As a poet, you control how long a poem can be. Use short lines, and the poem will be longer, while a poem with longer lines can have the same number of words but be shorter. But how long should a poem be, and does that affect where you end a line of poetry?
The number of lines in a poem is determined by whether a poet chooses to write in a specific form or free verse. Forms like sonnets have a set number of lines, while other forms are defined by stanza length. Poets who write in free verse have more flexibility in how many lines are in their poems.
Knowing how many lines a poem should have is the easy part, especially with formal poetry. And the freedom of free verse doesn’t mean a good poem will be as long as you want. With all poetry, the number of lines is a starting point, but what you do in between is far more important, which is what this article will talk about, stick around!
What Is a Line in Poetry?
Beginning poets often have a limited idea of what a line in a poem is. In prose, the writer has no control over the length of a line. A poet, however, gets to decide where readers should pause. This control is essential to both meaning and sound.
A line in poetry is a sentence or thought, and it builds on the one before it. Because readers are forced to stop at the end of a line, they begin to pick up on implications and meanings that would not be present in prose.
What Is a Stanza?
A stanza is a section of a poem comprised of two or more lines together as a unit. Although some poems, such as sonnets, are based on the number of lines, in formal poetry stanzas are essential. Indeed, some poetic forms, such as villanelles, are structured around the length and number of stanzas.
Stanzas are named based on the number of lines. Let’s look at a few examples.
Two-line stanzas that can be used for narrative poetry or for succinct emphasis:
The hungry judges soon the sentence sign
And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.
Three-lined stanzas. Although all three lines can rhyme, a pattern such as this is often used:
- Stanza 1: a/b/a
- Stanza 2: b/c/b
These contain stanzas of four lines. Quatrains are used in hymns, popular songs, and children’s poetry. The 4-line stanza lets a poet further develop an idea than a couplet and can have a self-contained rhyme pattern.
Lesser-known stanzas include:
- The rime royal (seven lines)
- Ottava rima (eight lines)
- The nine-line Spenserian Stanza
As you can see, in formal poetry, the count is focused not on lines but on stanzas. A poem with 4 quatrains will have 16 lines.
Formal Poems With Set Line Lengths
Some formal poems have line lengths that a poet should not deviate from. Therefore, the number of lines is based on the poem, such as the following examples:
- Haiku: A haiku is a 3-lined poem with a 5/7/5 syllable pattern, which is often set in nature. Besides the syllable pattern, a successful haiku should have a turn, which is a different perspective or insight, in the third line.
- Sonnet: A 14-line poem, a sonnet is further grouped by the rhyme scheme. The Shakespearean sonnet contains three quatrains and a couplet. The Italian sonnet consists of two quatrains and two triplets.
- Limerick: Usually a humorous poem, the 5-line limerick rhyme scheme is a/a/b/b/a. In addition, the third and fourth lines are shorter.
- Villanelle: This is a complicated form because it contains only two rhymes in a poem that has 19 lines. Five stanzas are triplets, and the last stanza is a quatrain. The poem is more complex because the 1st and 3rd lines are repeated three times. The poem Do Not Go Gently Into the Good Night by Dylan Thomas is an excellent and well-known example.
- Sestina: Even more complicated than a villanelle, a sestina has 39 lines—6 six-line stanzas and one triplet. A sestina does not rhyme, but instead, the six words at the end of the first stanza are repeated in each subsequent stanza in a specific order.
Forms and Poetry
The number of lines and rhyme scheme are two components of formal poems. A third is meter, which is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. Meter in a line of poetry consists of a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, called a foot, and the number of feet.
The metrical pattern most common in English is iambic, with two syllables. One is unstressed and the other is stressed. The traditional line in a sonnet is an iambic pentameter, which is five iambic feet.
A poet who writes in a traditional form has the advantage of the structure. However, the requirements of the forms may arguably require the poet to sacrifice some directness, immediacy, and spontaneous emotions.
Lines in Free Verse
The number of lines in a free verse poem depends on the poet’s choices regarding line length and rhythm. Shorter lines create longer poems and vice versa, so a poet writing in free verse must decide how to create line breaks to establish a rhythm that fits the poem’s theme.
These are the basic concepts in free verse poetry:
- End-stopped: Line breaks in end-stopped verse stop at grammatical or syntactical pauses. End-stopped poems tend to have longer and fewer lines.
- Run-on: Line breaks in run-on verse are arbitrary. A poet uses pauses, breaks up phrases to call attention to an image or idea, and decides which lines should be end-stopped.
- Syllabics: A poet decides how many syllables should be in a line, and then each line has that number of syllables.
Poets who write in free verse play around with line length and pauses, often trying different patterns. A poet might try end-stopped lines and decide the effect doesn’t match the meaning. Or a poet will do the opposite.
Often a free verse poem will have a combination of the above concepts.
There is no easy answer to how many lines a poem should have. There are too many variables, including the type of poem, the topic and theme, and the choices the poet makes. As clichéd as it may sound, a poem should arguably be long enough to get the poet’s meaning across and no more.