Structure in poetry is a complex subject since it can have either closed structure as in Classical forms or open structure as in modernist and post-modernist poems. Poetic structure can be defined
- in terms of formal qualities (qualities that define its form: epic, sonnet, ode etc),
- in terms of alliteration (alliterative poetry, like Beowulf),
- in terms of rhyme structure (how the rhyme scheme is or is not formulated),
- in terms of logical structure (as with sonnets) and
- in terms of metrical structure (feet per line and rhythm in feet).
Poetic structure is complex and must be examined from many aspects to answer the question of whether there is structure in a given poem. Let's examine "Smalltown Dance" to see what structural elements emerge.
Most obviously, Wright composed this poem in the structure of stanzas. Stanzas are the divisions between logical groups of poetic thought. Stanzas may be classically structured according to convention as in closed structure poems or they may be freely structured as in open structure free-form poems of the modernist and post-modernist eras.
Wright's stanza structure is composed with 8 lines, 10 lines and 5 lines. The logical structure follows the stanzaic structure. The first two stanzas present the little girl's vision of a comforting, limitless world in two symmetrically 8-lined stanzas. The third stanza presents the women's knowledge of limitations to comfort and dreams: women know more than girls so their stanza has more; this is shown in the 10-line stanza. The final stanza is the putting away of dreams, which is done quickly--and must be done quickly--and is represented in the shortest stanza of 5 lines.
The rhyme structure is very deliberate and complex. Though the rhyme scheme is a continuous one (the /a/ rhyme is not repeated in each) with each stanza having its own rhyme set (e.g, 1st: sheet dance meet twice; 2nd: white myself sight comforted), each stanza is structured to begin with an abac rhyme, or variation of abac, that is further varied afterward while relying heavily on slant rhyme (slant rhyme: nearly rhyming words or word portions, twice/space) [bear in mind the following is for structural comparison rather than actual scansion]
- 1st stanza: abac bacd - (slant rhyme on c)
- 2nd stanza: abac deff
- 3rd stanza: aabbc cddef - (slant rhyme on a, b, c, d)
- 4th stanza: abccd - (slant on c)
The repetition in the rhyme structure connects the little girl to the women and to the quickly closeted dreams, while the variation in the rhyme structure connects the comforting sheets with the sheets that "struggle from the peg" and fly--but not far--and connects the folding of the sheets with the suppression of a girl's free spirited dreams of "waiting green":
clean corridors of hiding, roof with blue-
saying, Your sins too are made Monday-new; and see, ahead
that glimpse of unobstructed waiting green.
As this is an open structure, free form poem, there nonetheless is an underlying rhythmical structural foundation in iambs (da DA). This is not unusual since English accentuation renders normal language a dominantly iambic rhythm. Though there is much variation from iambs, you can clearly identify the iambic basis of the poem (stressed syllable / ' /):
Two wo' / -men find' / the square' / -root of' / a sheet'.
That is' / an an' / -cient dance':
arms wide': / to -ge' / ther:...
Since Wright's underlying metaphor is the dance that folds newly washed and line-dried sheets while simultaneously folding dreams and freedom, it makes logical, thematic and structural sense that she would choose an underlying poetic structural rhythm for the telling of the rhythmic dance and equally rhythmic destruction of the "waiting green" of life ahead.