If you’re writing formal verse, the shape of the poem is dictated by the form you have chosen. When writing free verse, where to make verse breaks is one of the choices you make for yourself and, before you are confident in your own voice, you might go through a series of drafts, making different choices about verse breaks, trying to anticipate the effect of each decision on the reader. There’s a lot of guesswork – what does it mean if a break a stanza here, or there or not at all? How do I want it to read?
Established poets, who know what they and other poets are about, can help.
Mark Doty, writing about Whitman (What is the Grass, Walt Whitman in My Life, Jonathan Cape 2020), argues that the relationship Whitman sets up with his reader is as much a function of the way the poem appears on the page as it is in the direct address, the language he uses or the subject matter.
“Having been a printer myself,” Whitman told Horace Traubel, “I have what may be called an anticipatory eye – know pretty well as I write how a thing will turn up in the type – appear – take form.” Whitman set the first dozen pages or so of his first edition in type himself, and this section (Section 6, “an inquiry into the nature of grass”) was among those pages. You can feel the hand of the printer in them: the physical arrangement of the words on the page mirrors the movement of thought. Each proffered possibility gets its own stanza: a single image is presented, considered, set down. In the white space of silence between stanzas the poet seems to be gathering himself, feeling his way towards his next assertion. The mind pauses, dwells, prepares to speak … In Whitman’s hands … the blank space between stanzas seems athrum with possibility; we pause and watch thought loom up out of silence.”
Doty, in discussion with Sharon Olds, and reflecting on his own work, suggests that form can work in counterpoint to the subject in the poem, adding layers of meaning:
“I love stanzas, partly because … my grandmother was a quilt maker and she liked arranging things in patterns and so you make these structures out of triangles and squares and something happens as you vary them. There’s something about stanzas - it’s a wonderful way about making a pattern which exists on top of whatever the content of the poem is so that you get one pattern on top of another …”
This remark was in response to an assertion by Sharon Olds that she has “an allergy to stanzas”. Asked how the structure of her work developed over the years, she says,
“My lines didn’t change in that they’ve always been 4 beat lines. I’m a formalist. My verse looks free because it ends up with a ragged appearance that in its formal appearance is kind of a fireworks-like look on the page or a tree with branches or a person with many arms. Four beats per line with variations. The biggest change that became conscious maybe three books ago is to have them all in one clump - what’s it called stichic? – there, formal words for it. I call it a clump. I think of it as a torso, an intact torso. Having been raised on Christian hymns, I have an allergy to stanzas and that torso with an irregular side - it just makes me - when I look at the poem I feel right about it, and at the beginning - I had the four beat lines - I had really the rhythm and the meter but I didn’t know the look I wanted yet.”
Olds talks frequently about the amount of work she puts into the shaping of her poems, a degree of control which might seem at odds with the way she describes the first draft, coming to her, or even through her, as an automatic writing process:
“I think one of the reasons that I write is that in the concentration - then similes come into the poem through my writing arm and my pen - I don’t make them up - they just occur from the brain I guess and into the page … something happens then from the unconscious and I never know what it’s going to be …”
The final draft of Olds’ poems which make it to print (she confesses to writing “a lot” and to throwing most of it away) retains that sense of automatic flow despite the fact that the poems have been “worked”.
So what can we learn from Doty, Whitman and Olds about the stanza? That where to make a break is in “your anticipatory eye”; that you have an instinct for “how a thing … will appear”; that patterning can add a layer of meaning, which is with or against, under or over the content and that you need to discover “the look” you want. I imagine those instincts become more accessible the more you publish and get feedback from readers. As Frank O’Hara famously said, “You go on your nerve.” He’s right, but for some of us that isn’t as easy as he makes it sound. As Olds suggests, it can take time to know what you’re looking for.
By way of example, I’ll end this post with versions of a short poem that took more work than any of the longer, seemingly more complex poems in All of it, where it appears. The fourth version is the final version and, as you can see, very similar to the first, though with less dramatic punctuation. I had to twist it out of shape to know what shape I wanted. Maybe this is true for all poets or maybe, as you become more familiar with your “anticipatory eye”, your “nerve”, you can afford to skip a few drafts before you understand the poem to be complete.
Version 1: Sparrowhawk Over Raja Tomb
My mother in a camel coat beside my father
laughing - now only sunlight, a pavement -
she seemed weightless - on the edge
of a joke my father had made -
the light alive - all of it -
Version 2: Sparrowhawk Over Raja Tomb
My mother laughing
now only sunlit pavement
on the edge of a joke my father made
the light alive - all of it
Version 3: Sparrowhawk
the edge of a
the light alive
- all of it
Version 4: Sparrowhawk
A photograph of my mother in a camel coat
beside my father laughing.
She seems weightless,
on the edge of a joke my father made,
the light alive, all of it.