Stanzas are a traditional element of poetry. Although the definition of a stanza can vary, for the purposes here, a stanza can be thought of as a segment of a poem separated from other segments of a poem by one or more line breaks. Using this idea, a stanza could be a single line or even a single word. Again, this might differ from other definitions of a stanza, but it is useful as a way to look at the form element.
The following is an example of the look of a poem with stanzas, with each line represented by an *. Each stanza (using the idea of what a stanza is above) is labeled with a letter.
Stanzas, in conjunction with line breaks, have many uses in poetry.
One use, is to impart “the look of poetry” to a poem. Some readers of poetry might expect poetry to have a certain “look”. They might expect poetry to be written in stanzas, like the example above. Think of a poetry form, for example, like an English sonnet. This type of structure might seem traditional to some.
Writing poetry with a stanza structure, can signal to a reader that they are reading poetry. If a poet wrote a prose poem, or, depending on structure, a free verse poem, the poem might not at first glance appear to be a poem to some readers. Additionally, shorter poetry forms without stanzas, might not have that “standard” poetry look that some readers expect.
Having a poem, which “looks like a poem”, can help a poem be more effective for some readers. It can give readers a signal about what to expect and how the work should be read. It can alert them to the different sound a poem can have from a prose work so that they expect it initially.
Another use of stanzas, is to contain ideas. Stanzas can be used like sentences (or maybe paragraphs) in prose writing. They give a convenient place to talk about an aspect of a subject, before switching to another subject or aspect. This idea can be useful both for the poet writing the poem and for the reader.
Stanzas can also help provide a sense of separation in a poem. As mentioned above, they can be used to separate subjects and aspects of subjects. Additionally, they can provide separation within a subject or aspect. The idea might be to provide a pause, set apart an idea, to change a perspective, or accomplish some other goal of a poet. Also, increasing line breaks or indentions can cause a separation and a pause for the part of the poem they are applied to.
Stanzas can also be usefully integrated with other poetic elements. For example, stanzas can be used with poetic meter or repeats. They provide a structure that other poetic elements can be applied to.
Stanzas can also help with brevity in a poem. If a poet decided to write a poem with four, four line stanzas, for example, that structure would force the poet to contain their ideas within that form. This might help the poet to be more concise.
Another aspect of stanzas is that they help when a poem is being discussed or examined. They give points of reference for a poem. When a person is discussing a poem, they can point to, for example, line four of stanza three, if the poem is structured that way. This makes it easier for those discussing the poem to be in the same place.
When using stanzas, there are a number of variables to consider which can have an impact on the presentation of ideas. There are the number of stanzas, the number of lines per stanza (and whether that number will vary between stanzas), the indention of stanzas and lines within stanzas, and the number of line breaks between stanzas (and again, whether that will vary between stanzas). Also, as mentioned above, other poetic elements can be added to a stanza structure.
The variation in the variables can have an impact on presentation. For example, a poem with stanzas with the same number of lines, no indentions, and one line break between stanzas, might seem more formal than a poem where those variables varied. Similarly, a poem where those variables varied in a predictable way, might seem more formal than a poem where those variables varied in a random fashion.
Although stanzas have many benefits to poetry, there are some cautions to consider when using them.
First, whether a poet decides to start with a strict stanza structure, or they simply use the idea of stanzas in their poem, the containment of text within specific structures might not work well if the ideas seem fitted to the form or if the ideas disregard the form.
For example, imagine a poet was using a stanza with four lines, but one of their ideas naturally fit better in three. A poet might extend the idea to have a fourth line, either by adding words or by altering where lines end, to fit the form, and that might take away from the expression.
On the other side, a poet might again be using stanzas with four lines, but might have some idea that naturally fits in five lines. Because of the form, they might carry one line over from one stanza to the next. If this is done in a way that feels awkward for the form, it can take away from the expression. It can make the stanza structure less impactful and have it seem like something that was applied to a poem.
Secondly, stanzas, in some configurations, impart a sense of “traditional poetry” to a poem, as mentioned above. Depending on the expression though, this might not be desired. A poet might not want their poem to come across with a traditional sense, for the given subject they are talking about. Think about poems about "heavy" subjects, such as political or social issues. Depending on the presentation, these subjects might not work well with a traditional poetry form.
Third, depending on the expression, stanzas might not be the most effective way for a poet to communicate their ideas. Depending on what a poet wanted to accomplish, a prose poem, a short single stanza poem, a long single stanza poem or a pictorial poem might work better than a poem separated into stanzas.
If you are thinking about writing poetry, you should consider experimenting with stanzas. Used in the right way, they can have a number of benefits for both the poet and the reader.
If you are looking for some ideas, you might try:
Note: This article is based off of a blog post that appeared on M. Sakran's blog of and about poetry and poetry related things. You can read the post here: https://msakran.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/poetry-essay-using-stanzas-in-poetry-a-new-category/.
M. Sakran is that guy who walks those dogs. He is usually found standing by the side of the road while one of his dogs plays in a ditch and the other wonders why he isn't getting a treat right now. When not catering to canines, he tries to be a writer. He's had over ninety items published, including a collection of poetry called First Try, and has also self-published an eBook called Understanding: poems with explanations. You can find his poetry related blog at msakran.wordpress.com and his website at msakran.com.
M. Sakran is that guy who