Glossary Terms

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C

Cacophony
Harsh or discordant word sounds; the opposite of euphony. See dissonance.

Cadence
The patterning of rhythm in natural speech, or in poetry without a distinct meter (i.e., free verse).

Caesura
A stop or pause in a metrical line, often marked by punctuation or by a grammatical boundary, such as a phrase or clause. A medial caesura splits the line in equal parts, as is common in Old English poetry (see Beowulf). Medial caesurae (plural of caesura) can be found throughout contemporary poet Derek Walcott’s “The Bounty.” When the pause occurs toward the beginning or end of the line, it is termed, respectively, initial or terminal. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Mother and Poet” contains both initial (“Dead! One of them shot by sea in the east”) and terminal caesurae (“No voice says ‘My mother’ again to me. What?”)

Canon
A list of authors or works considered to be central to the identity of a given literary tradition or culture. This secular use of the word is derived from its original meaning as a listing of all authorized books in the Bible. William Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Blake are frequently found on lists of canonical literature in English.

Canto
A long subsection of an epic or long narrative poem, such as Dante Alighieri’s Commedia (The Divine Comedy), first employed in English by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene. Other examples include Lord Byron’s Don Juan and Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Canzone
Literally “song” in Italian, the canzone is a lyric poem originating in medieval Italy and France and usually consisting of hendecasyllabic lines with end-rhyme. The canzone influenced the development of the sonnet.

Carol
A hymn or poem often sung by a group, with an individual taking the changing stanzas and the group taking the burden or refrain. See Robert Southwell’s “The Burning Babe”. Many traditional Christmas songs are carols, such as “I Saw Three Ships” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Carpe diem
In Latin, “Seize the day.” The fleeting nature of life and the need to embrace its pleasures constitute a frequent theme of love poems; examples include Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”

Chiasmus
Repetition of any group of verse elements (including rhyme and grammatical structure) in reverse order, such as the rhyme scheme ABBA. Examples can be found in Biblical scripture (“But many that are first / Shall be last, / And many that are last / Shall be first”; Matthew 19:30). See also John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”).

Choriamb
Greek and Latin metrical foot consisting of two stressed syllables enclosing two unstressed; a trochee followed by an iamb. It is rarely used as a metrical scheme in English poetry, though Algernon Charles Swinburne imitated this classical meter in “Choriambics.”

Circumlocution
A roundabout wording, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “twice five miles of fertile ground” (i.e., 10 miles) in “Kubla Khan.” Also known as periphrasis.

Cockney School of poets
A dismissive name for London-based Romantic poets such as John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The term was first used in a scathing review in Blackwood’s Magazine in October 1817, in which the anonymous reviewer mocked the poets’ lack of pedigree and sophistication.

Collage
From the French coller, meaning to paste or glue. In visual arts, a technique that involves juxtaposing photographs, cuttings, newspapers, or other media on a surface. Widely seen as a hallmark of Modernist art, collage was first developed in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso and other Cubists. Avant-garde groups such as the Dadaists and Surrealists also used the form to create new visual and language-based work. Tristan Tzara famously advocated a “cut-up” method of composition, involving cutting out words from a newspaper and drawing them randomly from a hat to create a poem. Collage in language-based work can now mean any composition that includes words, phrases, or sections of outside source material in juxtaposition. An early example is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which includes newspaper clippings, music lyrics, nursery rhymes, and overheard speech. Ezra Pound’s Cantos also use the technique extensively. For more examples of language-based collage see Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets.

Common measure
A quatrain that rhymes ABAB and alternates four-stress and three-stress iambic lines. It is the meter of the hymn and the ballad. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems are written in common measure, including [It was not death, for I stood up]. See also Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner” and Elinor Wylie’s “A Crowded Trolley Car.” See also Poulter’s measure and fourteener. Browse more common measure poems.

Complaint
A poem of lament, often directed at an ill-fated love, as in Henry Howard’s “Complaint of the Absence of Her Love Being upon the Sea,” or Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella XXXI.” A complaint may also be a satiric attack on social injustice and immorality; in “The Lie,” Sir Walter Ralegh bitterly rails against institutional hypocrisy and human vanity (“Tell men of high condition, / That manage the estate, / Their purpose is ambition, / Their practice only hate.”).

Conceit
From the Latin term for “concept,” a poetic conceit is an often unconventional, logically complex, or surprising metaphor whose delights are more intellectual than sensual. Petrarchan (after the Italian poet Petrarch) conceits figure heavily in sonnets, and contrast more conventional sensual imagery to describe the experience of love. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XCVII: How like a Winter hath my Absence been,” for example, “What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!” laments the lover, though his separation takes place in the fertile days of summer and fall.

Less conventional, more esoteric associations characterize the metaphysical conceit. John Donne and other so-called metaphysical poets used conceits to fuse the sensory and the abstract, trading on the element of surprise and unlikeness to hold the reader’s attention. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” for instance, John Donne envisions two entwined lovers as the points of a compass. (For more on Donne’s conceits, see Stephen Burt’s Poem Guide on John Donne's “The Sun Rising.”)

Conceptual
An umbrella term for writing that ranges from the constraint-based practices of OuLiPo to Concrete poetry’s visual poetics. Nonreferential and interested in the materiality of language, conceptual poetry often relies on some organizing principle or information that is external to the text and can cross genres into visual or theoretical modes. Generally interested in blurring genres, conceptual poetry takes advantage of innovations in technology to question received notions of what it means to be “poetic” or to express a “self” in poetry. The ideas and practices of conceptual poetry are associated with a variety of writers including Kenneth Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin, Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, and Vanessa Place. Poetry magazine published a special section devoted to conceptual poetry in its July/August 2009 issue, guest-edited by Kenneth Goldsmith.

Concrete poetry
Verse that emphasizes nonlinguistic elements in its meaning, such as a typeface that creates a visual image of the topic. Examples include George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and “The Altar” and George Starbuck’s “Poem in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree”. Browse more concrete poems.

Confessional poetry
Vividly self-revelatory verse associated with a number of American poets writing in the 1950s and 1960s, including Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. The term was first used by M.L. Rosenthal in a 1959 review of Life Studies, the collection in which Robert Lowell revealed his struggles with mental illness and a troubled marriage. Read an interview with Snodgrass in which he addresses his work and the work of others associated with confessionalism. Browse more poets who wrote confessional poems.

Consonance
A resemblance in sound between two words, or an initial rhyme (see also Alliteration). Consonance can also refer to shared consonants, whether in sequence (“bed” and “bad”) or reversed (“bud” and “dab”). Browse poems with consonance.

Couplet
A pair of successive rhyming lines, usually of the same length. A couplet is “closed” when the lines form a bounded grammatical unit like a sentence (see Dorothy Parker’s “Interview”: “The ladies men admire, I’ve heard, /Would shudder at a wicked word.”). The “heroic couplet” is written in iambic pentameter and features prominently in the work of 17th- and 18th-century didactic and satirical poets such as Alexander Pope: “Some have at first for wits, then poets pass’d, /Turn’d critics next, and proved plain fools at last.” Browse more couplet poems.

Cretic
Greek and Latin metrical foot consisting of a short syllable enclosed by two long syllables. Its use in English poetry is rare, though instances can be found in proverbs and idiomatic expressions such as “After a while, crocodile.”

Cultural criticism/cultural studies
Developing in the 18th and 19th centuries among writers such as Jonathan Swift, John Ruskin and, especially, Matthew Arnold, cultural criticism as it is practiced today has significantly complicated older notions of culture, tradition and value. While Arnold believed in culture as a force of harmony and social change, cultural critics of the 20th century sought to extend and problematize such definitions. Theorists like Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, and those connected with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England—as well as French intellectuals such Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault—described culture not as a finished product but as a process that joined knowledge to interest and power. Cultural critics critique the traditional canon and focus their attention on a variety of texts and discourses, tracing the interactions of both through an eclectic mix of interpretive strategies that include elements of economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and new historicism. In critiquing the traditional canon, cultural critics avoid privileging one cultural product over another and often examine texts that are largely seen as marginal and unimportant in traditional criticism, such as those connected to various forms of pop culture. Essentially cross-disciplinary, cultural criticism and cultural studies have become important tools in theorizing the emergence and importance of postcolonial and multicultural literatures.

Curtal sonnet
See Sonnet.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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