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Writing Poetry: Formatting, Part One

Formatting plays a significant role in poetry, perhaps more so than any other form of writing. This week we will be looking at two visual elements to consider when writing a poem, and will cover an additional one next week.



Poems are often written in stanzas, a minimum of four lines. This style pairs well with end rhyme; as we saw a few weeks ago, end rhyme in particular relies on stanzas with a minimum of four lines (ABAB format or AABB, etc.).

Though stanzas usually consist of four lines, they can have more or less. There are no exact rules when it comes to stanzas, which leaves a lot of room for creative experimentation. Lines that carry the same thought are usually grouped into the same stanza, and the break serves as something akin to a paragraph break in narrative writing. Keep in mind, lines that stand alone from other stanzas will naturally carry more emphasis due to white space, (which we will delve further into next week).

An example of a poem using four-line stanzas, as well as end rhyme, is William Blake’s “The Tiger”:

Tiger Tiger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tiger Tiger burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


Line length

Another thing to consider—if you are using stanzas—is keeping the line length consistent within each stanza. This provides a visually appealing aspect to your poem and also helps with pacing. Take the poem mentioned above: if you read it aloud, there is a natural flow to the poem because each line is of similar length, preventing disjointedness. If you were to have one line be longer than the rest, it would lose its visual appeal and rhythmic pacing (say we moved two of Blake’s lines into one, for example):

Tiger Tiger, burning bright, In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

While this still reads like a poem, it is not as visually appealing as having all the lines the same length within the stanza. Though this is not an exact rule, it is more common to see poems with similar line lengths within a stanza than without. Remember, in poetry the image of the poem carries meaning. Poems with short lines and few stanzas are likely conveying simpler or more abstract ideas than a poem with long lines and multiple stanzas.

We’ll discuss other structures you can try outside of stanzas next week, and the role white space plays in formatting.

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