Poetry Tip #7: The Quatrain

BULLETIN: Our friend Jana Foster at Maumee Valley Country Day in Toledo, Ohio just sent poems by three of her 6th grade students. Although the end of school pressures delayed posting these poems until after our May cutoff, I want you to see the students’ work and let them know you appreciate their sophisticated efforts. The students are Lexie Lewis, Karena Amy, and Elora Scamardo. Way to go, kids!

If you wonder why I’m posting poetry tips more frequently these days, I’m getting my act together for the upcoming three-hour workshop on June 4 at the SCBWI conference in Princeton, New Jersey. Nothing like a little deadline to promote action! This tip is about the quatrain.

POETRY TIP #7: THE QUATRAINThe real workhorse of verse is the four-line stanza. It’s a good length and construct, in English at least, to say what one has to say or conclude one thought before moving on to the next. Like the couplet, the quatrain my stand alone as a single poem or be the building unit for poems of any length.Quatrain means four lines. There are, however, numerous variations on the theme. First, I’ll explain the shorthand method of describing both the rhyme scheme and the meter of the stanzas.

Ends of lines are noted as: a, b, c, d, etc. A 4-line poem in which the first and third lines do not rhyme but the second and fourth lines do will be written like this: abcb. Two couplets would look like this: aabb.

Meter is noted with numbers to represent the total beats (stressed syllables) in each line. A stanza with three beats in lines 1, 2, and 4 but with four beats in line 3 would look like this: 3/3/4/3.

Here are examples of how slight differences in rhyme scheme and/or meter can make large differences in the final result.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/3/4/3
Rhyme: abcb or abab

Example: (abab): Joyful
By Rose Burgunder

A summer day is full of ease,
a bank is full of money,
our lilac bush is full of bees,
and I am full of honey.

Example: (abab): The Puffin
By Robert Williams Wood

Upon this cake of ice is perched
The paddle-footed Puffin;
To find his double we have searched,
But have discovered – Nuffin!

Example: (abcb): Family Secrets

My aunt thinks she’s a mallard duck,
It’s sort of hard to explain,
But don’t go eat at her house
‘Cause all she serves is grain.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 3/3/4/3
Rhyme: abab or abcb
Example: (abcb): Beside the Line of Elephants
By Edna Becker

I think they had no pattern
When they cut out the elephant’s skin;
Some places it needs letting out,
And others, taking in.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/4/4/4 (tetrameter)
Rhyme: abcb, aabb, or abab
Example: (abab): My Treasure
By David L. Harrison

It’s such a slender little book
Squeezed between a larger pair,
Unless you know just where to look
You could easily miss it there.

But it’s worth more than all the host
Of books on shelves beside my bed.
I’ll forever treasure most
This book – the first I ever read.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 5/5/5/5 (pentameter)
Rhyme: abab, abcb, or abba
Example: (abba):Things we Prize
By David L. Harrison
1st two stanzas

Hidden in the mountains, fed by snow,
The lake was small. We stayed there every year
And got to know our neighbors camping near
In tents like toadstools growing in a row.

I found a secret pool, a little nook
Where I could lie and watch the fish below
But no amount of coaxing made them go
For worms, or bits of bacon on my hook.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 5/5/5/5
Rhyme: aaba
Example: Translated from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
By Edward Fitzgerald

The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/4/4/4
Rhyme: abba
Example: Death of a Wasp
By David L. Harrison
(1st two stanzas)

Bumping at the windowpane
He fought against the solid air
That held him as a prisoner there,
But all his struggles were in vain.

Never comprehending glass
Clear as air that stopped him hard
And blocked his freedom to the yard,
Repeatedly he tried to pass.

Of these forms of the quatrain, by far the most popular is the first one I gave you, the BALLAD stanza, usually with a rhyme pattern of abcb. Next is the LONG BALLAD, also with an abcb rhyming pattern. Why? Because these are the easiest forms to construct. It’s not as hard to find one pair of lines that rhyme as it is to find two pairs that rhyme. But there is a danger in always going with the most expedient. If we’re not careful, we can fall into a sing-songy rut when using this form. A well turned ballad can be truly effective but a poorly constructed effort sounds trite, silly, or worse.

There are all sorts of variations on these basic forms.

In Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he writes 4-line stanzas with 4/4/4/4 beats (LONG BALLAD) and a rhyme scheme of aaba (RUBAIYAT). So did Frost write a variation of a LONG BALLAD or a variation of a RUBAIYAT? It doesn’t matter when it works.

(1st stanza)
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Elizabeth Coatsworth shows us another variation in her poem, “Sea Gull.” She chooses a pattern of 3/3/4/2 with a rhyme scheme of abcb.

The sea gull curves his wings,
the sea gull turns his eyes.
Get down into the water, fish!
(if you are wise.)

The sea gull slants his wings,
the sea gull turns his head.
Get deep into the water, fish!
(or you’ll be dead.)

And what about a 4-line stanza with three beats in every line (3/3/3/3)? And what if the rhyme scheme looks like this (abbb) but lines two and three are the SAME word? Why, then you would have a wonderful poem, “One Day When We Went Walking,” by Valine Hobbs.

(1st stanza)
One day when we went walking,
I found a dragon’s tooth,
A dreadful dragon’s tooth,
“A locust thorn,” said Ruth.

Or a 4-line stanza with three beats in every line and a rhyme scheme of abab? Here’s A. E. Housman’s “Amelia Mixed the Mustard.”

Amelia mixed the mustard,
She mixed it good and thick;
She put it in the custard
And made her Mother sick,

And showing satisfaction
By many a loud huzza
“Observe,” said she, “the action
Of mustard on Mamma.”

I hope these examples provide more help than confusion. A cardinal rule of writing verse is to be consistent. If you find a pattern with its own unique rhythm, line length, and rhyme scheme – and it works to say what you want to convey –go with it.

Don’t forget to vote for your selections for May Hall of Fame Poet and May Hall of Fame Young Poet. Polls close on May 30. Here’s the link: https://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/let-the-voting-begin-4/