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Elements of poetry: Lines and stanzas

Lines and stanzas

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Poetry is typically separated into discrete or separate lines on a page. These lines may be based on the number of metrical feet, or may emphasize a rhyming pattern at the ends of lines. With lyrics, the lines are represented by bars of music. Lines may serve other functions, particularly where the poem is not written in a formal metrical pattern. Lines can separate, compare or contrast thoughts expressed in different units, or can highlight a change in tone.

Lines of poems are often organized into stanzas, or verses, which are denominated by the number of lines included. Thus a collection of two lines is a couplet (or distich), three lines a triplet (or tercet), four lines a quatrain, and so on.

Poems may be organized into verse paragraphs, in which regular rhymes with established rhythms are not used, but the poetic tone is instead established by a collection of rhythms, alliterations, and rhymes established in paragraph form.

The number of lines, combined with the syllables, feet and rhyme scheme, serve to identify the form of the poem.

1 line
Haiku form: Monoku
2 lines
3 lines
Tercet / Triplet / Haiku
4 lines
5 lines
Cinquain / Tanka
6 lines
Sestet / Sexain/ Stanza
7 lines
Septet / Rondelet
8 lines
Octave / Rondeau
9 lines
Stanza Spenserian
10 lines
Keatsian Ode
11 lines
12 lines
Scottish Stanza
13 lines
14 lines
Sonnet / Stanza Onegin / Terza
15 lines
16 lines
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening Form
17 lines
18 lines
McCarron Couplet
19 lines
20 lines
OTHER (Free Verse, Prose poetry, etc.)

Prose poetry

Another type of poetry not written in verse or discrete lines is Prose poetry, which is written in prose instead of using verse, but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery, parataxis and emotional effects.

In many forms of poetry, stanzas are interlocking, so that the rhyming scheme or other structural elements of one stanza determine those of succeeding stanzas. Examples of such interlocking stanzas include, for example, the ghazal and the villanelle, where a refrain (or, in the case of the villanelle, refrains) is established in the first stanza which then repeats in subsequent stanzas.

Often, the more formal the structure of a poem the more difficult it is to write. If the poet does not have the technical skill to fit the words to the form, the poem sounds awkward or unnatural. If they do have the skill, sometimes the meaning becomes less clear or secondary to the form – it sounds nice, but means nothing.

Writing poetry and lyrics is a matter of using the appropriate degree of formalization to suit the message or idea. If an idea can be expressed entirely without form, but through the beauty of the words or the image, then that is OK too – though that is much harder to do well. So you can say that form – meter, lines, rhyme schemes, etc., are both tools and impediments to the poet. In the case of lyricists, the form has to be subordinate to the melody and the beat. Lyricists do not have the luxury of deciding in advance what form their musical poem will take, and then sticking to it. Whereas a poet may decide that the classical Shakespearian Sonnet is the best vehicle for expressing enduring love, and can therefore fit the words and the form together.


Of all the aspects of form, rhyming is the most difficult, since it has to fit into lines and verses. Bad rhyming (often to be found in rhyming dictionaries) are like a poke in the reader’s eye and instantly off-putting. The rhyme scheme should not be so obvious as to appear to be too easy or clichéd (man, can, love, dove, me, be, see, we, cat, hat, you, do….) or too obscure, like internal rhyme or half-rhyme schemes can often seem. Sometimes you hear a snatch of a lyric (Eminem’s Lose Yourself, for instance, there are the lines “Snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity”, and “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, You own it”) and you feel it built up impact, but internal rhyme is less impactful than tail or masculine rhyme schemes. So some lines stay in your head, some don’t. So, whoever said that rappers are semi-literate gangsters have another think coming.

I came across this tweet from Chloe Moretz (Sept. 2014 @chloeGMoretz) “Wrote my first song ever, shocked because I barely write poetry. Just kind of happened, wow, feeling proud of myself.” Well, she should be proud. It’s an achievement, and it was good that she recognized the link between poetry and lyrics, and that effort is required.