January 22, 2011

A Story About Rooms With Phillip Levine

The word stanza means "room." The origin is late 16th century from Italian.

A poem divided into stanzas is a house of rooms. It's not a great hall with space not formally separated by walls and doors.

When you write a poem instead of prose, the act of creating stanzas and breaks has an effect. Yes, prose has paragraphs, but they are "logical" and stanza breaks do other things with those divisions.

Then it might seem odd that I chose the poem "A Story" by Philip Levine as a model this month since it is all one stanza.

Levine is writing about how a story can be a house, a series of rooms, filled with things -
"tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers
closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept
or big drawers that yawn open to reveal
precisely folded garments washed half to death"
For this month's writing prompt, our subject is a room or rooms. The form is any number of stanzas, but we ask you to think carefully about how you arrange those stanzas. Should 4 rooms be 4 stanzas? Should the movement from room to room be done only by stanza breaks? If a poem about one room has 4 stanzas, why is that?

When you use a poetic form, the rooms are affceted. In ottava rima or rhyme-royal, the rooms all have the same size and shape. Very tidy rooms that rhyme nicely with each other.

Two lines is a couplet. 3 lines, a tercet, 4 lines, a quatrain and so on... Does size have something to say about the size of the rooms - or does it indicate...

Let me be a formalist here and say that style and meaning are inextricably connected.

What kind of building would have the rooms of a sestina?



  1. Nothing to do with this poem - I googled your name and this came up.
    Are you the Ken Ronkowitz who wrote a poem called "The Hole" (about when a student in your class dies) a number of years ago? If you are, I just wanted to tell you that this poem has been a real blessing in helping my students and I deal with the deaths of several in our school community over the years. I found it in the English Journal long ago. Thank-you for sharing it there. I hope it's okay with you that I've been using it.
    Wendy King - Quebec, Canada

  2. Wendy
    Yes, the same KR.
    I discovered that the poem was being used in Canada by a school district in Hanover, Ontario via a Google search. I was surprised that the poem was being used (no one ever contacted me) but I am very happy that the poem has had a positive impact.

    That poem came from a real experience when I was teaching middle school.

    Thanks for posting the comment.


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