Poem Structure - Lines and Stanzas

This page is an introduction to poem structure and poetry techniques. What’s the best way to divide your poetry into lines? (Hint: "at random" is not the right answer!) Learn more below.

This is just one of many pages on this website about how to write poetry. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to related poetry topics.


Poem structure - the line is a building block

The basic building-block of prose (writing that isn't poetry) is the sentence. But poetry has something else -- the poetic line. Poets decide how long each line is going to be and where it will break off. That's why poetry often has a shape like this:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.


That's the beginning of a poem by Robert Herrick. No matter where it is printed, the first line always ends with the word "may" and the second line with the word "a-flying" because the poet has written it this way. If you print a piece of prose such as a short story, the length of the lines will depend on the font size, the paper size, margins, etc. But in poetry, the line is part of the work of art you have created. The length of the lines and the line breaks are important choices that will affect many aspects of the reader's experience:

  • The sound of the poem - When people read your poem out loud, or in their heads, they will pause slightly at the end of each line.

  • The speed of reading - Shortening or lengthening the lines can speed up or slow down the way people read.

  • How the poem looks on the page - Does the poem look light, delicate, with a lot of white space around the lines? Or are the lines packed solidly together?

  • Emphasis - Words at the end of a line seem more important than words in the middle.

Advertisement:

Poem structure - types of lines

If you are writing a poem in a standard form such as a sonnet, your choices about line length are somewhat restricted by the rules of the form. But you still have to decide how to fit the ideas and sentences of your poem over the lines. When you fit natural stopping points in a sentence to the end of your line, the reader takes a little pause. When a sentence or phrase continues from one line to the next, the reader feels pulled along. If your line break interrupts a sentence or idea in a surprising place, the effect can be startling, suspenseful, or can highlight a certain phrase or double-meaning.

Lines that finish at ends of sentences or at natural stopping points (for example, at a comma) are called end-stopped lines. Here's an example:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:


Lines that in the middle of the natural flow of a sentence are called run-on or enjambed lines. Here's an example:

But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.


Here, Herrick interrupts the phrase "worst times" with a line break between "worst" and "times," focusing extra attention on the word "worst."

If you are writing in free verse, you have even more decisions to make than a poet writing in a traditional form. You can decide to use short lines or long lines, or to vary the length. You can decide to stack your lines evenly along the left margin, or to use a looser or more graphical form. Some poets even write poems that are in the shape of the thing they are writing about, for example, a circular poem about the moon. You have many options, but these choices should never be made randomly.

Poem structure - stanzas

In prose, ideas are usually grouped together in paragraphs. In poems, lines are often grouped together into what are called stanzas. Like paragraphs, stanzas are often used to organize ideas.

For example, here are the two final stanzas of the Robert Herrick's poem. In the first of these stanzas, he is explaining that being young is great, but life just gets worse and worse as you get older. In the second one, he is saying: "So get married before you're too old and have lost your chance."

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.


For a more detailed explanation of poem structure, I recommend the book Writing Poems by Boisseau, Wallace, and Mann. (This page makes use of some ideas from the book's third edition, by Robert Wallace, HarperCollins 1991.)

Our online course, Essentials of Poetry Writing, will show you essential techniques for writing both free verse and traditional forms.

Poem structure - decisions about form

So many decisions to make -- line length, line breaks, arrangement, speed, rhythm. How should you choose? The right form for your poem depends on, and works with, the poem's content, or what it's about. If the poem is about flying, you probably don't want lines that feel slow and heavy. If you're writing a sad poem, short bouncy lines might not be the way to go.

You may feel overwhelmed by so many issues to think about. How can your inspiration flow freely if you have to keep track of all of these aspects of a poem? The answer is to do the work in two stages.

  1. First, let your ideas flow.

  2. Then, go back to the poem later and work on improving the poem structure and form.

In the second stage, it's a good idea to experiment a lot. Try breaking the lines and different ways and compare the effects. Try changing the order of things. Try reorganizing things to move different words to the end of the lines so that the reader's attention goes to them. You've got nothing to lose -- you can always go back to an earlier version.

As you go through this process, ask yourself:

  • What is my poem about?

  • What feeling or mood do I want the reader to have?

  • Do I want the poem to move quickly or slowly? Are there places I want it to speed up or slow down?

  • What words or phrases do I want to highlight?

There are a lot of things to consider. But the more poetry you write -- and read, the more natural and instinctive some of these decisions about poem structure will become to you.

Find out about our online course, Essentials of Poetry Writing.

Poem structure - next steps

What would you like to do now? Choose a link below.


Advertisement:




<< BACK from Poem Structure to Creative Writing Now Home