Glossary Terms

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Abecedarian
Related to acrostic, a poem in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the alphabet. See Jessica Greenbaum, “A Poem for S.” Tom Disch’s “Abecedary” adapts the principles of an abecedarian poem, while Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror/The Terror of Future” sequence also uses the alphabet as an organizing principle. Poets who have used the abecedarian across whole collections include Mary Jo Bang, in The Bride of E, and Harryette Mullen, in Sleeping with the Dictionary.

Accentual verse
Verse whose meter is determined by the number of stressed (accented) syllables—regardless of the total number of syllables—in each line. Many Old English poems, including Beowulf, are accentual; see Ezra Pound’s modern translation of “The Seafarer.” More recently, Richard Wilbur employed this same Anglo-Saxon meter in his poem “Junk.” Traditional nursery rhymes, such as “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,” are often accentual.

Accentual-syllabic verse
Verse whose meter is determined by the number and alternation of its stressed and unstressed syllables, organized into feet. From line to line, the number of stresses (accents) may vary, but the total number of syllables within each line is fixed. The majority of English poems from the Renaissance to the 19th century are written according to this metrical system.

Acmeism
An early 20th-century Russian school of poetry that rejected the vagueness and emotionality of Symbolism in favor of Imagist clarity and texture. Its proponents included Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.

Acrostic
A poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, name, or phrase when read vertically. See Lewis Carroll’s “A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky.”

Alcaic
A four-line stanza invented by the Classical Greek poet Alcaeus that employs a specific syllabic count per line and a predominantly dactylic meter. Alfred, Lord Tennyson imitated its form in his poem “Milton.”

Alexandrine
In English, a 12-syllable iambic line adapted from French heroic verse. The last line of each stanza in Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark” is an alexandrine.

Allegory
An extended metaphor in which the characters, places, and objects in a narrative carry figurative meaning. Often an allegory’s meaning is religious, moral, or historical in nature. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are two major allegorical works in English.

Alliteration
The repetition of initial stressed, consonant sounds in a series of words within a phrase or verse line. Alliteration need not reuse all initial consonants; “pizza” and “place” alliterate. Example: “We saw the sea sound sing, we heard the salt sheet tell,” from Dylan Thomas’s “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed.” Browse poems with alliteration.

Allusion
A brief, intentional reference to a historical, mythic, or literary person, place, event, or movement. “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot’s influential long poem is dense with allusions. The title of Seamus Heaney’s autobiographical poem “Singing School” alludes to a line from W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (“Nor is there singing school but studying /Monuments of its own magnificence”). Browse poems with allusions.

Ambiguity
A word, statement, or situation with two or more possible meanings is said to be ambiguous. As poet and critic William Empson wrote in his influential book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), “The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.” A poet may consciously join together incompatible words to disrupt the reader’s expectation of meaning, as e.e. cummings does in [anyone lived in a pretty how town]. The ambiguity may be less deliberate, steered more by the poet’s attempts to express something ineffable, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover.” At the sight of a bird diving through the air, the speaker marvels, “Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume here / Buckle!” The ambiguity of this phrase lies in the exclamation of “buckle”: The verb could be descriptive of the action, or it could be the speaker’s imperative. In both cases, the meaning of the word is not obvious from its context. “Buckle” could mean “fall” or “crumple,” or it could describe the act of clasping armor and bracing for battle.

Anachronism
Someone or something placed in an inappropriate period of time. Shakespeare’s placing of a clock in Julius Caesar is an anachronism, because clocks had not yet been invented in the period when the play is set. In Charles Olson’s epic The Maximus Poems, the central figure encompasses the poet’s alter ego, the second-century Greek philosopher Maximus of Tyre, and the fourth-century Phoenician mystic Maximus. This persona arises from outside of time to reflect on the state of American culture by recounting the history of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Anagram
A word spelled out by rearranging the letters of another word; for example, “The teacher gapes at the mounds of exam pages lying before her.”

Anapest
A metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable. The words “underfoot” and “overcome” are anapestic. Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is written in anapestic meter.

Anaphora
Often used in political speeches and occasionally in prose and poetry, anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which uses anaphora not only in its oft-quoted “I have a dream” refrain but throughout, as in this passage when he repeats the phrase “go back to”:

                           Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, 
                           go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and
                           ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can
                           and will be changed.

In Joanna Klink's poem “Some Feel Rain,” the phrase "some feel" is repeated, which creates a rhythm and a sense of an accumulating emotions and meanings:

                 Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
                 in its ghost-part when the bark
                 slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
                 each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.

See Paul Muldoon’s “As,” William Blake’s “The Tyger,” or much of Walt Whitman’s poetry, including “I Sing the Body Electric.” See also Rebecca Hazelton's explanatory essay, “Adventures in Anaphora.”

Anthropomorphism
A form of personification in which human qualities are attributed to anything inhuman, usually a god, animal, object, or concept. In Vachel Lindsay’s “What the Rattlesnake Said,” for example, a snake describes the fears of his imagined prey. John Keats admires a star’s loving watchfulness (“with eternal lids apart”) in his sonnet “Bright Star, Would I Were as Steadfast as Thou Art.”

Antithesis
Contrasting or combining two terms, phrases, or clauses with opposite meanings. William Blake pits love’s competing impulses—selflessness and self-interest—against each other in his poem “The Clod and the Pebble.” Love “builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair,” or, antithetically, it “builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Aphorism
A pithy, instructive statement or truism, like a maxim or adage. See Benjamin Franklin’s “How to get RICHES.”  Browse more aphorisms.

Apostrophe
An address to a dead or absent person, or personification as if he or she were present. In his Holy Sonnet “Death, be not proud,” John Donne denies death’s power by directly admonishing it. Emily Dickinson addresses her absent object of passion in “Wild nights!—Wild nights!”

Archetype
A basic model from which copies are made; a prototype. According to psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes emerge in literature from the “collective unconscious” of the human race. Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, explores archetypes as the symbolic patterns that recur within the world of literature itself. In both approaches, archetypical themes include birth, death, sibling rivalry, and the individual versus society. Archetypes may also be images or characters, such as the hero, the lover, the wanderer, or the matriarch.

Assonance
The repetition of vowel sounds without repeating consonants; sometimes called vowel rhyme. See Amy Lowell’s “In a Garden” (“With its leaping, and deep, cool murmur”) or “The Taxi” (“And shout into the ridges of the wind”). Browse poems with assonance.

Aubade
A love poem or song welcoming or lamenting the arrival of the dawn. The form originated in medieval France. See John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” and Louise Bogan’s “Leave-Taking.” Browse more aubade poems.

Augustan Age
The first half of the 18th century, during which English poets such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift emulated Virgil, Ovid, and Horace—the great Latin poets of the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE to 14 CE). Like the classical poets who inspired them, the English Augustan writers engaged the political and philosophical ideas of their day through urbane, often satirical verse. Browse more Augustan poets.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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