THE GREATEST STANZA OF ALL TIME IS…

The stanza is the aria of poetry.  If the line zings, the stanza sings.  The stanza is poetry’s true voice, where the poet displays not just melody, but harmony, as well.

The stanza presents not just an image, but an image moving into another.

The stanza is the line out for a spin on the racetrack.

The stanza is the line on the dance floor, the line proposing marriage.

The stanza is the beginning, the middle and the end of the meal.

If a line is a puff, the stanza is the whole cigarette.

If the line skitters, the stanza is the release, the fall, and the landing.

The stanza is the full-length portrait of Painting, the torso of Sculpture, the pillar, the room, of Architecture.

We like poets of the line.  We study poets of the poem.  We  worship poets of the stanza.

Lines can be dropped into letters or conversations or prose.  Stanzas raise the curtain on the muses.

Lines are bites.  Stanzas are plans.

The art of the stanza takes many forms.  It can beat a folk tune in 4/4 time:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

………………………………Andrew Marvell

Or, it can sound almost symphonic:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’

……………………………………………………..Edgar Allan Poe

The most remarkable stanzas have a unique design, and are more than simply couplets joined together.

The line exists as a unit of sound/meaning.

The stanza, though it has more parts, and can be pedantically categorized (tercet, quatrain, ballad stanza, Ottava Rima, Spenserian, etc) exists independently as a unit of sound/meaning, as well.

We might say that the “free verse” revolution of the 20th century was not so much a joyous act of freedom as it was an anxious flight from the stanza.

The poetic line did not become important in a vacuum; the shackles were real, and those shackles?

The stanza.

The sociological explanation invariably ignores this, equating ‘old’ poetry with ‘old’ times and ‘new’ or ‘modern’ poetry with ‘new’ or ‘modern’ times.  But this is to push history aside for a vain celebration of the present.

The ‘modern’ poets were not celebrating the ‘modern,’ for the poems never know if they are ‘modern,’ or not.  The poems only know what they are as poems, in terms of line and stanza.

A poem can never say it is modern in a way that history will be convinced.

In the middle of the 19th century, with the rise of prose fiction and prose journalism, poetry was poised to improve on the stanza.   Poe’s ‘Raven’ was a sensation as music, with its unique stanza.   Poe was once accused of stealing his stanza-idea from Coleridge, but Poe said in his defense that the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s” stanza was different in 19 ways, and—we doubt that anyone is surprised—Poe listed every one.

Poe understood (oh that rascal understood everything) that with the rise of prose (Poe was leading the charge with short fiction, essay, prose poem, science fiction and detective fiction) poetry had only technique to save it and the stanza was the key to poetic technique.

Poe saw the tidal wave of prose coming.

Some modern poets pondered protection in houses of stanza and thought, “No way.  This tidal wave’s too big.”

Many modern poets built their poems on sand, and others, rather than be drowned by prose, tried to breathe in prose.

The poets turned into fish.

And drowned anyway.

Is it surprising that the poets most popular in the 20th century, such as Dylan Thomas, Millay, Frost, and Plath, were adept at the stanza?

Millay’s marvelous sonnets—what are these but stanzas?

Plath’s “Daddy” has one of the most original and interesting stanza schemes ever produced.

15 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Unlike stanzas, lines can be hijacked.

    Do a search on Tennyson’s exquisite line, “After many a summer dies the swan” and what comes up is Aldous Huxley. The association is unfortunate, since the line is so pleasant and Huxley the very opposite.

  2. Wfkammann said,

    February 2, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Regardless of the form there seems to be an awareness in good poetry that allows allusion to places, thoughts and emotions beyond words. Stanza is only a vehicle. Remember the fins on the cars of the 50’s; air conditioning? It’ still modern! And have yet to move past it. Look at the Goth modern in movies or the Tinkerbell in Avatar. Remember Knots? Were those poems? Stanzas?

  3. thomasbrady said,

    February 2, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Bill,

    Form is how we say things, and do things, and everything else.

    Fins on 50s cars?

    I think it’s a little more than that…

    Thomas

  4. Wfkammann said,

    February 3, 2010 at 1:11 am

    you think WHAT is more than that? Stanzas?? Stanzas are much LESS than that. Such writing today is hardly an innovation; not EVEN a fin. It’s like writing 19th century piano music. You can’t be serious. Yes, form is part of poetry and everything as you sagely pontificate, but then so is feeling, discriminating awareness, compositional factors and consciousness right? We can’t write like Poe anymore than we can compose like Mendelssohn. Put out that cigarette, or whatever it is and stop talking nonsense.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    February 3, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Poets don’t compose with stanzas anymore?

    Music as expressed on the piano “in the 19th century” (horrors! when was that?) doesn’t exist anymore?

    No more notes? No more words?

    We’re too “modern” for that?

    “We can’t write like Poe anymore…” Says who? We can’t write like anyone who lived before us? Or, we can’t be inspired by what they knew and how they wrote? It cannot inform what we are doing? In any way?

    All art before our time is a fin on a car?????

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here…perhaps you should read the “Cultural Fascism” post…?

    Maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying…

  6. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 5, 2010 at 5:04 am

    That’s a beautiful exchange, Tom and Bill — and very helpful.

    Now let’s have some examples. I know you feel there’s a paucity of modern poetry that’s lyrical and sublimely beautiful like “The Raven,” but surely there’s something? Indeed, I’d be very happy to read something by yourselves, Tom or Bill, or any other examples you can think of.

    And to put my money where my mouth is, I think the poem I posted on the Melancholy Horror thread, though small and unassuming, qualifies pretty well.

    And if not, I want to know, why not? Is it the lack of regular rhythm & rhyme in “Why I Can’t Love You,” or the lack of ‘stanzas?’

    I’d say neither. Indeed, most modern readers will almost certainly find my poem too formal in its diction, too architectonic in its organization, too unguarded, even sentimental in its feelings and, most of all, too gothic in its imagery and dismal story — which is precisely, of course, why I chose it to illustrate “melancholy horror” in that thread.

    “Why I Can’t Love You” is for me a haunted house with “rooms,” though they aren’t as regular as Poe’s mansions. You enter through a small porch at first, then pass through a vestibule to find yourself in a great hall with an L-shaped ante-chamber at the end beside a pool of water. But, of course, it’s around that corner that you find the final cul de sac or coup de grace which is either Bluebeard’s closet or Sir Gawain’s bower, depending on your story, who you are, where from, how old, what sex — but undoubtedly any true lover’s final stanza.

    ~

    And does that rap come down on Bill’s side, or Tom”s?

    Christopher

  7. Wfkammann said,

    February 5, 2010 at 1:03 am

    We can certainly be inspired but we cannot write in an imitative style; an OLD style. If we reinvented “The Raven” it would be an inappropriate anachronism. We are of our time Miniver Cheevy.

  8. thomasbrady said,

    February 5, 2010 at 3:17 am

    Keith Richards used to play classical music on the piano before writing his songs for the Stones. There’s a thin line between being inspired and imitating.

    Since two chemicals can mix and produce a third substance with no trace of the first two, there’s no telling how much the old actually is the new.

    There is no THE style, for instance of “The Raven.” There may be A style which we consciously identify as OLD, but that’s a refining process, a drawing out from the mixture, a process that can be seen as a parody of itself, a reduction of many layers into one, which we (as parodist) select in a PARTIAL reversal of the creative act.

  9. Wfkammann said,

    February 6, 2010 at 3:51 am

    I guess spawning salmon do have some melancholy horror about them not to mention the housing situation. I would say this poem is modern but what’s the point and why do I care or is it just the beauty of unfamiliar words that draws me inexorably to the happy hunting ground like a moth to the flame. The fins, you see, ARE modern and nothing has yet displaced them just as air conditioning is modern. The idea of living in a jetson house with air conditioning and a car with fins has not been superceded, at least in the Southwest. 50’s furniture IS modern. In music Schoenberg is modern and probably always will be. What about Lang’s Knots? Can neurosis be art rather than the end of it? Is Christopher right? Is Prozac ruining modern poetry?

  10. thomasbrady said,

    February 6, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    That’s the question, Bill; thanks for raising it. Is 20th century “modern” going to be modern for all time? Are we at the end of history? Is there no way but back?

    Has Robinson Crusoe reached the holy grail with Southwest air conditioning?

    If “modern” fully arrived at signifies that backwards is now the only way to go,
    are modernists in fact reactionary, in spite of all their “modernism?”

    The American population, especially its intellectual and creative component, is increasingly beholden to feel-good, Prozac-type drugs, so Christopher may be correct in making this a factor; it would explan the uncritical, bland aspect of contemporary poetry, glazed over as it is with the death’s head grin of bad punning and flarf, and the lack of interest in it by those with ‘real lives.’ Is anyone in po-biz seriously impressed, for instance, with the goofball Dean Young? Or is Dean Young-praise just Iowa-connections and Prozac talking?

    As far as neurosis being art, see Thomas Mann, who short-circuits Plato who, terribly misread, never banned poetry, only a certain kind of poetry, and that brings us back to the abandonment of criticism, which is the true end of art.

  11. wfkammann said,

    February 6, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Alright, so here’s an example from the New Yorker.

    DIAGNOSIS

    Awkward, and almost always the idiot
    Savant, mutant, retard, I

    Travel my own effervescent weather,
    In my underwater

    Vessel, my sweet
    Mars, and soundless

    Daydream, magical sweep of Rimbaudian
    Reverie. Always

    Clumsy, and guileless, mind-
    Blind, and deathly shy,

    Winning every spelling bee,
    Every math contest,

    Done before the rest, finishing
    First in science test.

    Hiding the quarterly honor-roll awards
    I won beneath the bed.

    The shame of being
    Seen consumes me.

    And I fight it back,
    A landowner warding off

    Leagues of feral thieves,
    With fire, handheld torch, burning back

    The onslaught. In grade school,
    Listening to the same Blondie song in my bedroom, over

    And over for hours, days,
    For years. No friends

    But the one: silent, and sitting
    In my head. Running laps around

    The house for five, ten, fifteen
    Miles, counting

    Calories of everything put
    Into my mouth–desperate to ward the onslaught

    Off. Until I am nothing
    But a body.

    Burn the body down
    And, with it, out goes the pilot

    Blue light of the mind.
    Everyone said

    I was pretty back then.
    Maybe, way back then,

    Before I began.

    –Cynthia Cruz

  12. wfkammann said,

    February 6, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I would say this is a modern poem by and about a smarty pants bulimic woman with the muse sitting in her head. It’s descriptive and clear; has some nice effects based on the couplet end line division and is good enough to be published in the New Yorker. Does she kill herself? Is this her “persona”? I don’t know. You both can surely analyze much better than I. Is it stanzas? Is “The Raven” lurking here? The blue light of the mind is an allusion to Hindu meditation; other than that I’m all at sea.

  13. wfkammann said,

    February 6, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    And yes, in so far as they can’t get past the fins they are treading water at best until the next peak. You can say that Shakespeare is such a fin and has yet to be surpassed. You might name others (Milton e.g.) in the same category. Poe’s Raven and Gitchee Gumee may be Romantic Mendelssohns to Beethoven and Mozart.

  14. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 7, 2010 at 6:26 am

    Good points, Bill and Tom both.

    I’m interested to find I’m still reading this poem, which is a compliment — with so many poems today I stop after the first few lines and swear to myself I’m through with poetry forever.

    Indeed, the poem has enriched my day, and I’m thankful to Cynthia Cruz and The New Yorker.

    But before I read “Diagnosis” again I want to know, what’s it an example of, Bill? I asked for an example of a modern poem that was “lyrical and sublimely beautiful,” and I’d say this poem is lyrical but never beautiful. For example, these lines are lyrical:

    A landowner warding off

    Leagues of feral thieves,
    With fire, handheld torch, burning back

    The onslaught.

    Burn the body down
    And, with it, out goes the pilot

    Blue light of the mind.

    But they’re not remotely “sublime,” nor is there any image in the whole poem that is beautiful. And that’s what I was challenging you both to come up with.

    The last stanza of my own poem, on the other hand, is both lyrical and sublimely beautiful, I’d say — though it’s also melancholy and horrible at the same time.

    The saintly salmon’s honeymoon

    Our bliss—

    The blood-streaked spawn,

    The long white body’s gentle rest.

    To be sublime an image must be transcendent, I’d say, whereas Cynthia Cruz’s lines are self-conscious, and the diagnosis is “bullemic.” My image leads to a feeling of what might be called “selfless fulfillment” in and through what it describes, however horrible, whereas Cynthia Cruz’s is revolted by her material as an illness and essentially rejects it.

    I know very well that what I describe in “Why I Can’t Love You” would be put on the couch today, which is almost certainly part of the problem. How can images be transcendent in a culture that has “wellness” as the goal of life? How can poetry survive ambitions that are so simplistic, widely marketed, and literal?

    Where’s the grief?

    Christopher

  15. thomasbrady said,

    February 7, 2010 at 2:49 am

    “Modern stanza is excessively loose, and where so, ineffective as a matter of course.” EA Poe, “The Rationale of Verse”

    Bill, I think you’ve got it pretty well: it’s a trite, smarty pants poem reflecting a trite, smarty pants persona. She listened to a Blondie song over and over again in grade school. She did well on spelling bees and science tests. She was too skinny, superficially pretty, and lonely, and we’re told that if you destroy the body, you destroy the mind. I don’t believe “I travel my own efferfescent weather” or her “magical sweep of Rimbaudian reverie” for a second. I don’t believe anything the poem says, except for maybe the last 3 lines, but as much as I like them, I can’t believe in them, if I don’t believe what preceded them, can I?

    The formal error here is that she creates stanzas for the sake of linebreaks. She should be doing precisely the reverse.

    Tom