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What is poetry?
What is poetry?

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5.3 Stanzas and verse

The poem ‘The literal and the metaphor’, which you read in Section 5.1, was divided into two sections. We call these verses or stanzas, and they are the poetic equivalent of paragraphs, but with more shape, weight and focus than the prose equivalent. Stanzas are like islands encircled by shores. Or, since we have been talking about houses, let’s use another image for these stanzas. James Fenton tells us that ‘The Italian word stanza means a room’ (Fenton, 2002, p. 61).

So, how many rooms should a poem have? Well, it depends. A stanza concentrates attention on a particular area of thought or image. The reasons for dividing a poem into stanzas or verses may vary from poem to poem, and might develop from the reasons for the line-breaks that we introduce, with the stanzas or rooms constituting the macro-structure of the poem and its larger purpose.

Line-breaks and stanzas, accentuated by punctuation, can be used to establish a pace, to push the poem onwards and develop the theme. The pattern they form contributes to the total effect of the poem.

Activity 12

Now take your ‘instant poem’ from Activity 11 in Section 5.2, and divide it into stanzas. You may change your mind about line-breaks now, and you may also add or take away words, if this helps. This time you may want to repeat another line or a word.

  • Can you locate a meaningful transition between the first and second stanzas, or the second and third?

  • A stanza can be as long or as short as you’d like, but make the length of the stanza appropriate to what’s contained within.

  • Try to free yourself from expectations about how it ‘should’ go. Instead, experiment, and see what ideas arise from the structure itself.


Articulate why you chose a particular point to break the stanza. Or why you rejected a different structure. Perhaps the poem works best as one stanza. The poem’s central element may reside in a single idea or image, as with the following:

Fan-piece, for her Imperial Lord

O fan of white silk,

clear as frost on the grass-blade,

You also are laid aside.

(Ezra Pound)

Great emotion is wrapped inside the formal diction of this poem. We may surmise that the fan was given by the Imperial Lord to an ex-mistress, now cast aside. Even a short poem can evoke a whole scenario, without being explicit. We should file away this idea – that less can be more.

This is how far we have got with the building of our poetic house.

The house that Jack or Jill might build

We know that poems

are made of lines

and lines need line-


which we’ve already discussed.

These lines can, in turn, then be grouped together or divided in creative


into equal

or unequal sections

- poetic paragraphs called stanzas or verses …

The next aspect to consider in more detail is the fact that stanzas may be composed of varying numbers of lines, and there are names for different kinds of stanzas. This one is a couplet:

In couplets, one line often makes a point

Which hinges on its bending, like a joint.

(John Hollander)

Activity 13

Read the following poem and consider the way the form – the use of couplets – is connected to the content.

Helen’s sister*

Once they know I’m beauty’s twin

at the party door, I’m in,

if only so they can compare

roses to hips hardened by winter air.

Nine months perfectly in tune

with the sharer of our mother’s womb –

you’d think that beauty’s shadow would earn

one brief victorious public turn.

In Sparta, I’d be second-rate,

without a date,

and if in my part of Athens

nothing much happens

(even the migrating birds

like euphemistic words

or an air-blown lover’s kiss

– false and paltry – give this part of town a miss)

still, I’m a big fish in a tiny pond,

twin to a natural blonde

but at least a reference for men’s desire,

the heat of the missing fire.

While our strong and handsome brothers

wrestle with each other

on top of Ulysses’ mast

(male ego, vanity and brass!)

it’s Helen’s Fire completes the sum,

for she’s the portent of the worst to come.

She’s the corposant which starts

the charge between all lovers’ parts.

If beauty’s an affliction,

then men and women love addiction.

Here, the evening creeps

across the place where my lovers sleep

then rise to leave me instead

once daylight steals the Helen that I’d had them bed.

When it comes to beauty, the world knows best

and the Trojan war’s the test.

Any woman would slay a thousand soldiers

not to get older.

(Eva Salzman)

* In classical mythology, Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Jupiter and Leda, just as Helen of Troy is the daughter of Zeus and Leda in Greek legend. Castor and Pollux were also the names given by Roman sailors to St Elmo’s Fire, or the corposant phenomenon, when the flame effect on the mast of a ship appeared double. This indicated that the worst of the storm was over. A single flame, called Helen’s Fire, signified that the worst of the storm was yet to come.


‘Helen’s sister’ is comprised of rhyming couplets. In it, Helen of Troy’s sister finally gets the opportunity to present her version of events. As a sideshow to history and myth, the speaker offers a different perspective on beauty and gender – on the events themselves and how they are usually presented. The couplet form is appropriate to the theme of two sisters.

Activity 14

Now choose a person from history or mythology and write a few couplets in that person’s voice. Feel free to rhyme, but at this point pay more attention to your ideas, as laid out in two-line patterns. Don’t worry about the ‘missing’ poem, or a more complete poem that might have been. Frequently writers scrawl notes without necessarily having yet composed the poem in which they belong. In fact, they may not use certain lines as originally intended at all. The most important thing here is to work in couplets.

This person may be a politician, movie star, explorer, etc. Perhaps they are famous, or perhaps they are simply associated with the famous person. For example, they might be a queen’s handmaiden rather than the queen herself. You could jot down a list of several people, and come back to it later to try out other characters.


Were all your couplets self-contained, or did some run over into the next couplet? Try to vary the lines, so they don’t all start with ‘I’ or ‘She’. Did yours rhyme? If they did, try to write another version that doesn’t rhyme. If they didn’t, try to write some couplets that do. Notice that in ‘Helen’s sister’ some of the rhymes are not exact – e.g. mast/brass; soldiers/older. This near rhyme is more common in modern verse methods.