, even if that means the entire poem ends up being just one stanza. A stanza in a poem should be thought of in the same way as a paragraph in a prose work, or a scene change in a play, or a movement in a musical composition. It’s a qualitative or quantitative shift in the poem’s perspective, aural style (sound-sense), voice, narrative, setting, rhythms, etc. As such, what determines a stanza break is not always clear-cut. It can be an ineffable part of how the poem is written. It can be tied to the writer’s cathartic process. Or, the subject matter of the poem, itself, might have built-in transitions that require stanzas. For example:

This Is Just to Say

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold. 

The stanzas of Williams’s iconic poem about being an impenitent plum-stealer break up the poem's premise or situation ("I ate your plums") from the argument ("I know you were saving them") from the resolution ("I apologize—kinda, but not"). For most poets, stanzas are intuitive decisions to place breaks or pauses in the overall poem. Regardless, a stanza does not have to end at the same time a sentence does; it can run-on into the next stanza as seamlessly or as jarringly as the poet needs it to be.

Last Updated: 03/02/2017


Karl J. Sherlock
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