Teaching Stanza Breaks

Building off of the previous lesson I posted, here is a summary of my lesson on stanza breaks for my Introductory Poetry Writing course:

1. Last class we talked about line breaks. Let’s review what we know about them (paraphrase on board).

  • There are two kinds: end stop & enjambment.
  • Line breaks indicate a pause, similar to punctuation.
  • Enjambment emphasizes the word at the end of the line or the phrase it is cutting in two.
  • End stop draws less attention to itself (allows other aspects to be prominent).

Today we are going to continue on a similar vein and talk about stanza breaks and punctuation, and how all of these tools contribute to a poem’s rhythm.

2. First of all, what are the functions of stanza breaks? They function much like paragraphs do in prose writing: they represent a jump of some kind, often in time, setting, or content. They signal to the reader that one thought or image has been completed.

3. All of the things we said about line breaks also apply to stanza breaks:

  • Stanza breaks utilize either end stop or enjambment.
  • A Stanza break also represents a pause, though a longer one than a line break.
  • Using enjambment at the end of a stanza emphasizes the final word of the stanza.
  • End stop breaks still draws less attention to themselves than enjambment.

4. Let’s look at some poems and talk about how the breaks influence our reading experience.

  • For Jane” by Stephen Stepanchev (ask for a volunteer to read aloud). What type of stanza breaks does this poem utilize? What did the breaks signal, or how did the breaks affect your reading experience? (Example of end stop line breaks).
  • Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa (ask for another volunteer). This poem doesn’t have stanza breaks. How did this affected your reading experience?

5. In-class exercise: Now we’re going to take the poem “Grief” by Matthew Dickman (a poem we had previously read and which consists of a single stanza), and we’re going to add some breaks where we think it could be appropriate or effective. (Copy and paste the poem into a word document, read it aloud, and add stanza breaks where students suggest them. With each suggested break, ask how that alters our reading experience.)

6. So, in our discussion, we’ve mentioned often how line and stanza breaks affect the speed we read a poem by showing us when to pause. In poetry, we call this rhythm. Rhythm has the same meaning for poetry that is has for music; it is the pattern of speed the poem establishes.

7. Along with line and stanza breaks, another tool that contributes to rhythm is punctuation.

  • “Proverb” by Kenneth Koch. Koch uses punctuation consistently in some parts of the poem and omits it in others. Let’s point to the punctuation in specific sections and talk about how they affect the rhythm.

8. However much punctuation you decide to use, I suggest being consistent. Set rules or patterns that you will follow through out the poem, so that your reader isn’t thrown off. For example, decide you are only going to punctuate at the end of sentences and stick to that rule.

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