"What is a Stanza?": A Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Stanza? - Transcript (Spanish Subtitles Available)

By David Biespiel

When you’re writing an essay or a story, you most likely write in sentences. And you group those sentences into a paragraph. It might look like this:

But a poet cuts up those sentences, into smaller units, like with a pair of scissors. Cuts the sentences up into lines. That might look something like this:

When a poet groups those lines into separate units, and separates them from the other groups of lines, we call those groups of lines, those clusters of lines, those bunches of lines, stanzas. It might look like this:

Or…like this. On one side, the stanzas are divided into groupings of two. On the other side, groupings of three. There are any number of reasons a poet would divide the lines into groups of two or three lines or whatever number. Mostly it’s to see how the new relationships, line to line, stanza to stanza, relate to each other . Or cohere. Or don’t relate, or don’t cohere.

The word stanza comes from the Italian. And the meaning of that word tells you everything you need to know about what stanzas are, and how they work.

In Italian, stanza is the word for Room. Like the rooms of a house. As with a house, you’ve got big rooms, and small rooms, rooms the same size, different sized rooms.

Same with stanzas in a poem.

Two-line stanzas are the smallest rooms of a poem. We call those stanzas, couplets. Think of the couplet like a room with a mirror on two opposite walls. The two sides reflect each other. One line of the couplet reflects the other line of the couplet.

Here’s the British poet Thom Gunn’s incredible two-line poem about a problematic love relationship. The whole poem, in one couplet, goes like this:

Their relationship consisted

In discussing of it existed.

A couplet is a very powerful stanza. But obviously there are others. A triplet is a three-line stanza. It’s mostly like a couplet with an extra line. Haiku are probably the three-line stanza forms that most people recognize immediately. You know, something like:

Waterlilies—

One more thing

That will never love me.

Or the opening lines of Dante’s Divina Commedia, that goes:

Example: 

In the middle of the journey of our life

I found myself astray in a dark wood

Where the straight road had been lost sight of.

 

How hard it is to say what it was like

In the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled 

The very thought of it renews my panic.

No stanza in English or American poetry is more important than the quatrain. That’s the four-line stanza. It’s the stanza for the old traditional ballad, which is one of the essential  forms in all of poetry, a form that tells our most ancient stories. It’s the stanza of most pop songs and country songs. One of the Billboard Charts All-Time Top Songs is John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.” It starts:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

Or check out this one from a Scottish ballad so old we don’t even know who wrote it. It’s called Sir Patrick Spens. It’s about a princess whose been stolen and taken to another island, and the king needs to send a great sailor to rescue her. It goes:

The king sits in Dumferling town

Drinkin' the bluid-red wine: 

'O whar will I get a skeely skipper    

To sail this ship O mine?’   

 

Up and spak an eldern knicht,     

Sat at the king's richt knee: 

'Sir Patrick Spens is the greatest sailor     

Who ‘ere sailed the sea.'

Now, if you know how to make a couplet, a tercet, and a quatrain, you’re in business. Because the longer stanzas of 5, 6, 7 8 lines, are just combinations of those basic three, the couplet, the tercet, and the quatrain.

Here’s what they look like all together, as in the opening lines of Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Digging.” It’s a poem about his family’s potato farm in Ireland:

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. [couplet…that’s two lines..the thumb and the gun are mirroring each other]

 

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down [tercet: the first two lines set up the third one]

 

[I look down] Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging. [quatrain…the four lines stanza…the story stanza…where the narrative gets more complicated]

Three different stanzas. Like three different rooms. And when you read them, and you experience whatever differences you notice in them, then you know something about how stanzas work. And you begin to notice the different coherences, special relationships, and cool possibilities for new meanings.

Further Resources for Teachers:

In addition to the above examples, Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful villanelle, "One Art," offers students the opportunity to explore the different kinds of "rooms" within a poem.  As the triplets in the villanelle give way to a quatrain, the tone of the poem shifts dramatically, and students might explain how this tonal shift relates to the shift in stanzaic form.