Lesson No. 3: The World in One Stanza with John Sibley Williams

This lesson involves one of the most deceptively simple yet truly difficult poetic achievements: the successful one stanza poem.  We’ll start with a conceptual overview of this form alongside writing tips, followed by five examples. I have included two of my own poems so that I can answer any questions you may have about their imagery or meaning. Rarely do we have direct access to the author, so this is your chance to delve into the process a bit deeper and in a new way.

 Octavio Paz once said that he admired the short lyric for being the hardest kind of poem to write. 


1) In a longer poem, the poet has space to create an argument and mood via extended metaphor and consistent imagery; what’s being said accumulates, like how wave upon wave makes up an ocean. Weaker moments are buoyed and balanced by stronger ones. The longer poem is more forgiving; it is allowed to find itself.
2) Shorter poems do not have the same flexibility; they must be both wave and ocean. The general poetic truth that “each word matters” is magnified. Therefore everything we’ve discussed so far in this class takes on even greater immediacy and importance.  

Often the short poem is a surprise to both reader and writer.

1) Trying to translate human experience in only one brief stanza is so limiting that it can actually be freeing. It forces both reader and writer to think outside the box, to make intuitive leaps, and to be surprised at where they’ve been taken.
2) Not unlike traditional forms like haiku and tanka, single stanza poems must provide a momentary glimpse or metaphysical construct within only a few lines. You must choose only the absolutely essential elements, and in focusing on only those core elements you end up seeing the poem (and the world) differently. By carving off all the fat, you finally see the poem’s heart.
3) Sometimes a short poem is something the writer accidentally arrives at; you simply intuit that the poem is complete and should be left alone.
4) Short poems should demand rereading over and again, adding further weight, meaning, and richness with each visit.

Notes on Structure

1) Though one stanza poems can adopt any number of forms, most include an awe-inspiring moment (usually at the end) where the entire poem is put into context, where the complexities of the situation are revealed, and where you (as both reader and writer) realize you have learned something significant.
2) This mysterious moment can be open-ended and ambiguous or can leave the poem on a hard stop, but either way it should be revelatory.
3) Concentrate on tension. Each line counts so make them play with and struggle against the next; let them build upon and almost dismantle each other.

Poems to Study

Octavio Paz



I draw these letters

as the day draws its images

and blows over them

and does not return



Yannis Ritsos



As he writes, without looking at the sea,

he feels his pencil trembling at the very tip—

it is the moment when the lighthouses light up.



Jelalludin Rumi



Pale sunlight,

pale the wall.

Love moves away.

The light changes.

I need more grace

than I thought.



John Sibley Williams



Drift your folded

paper edges

weightless across

this bathtub’s ocean

as long as you can;

soon, little boat,

we will be bringing

two of each

of our drowned




John Sibley Williams

Sábado de Gloria

A burning

papier–mâché effigy

of Judas passed

between hands

long used to

scorch and salve.

Repeating griefs.

Streets that carry

along with the fireworks’

shock and awe

its aftercrash—

what isn’t today

on fire will be

what warms

our poverty.


  • Use the forum below to comment on or ask any questions about these pieces. Don’t be shy about questioning the intent, inspiration, meaning, or imagery of my poems too.


Instead of providing you with other one stanza poems to read and study, choose two poems that inspire you. Reread these poems, slow and aloud.

Discussion Assignment

Post the two poems you discovered in the comments forum along with a few sentences about what struck you about each.

Writing Assignment

With these single stanza poems in mind, let’s use the unexpected, the unpredictable, the surreal in building your own single stanza poems that shed light on a problem, question, or situation that moves you deeply. Please compose 2 one stanza poems this week.


1) Consider something you are passionate about – something that might also resonate with readers.

2) Think of the most succinct, beautiful, poetic way to summarize your concern: the last line. Your last line may be paradoxical, incongruous, even ridiculous. Maybe it’s something that’s been spinning in your mind, just slightly rephrased? Make sure it’s the one you are happy to go out on. (You can change your last line later, but in this exercise, we will try to build the poem from the last line back.)

3) Instead of considering a logical way to support your last line, think of approaching it intuitively, with a sequence of thoughts that will invite the reader to question every step and enjoy the immensity of interpretive opportunities.

4) If uncertain after a minute, just start somewhere. Your first line will probably not be in the poem’s final version. Establish a flow of thoughts and let them take you on a journey. Depending on your taste, you may enjoy automatic writing in the surrealist vein, or a thoughtful series of scenes/images that take the reader from your first line to your last.

5) Leave bonuses for the reader midway – unexpected similes, odd and eloquent turns of phrase – tasteful flourishes that enhance the whole without becoming their own entities.

6) Make the reader empathize. Hurt the reader with the truth of your revelation.


John Sibley Williams’ writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Third Coast, and RHINO. He is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Four-time Pushcart nominee, he is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award and has been a finalist for the Rumi, Third Coast, Ian MacMillan, Best of the Net, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier College and an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University, and he currently works as Marketing Director of Inkwater Press and as a literary agent. John lives in Portland, Oregon.