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Writing Free Verse Poetry: Stanza, Line Break, Style

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Dave Hood

The best free verse poets use several techniques of style to compose their poetry. Four important stylistic choices available to the poet are:

  • Stanzas
  • Line breaks
  • Syntax or sentence structure or sentence variety
  • Grammar of a poem

A stanza is a group of lines in a poem, separated by white space. The stanza is the body of the poem. Sometimes you’ll see stanzas of two lines, three lines, four lines—-or one long stanza. The stanza in free verse is a way to organize related ideas, a way to create a pause, a way to add emphasis to related lines.

A line break is a tool that the poet uses to create a particular effect, such as a pause or to emphasize an idea, word, phrase. Sage Cohen, author of “Writing the Life Poetic“ writes: “Lines act as the engine that moves the reader through a poem.”

A good understanding of syntax or sentence structure will help you write better poetry. Sentence structure contributes to the rhythm of a poem.

The style of a poem is determined by the poet’s decisions about word choice, syntax, poetic devices,  and tone.

The best poets follow the rules and conventions of grammar. They use the active voice, write with concrete nouns and actions verbs, and use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.

In this post, I’ll discuss how to use the stanza, line break, syntax, and grammar to write good or memorable free verse poetry.

Stanza

What is a stanza? It is a group of lines in a poem, separated by white space. Stanzas are the body of a poem. They follow the title. The stanza in a poem is like a paragraph in prose. Sometimes a stanza is short, consisting of only a line. Other times, a stanza is long, making up the entire poem.

How do you know when to create a new stanza? The stanza in poetry is a device for organizing related ideas.

A new stanza is also a way to signal a change in time, place, perspective, and so forth.

The stanza is also used to tell the reader to stop and ponder. The white space before or after the stanza signals this to the reader.

The stanza also influences the momentum of a poem. Sage Cohen, author of Writing the Life Poetic writes: “Stanza’s influence the poems momentum. Line breaks cause the reader to linger an extra beat; the space between stanzas bring the reader to a sharp stop.”

The stanza is used to change direction. For instance, the poet who composes a narrative poem about “my day” might have one stanza for what happened during the “morning, another stanza for the “afternoon,”  and a final stanza for the “evening.”

In traditional poetry, there are rules for determining the number of lines and number of stanzas in a poem. For instance, the Shakespearean Sonnet is one stanza of 14 lines. Each line is an iambic meter. It is also an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)

by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In contrast, the modern or contemporary free verse poem requires no particular stanza length and no particular rhyme scheme. A free verse poem can have one of three types of stanzas:

  • A single stanza.
  • Several stanzas with the same number of lines.
  • Several stanzas, each with a different number of lines.

Free verse poets sometimes use stanzas found in traditional poetry. Kenneth Koch, poet and author of “Making Your Own Days”, writes that the most common “stanza in English is the couplet, two rhyming lines together.”

In free verse poetry, you are free to determine when to break begin a new stanza and to determine the number of lines in each stanza. Remember that each time you end a new stanza, you tell the reader to stop–and take a long pause.

Line Breaks

In traditional poetry, the poet must often break a line to comply with a particular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. In free verse poetry, the poet doesn’t have to comply to any rules. The poet can break a line for any number of reasons. Here are the most popular reasons why a poet breaks a line and begins a new line:

  • To emphasize a word or phrase at the end of a line.
  • To signal a pause to the reader.
  • To speed up or slow down the pace.
  • To create a sense of forward motion.
  • To change of thought.
  • To create an  interruption.
  • To comply with the rules of grammar.
  • To create a metrical pattern or syllabic pattern.

Suppose you wanted to write a short poem about spring, you could write:

Sunshine, blooming tulips, green grass, a warm breeze

A leisure ride on a bike—-

These are the ingredients of a favorite spring day.

Or you could write:

Sunshine

Blooming tulips

Green grass

a warm breeze

a leisure ride on a bike

These are the ingredients

of  a favorite spring day.

Or you could write something else.

Here are a few popular ways in which you can create a line break:

  1. Use white space on a line, between lines, between  stanzas.
  2. Indent a line of a poem with white space.
  3. Use end stop, such as comma or period.
  4. Use enjambment to break a phrase in half, creating a sense of forward motion.
  5. Use a dash, question mark, exclamation mark.
  6. Break a line at the end of a phrase or sentence.

Use a line break emphasize words or an idea at the end of a line, or to follow a rhythmic pattern,  or to signal the reader to pause after reading the line.

Syntax/Sentence Structure

The words “syntax” and “sentence structure” are used interchangeably. Syntax refers to the types of sentence structures a poet selects to write a  poem. In free verse poetry, there are no rules for the types sentences structures you can use. However, to avoid writing dull poetry, you`ll want to vary your syntax or sentence structure. For instance, if you desire to speed up the pace, you`ll write a short sentence or series of short sentences. If you desire to create a poem with lots of depth, you might use appositives, compound sentences, or complex sentences. If you want to create rhythm, you`ll use parallel structure. If you want to create a poem that moves to a climax, you`ll use the periodic sentence. What types of syntax ought you use to write poems? Here are the popular types of sentence structures:

  • Simple sentence (A single independent clause) Example: The ship sailed/across the sea.
  • Compound sentence (Two independent clause separated by a coordinating conjunction, such as  and, or, but, for, so, nor, yet. Example: The ship sailed across the sea/and the crew worked like slaves.
  • Complex sentence (A sentence with one independent clause, and at least one dependent clause. Example: While the snow fell, the old man in the living room/ sipped hot coffee/ read the newspaper/ next to the warmth of the fire place.
  • Cumulative Sentence. An independent clause, followed by several subordinate phrases or dependent clauses.
  • Periodic Sentence. Several subordinate phrases or dependent clauses, ending with a independent clause. A few logs/Kindling Wood/a match/ a fire place/marsh mellows/a roaring camp fire/
  • Inverted Sentence. It is a sentence in which the predicate or verb comes before the subject, or the complete subject and verb, coming after a . Example: Rarely have I eaten better spaghetti.
  • Sentence Fragment. A sentence that is a phrase or dependent clause. Reading the newspaper. Snapping a photograph. Playing the piano.
  • Parallel Structure. Nouns, verbs, phrases, clauses that have the same function or express similar ideas should match grammatically. Use parallel structure for items in a series, coorelative conjunctions, and coordinating conjunctions.

Here is an example of how a poet can use different sentence patterns in a poem:

Piano 

by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song

Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside

And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor

With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour

Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

In this poem, D. H. Lawrence uses several types of sentences. Here are four:

  • And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings. (Simple sentence with a single independent clause)
  • In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song betrays me back…(Complex sentence)
  • Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep, like a child for the past. (Complex sentence)
  • Softly, in dusk, a woman is singing to me. (Simple sentence with a single independent clause and phrase)

If you are not sure about the syntax of a sentence, such as the difference between, a fragment, simple sentence, complex sentence,  you should read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark,  and “Sin and Syntax“ by Constance Hale,  and “Woe is I“ by Patricia T. O`Conner.

The Grammar of a Poem

All good poets follow the rules and conventions of grammar. The poet know the parts of speech and how to use them. The poet knows the parts of a sentence and how to use them. The poet knows punctuation and how to use it. (The period, the dash, the question mark, the comma, and semi-colon, and so forth.) Here are a few grammatical guidelines you should following when composing a free verse poem:

  • Uses concrete nouns whenever possible.
  • Use action verbs whenever possible.
  • Use adjectives sparingly.
  • Use adverbs sparingly.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Make sure the subject agrees with the verb.
  • Make sure the pronoun agrees with the noun it refers to.
  • Use words, phrases, clauses, sentences variety.
  • Use parallel structure.

As well, it is acceptable to:

  • Split infinitives
  • End a sentence with a preposition
  • Begin a sentence with “and” or “but“
  • Use sentence fragments

Finally, when composing a poem, you ought to use correct punctuation or no punctuation at all. However, if you desire to become a good poet, you’ll create poems with correct punctuation—and when you don’t use proper punctuation, you’ll know why. It is really only acceptable to break the rules when you know why. And so, you must know how to use:

  • The coma.
  • The period.
  • The dash.
  • The colon.
  • The semi-colon.
  • The exclamation mark.
  • The ellipse.
  • The parenthesis.

If you are not sure about your grammar, you can read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark,  and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale,  and “Woe is I” by Patricia T. O`Conner.

Resources

To learn more about writing free verse poetry, read the following:

  • How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt
  • A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • The Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch
  • In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit
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Freelance Photographer and Writer

David Hood

David Hood

Artistic/Creative Type

Bachelor of Arts Degree, Diploma, and many writing and photography courses.

Many years experience as a writer

Freelance writer and digital photographer

Published author of "The Art and Craft of Creative Writing"

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00F4VOYRK

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