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.
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 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.