I haven’t written much this summer and am easing my way back into it, allowing myself the paradigm shift needed to return to living a poet’s life. This means slowing down to observe and reflect, stopping at the station instead of hurrying past it with engines working constantly, full steam ahead.
I dream of sheep, my sheep, locked in the barn and I,
unable to get to them
due to ice and hills, and a car crash thrown in for good measure, and they, silent in their patience, moving as sheep do, as one, around the inner perimeter
of their confines, waiting
for grass, light, air.
Was that you I saw
with straw hat, kerchief
around the neck, long-pants
in the ditch with a scythe?
I have closed the door on the dog.
Don’t worry; it is the bedroom door,
and although her fluffy doggy bed
is in here, she will sleep elsewhere,
on the couch or on Great-Grandma
Dugan’s antique loveseat,
quite comfortable, free
of remonstration, of guilt.
The ocean frightens me, makes me
want to head back to Iowa, lie
my body flat in between the stubble
of corn stalks or sit in a deep ditch
where, my mother once told me,
wild roses grew before the pesticides
of the 1950’s, where you can hide
from jumping tornadoes, where,
in my blue jeans and sweat,
the four-foot grass hid me,
and after the dust-cloud settled
from a passing car, I smelled
the ocean in an endless sky.
Recently I was reading Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women, edited by Forrest Gander (Milkweed Editions), and came to the poems of Elva Macias. In her section there were poems under the heading “Stanzas.” Longer, in general, than haiku, but shorter than one might expect a complete poem to be, I liked the short musings she offered such as this:
The balcony frames the branches of the cypress,
an insect slips
through the blades of the fan
and the mosquito net is a small cloud
spilling over desire.
And this one:
The breeze parts the curtains,
kisses sea snails
that keep their doors wide open.
It lulls you.
Over the afternoon
is the same as yesterday
and you almost laugh.
Interestingly, Macias had shorter creations that she has titled and that stand alone as a poem:
even torn from its stalk
still follows, attentive, the movement of the sun.
What is the difference between a stanza, a strophe, a poem?
Posted on the website Literary Devices, the stanza is “a division of four or more lines having a fixed length, meter or rhyming scheme. Stanzas in poetry are similar to paragraphs in prose. Both stanzas and paragraphs include connected thoughts and are set off by a space. The number of lines varies in different kinds of stanzas but it is uncommon for a stanza to have more than twelve lines. The pattern of a stanza is determined by the number of feet in each line and by its metrical or rhyming scheme.”
And according to the website Poetry Archive, the stanza is “a group of lines within a poem; the blank line between stanzas is known as a stanza break. Like lines, there is no set length to a stanza or an insistence that all stanzas within a poem need be the same length. However, there are names for stanzas of certain lengths: two-line stanzas are couplets; three-lines, tercets; four-lines, quatrains. (Rarer terms, like sixains and quatorzains, are very rarely used.) Whether regular or not, the visual effect and, sometimes, the aural effect is one of uniting the sense of the stanza into one group, so poets can either let their sentences fit neatly within these groups, or create flow and tension by enjambing across the stanza breaks.”
This is as opposed to a strophe, defined by Encyclopedia Britannica: “strophe, in poetry, a group of verses that form a distinct unit within a poem. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for stanza, usually in reference to a Pindaric ode or to a poem that does not have a regular metre and rhyme pattern, such as free verse. In ancient Greek drama the strophe was the first part of a choral ode that was performed by the chorus while it moved from one side of the stage to the other. The strophe was followed by an antistrophe of the same metrical structure (performed while the chorus reversed its movement) and then by an epode of different structure that was chanted as the chorus stood still.”
But enough definitions already. I like to think of a stanza as what its etymology tells us it is: a little room, station, stopping place. These are the roots of the word in Italian.
If I think of writing a stanza instead of a poem, a huge weight is lifted from my shoulders. Why? Because I can manage being in a little room. When I enter a room, or stop at a station, there are unknowns to deal with to be sure, but the space and duration of my stay are confined. Even if the room is uncomfortable or the layover long, I know there are boundaries; there is a finite time I’ll be there and a sure way out.
Now imagine leaving that safe little room. You’ve shut the door behind you and have stepped outside into the end of summer, as it’s getting to be now. Image yourself at the edge of a cornfield where the corn is as tall as you or even taller. In front of you is the entrance to a corn maze. Entering this maze is like entering a poem. Both can be quite overwhelming and there is risk involved. They both beg the same questions: Which way do I go? How many wrong turns will I take? What will I discover? When will I come out? Perhaps, when you find the exit, you will have found a little cottage constructed with sweet stanza-rooms, or a mansion full of richly filled stanza-rooms, or a tumbled down shack with pathetic stanza-rooms that needs to be razed and begun anew. One never knows at the beginning of a maze.
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
What is poetry? Some interesting definitions of poetry. Where are the definitions by women?