Widening the Conversation

Edward Hirsch holds forth on his Poet’s Glossary.

One summer 15 years ago, Edward Hirsch, author of eight books of poetry and five books of poetic criticism, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Rome Prize, and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, began compiling a glossary of basic poetic terms to include in his book How to Read a Poem.

Now that initial 25 pages has mushroomed into a book of its own, A Poet’s Glossary. Nearly 750 pages in length, it encompasses more than a thousand entries on styles, techniques, forms, genres, movements, and all manner of other poetic curiosities from abecedarian to zeugma. Unlike most poetry reference books, which bring together entries written by numerous contributors, A Poet’s Glossary is very much the reflection of one unified sensibility. Dramatically international in perspective, both comprehensive and eclectic, it is clearly informed by Hirsch’s background in folklore. (He holds a PhD in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania.)

Hirsch and I spoke on the phone for nearly an hour about A Poet’s Glossary. There was much to talk about: We have known each other for years, ever since I studied with him at the University of Houston in the mid-1980s, and I too have recently published a book about the craft of poetry. It was a lively conversation covering diverse topics, from why poetry is so much larger than the timeworn quarrels that have recently defined it to how poetic forms create spells. What follows is a compressed and edited version of our conversation.

How do you imagine the ideal reader for A Poet’s Glossary?

I see this as a book for the initiated as well as for the uninitiated reader. People who don’t know much about poetry can find what they need to know about certain basics, like the nature of the line or the stanza, or the characteristics of a form, like the ghazal or the sestina. But there are also a lot of things in this book that even widely read readers of poetry may not know much about because they are outside our tradition. So, for example, you might not know to look up a form of African praise poem called the oríkì. If you care to think about praise poetry—what it is, how it functions—then the oríkì has a lot to tell you. To help the reader along different pathways, I’ve added “See also” at the bottom of every entry.

That’s wonderful. I see at the bottom of praise poems here, you have “encomium, epithet, griot, oríkì, panegyric.”

The idea is to lead you to something that you may not know much about, such as Ifa divination verses or panegyrics or drum poetry, which is an amazing form of oral poetry. I hope the book will enrich people’s knowledge of what they know, or think they know, and introduce them to a lot that they’ve never encountered. I hope it will enlarge the conversation about poetry, which has been somewhat narrow in contemporary discourse, and help us to think a little outside of the categories we’ve inherited.

Can you say a little more about those categories?

I think contemporary poetry seems to have inherited a 1950s and ’60s divide between the poets of traditional form and the poets of organic form. I think these divides rehearse tired narratives about poetry, as if we still had to choose between, say, Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Olson, or between Robert Hayden and Robert Creeley. By seeing these divides so categorically, I think we’ve impoverished the resources of American poets. My idea is that poetry is so much larger than these timeworn quarrels, which put too many poets into boxes. I’m hoping that my book can contribute to a fuller conversation and way of thinking about poetry. There is so much more to poetry than the sociological alignment of different groups.

I feel this divide is connected with the hegemony of iambic pentameter, which is still widely treated as basically the only meter available to poets who want to write in form. I’ve been talking up the concept of metrical diversity for a while. It seems to me that when meter is limited to iambic pentameter, poets get bored and let go of the entire potential of metrical structure.

Iambic pentameter can be very rich and flexible—think of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Robert Frost—but there’s no reason that it should have the kind of hold on English-language poetry that, say, the alexandrine once had on French poetry.

It’s interesting to think that our idea that there should be just one dominant meter has been influenced by the French—as opposed to the Celtic cultures, which had so many different meters, or the Persians.

The number of meters in any given poetry is often very wide. I’m thinking, for example, of the 24 meters that were memorized by the Welsh poets in the 14th and 15th century. The training period for bardic poets could extend for as long as 12 years. John Montague says that one way of describing the training of the Irish bards is as “seven winters in a dark room.” The poets who came through this regimen had a vast repertoire of meters to call upon.

You have a background in folklore. Are there particular aspects of our idea of poetry that you thought needed to be enlarged, or that you were especially excited about enlarging?

Yes, this book gave me the opportunity to bring my study of folklore into our consideration of poetry. I’m thinking of what I would call the poetry of everyday life, like proverbs, riddles, and lullabies, like counting-out rhymes and the African American game of playing the dozens. I’m also thinking of the poetry of indigenous tribes around the world, especially in Africa, and what these tribal poetries bring to our thinking about poetry in general.

When you say we don’t think of proverbs and riddles as poetry, what is the quality that you think makes them poetry that we have been overlooking?

I think of poetry as a form of marked speech. It sets words apart. It specializes and frames language, separating it from the otherwise ordinary discourse that surrounds it. Here I rely on the linguist Roman Jakobson, who calls the proverb “the largest coded unit occurring in our speech and at the same time the shortest poetic composition.” It involves sound patterns, and it is compressed and memorable, like the aphorism and the maxim. It is activated by performance.

It seems to me that what moves poetry into the hypnotic, magical realm is the physical nature of repetition that takes poetry out of meaning, out of words.

I agree. In all cultures it’s said that certain rhythmic patterns have magical properties. Forms are often considered conventional or traditional or somehow conservative, but in fact they are formulations of primary impulses of repetition. They create spells, which have an irrational potency. They are ways of delivering certain kinds of information. Rhythm is sound in motion. And this is related to our pulse and our heartbeat, to the way we breathe.

With my students, I have field-tested the idea that the length of a line corresponds to one breath and four or five heartbeats, and it seems true that basic metrical lines in English sync up perfectly with the body in this way. It has been said that a traditional poetic line is the same length in all languages. Do you have any sense of the truth of that from doing the book?

I can’t say that the four- or five-beat line is universal. I would say that it seems universal to the stress languages. We’d have to get native speakers of syllabic and tonal languages to explain to us how beat works for them. My instinct is that poetry is related to the body everywhere. Poetry is a bodily art, and the forms of poetry grow out of our bodies. Of course, there are also abstractionists, who want to move poetry as far away from the body as possible. I think their experiments are enriching, useful, and doomed.

You spent 15 years making this book. It also took me 15 years to complete my own book on craft. I know that your sense of the book must have changed constantly during that time. If you had to pick out a few favorite entries today, what would they be?

That’s tough. I like wine poetry—who doesn’t?—and some of the anthropological terms I discovered, such as tlamatini (which is one of the names for poet in the Aztec world and means “one who knows”), ghinnawa (a stylized form of folk poetry practiced in Bedouin cultures), and bird sound words (the systematic language of song poetics of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea). I’m struck by the fact that we don’t have English equivalents for certain words, like rasa (the most important term in Sanskrit poetics) and saudade (a Portuguese terms that suggests a profoundly bittersweet nostalgia). If you want to poetically insult someone, I highly recommend the Scottish flyting. If you want to blow their minds, I recommend the Russian futurist term zaum, which means something like “trans-rational” or “beyond-sense.”

Your book describes so many different ways to be a poet, staggeringly different kinds of cultural roles and aesthetic stances.

This has all been a great education for me. It has widened my own view of being a poet, what poetry does and can do, how it works. I had some sense, and it turned out to be truer than I even realized, that being a poet is different in different parts of the world. The role of poetry can be much larger than the way poets often think about it. I’m an American poet, and I don’t really want to be anything else. I just want the widest view of what it is to be an American poet. While I wouldn’t trade my role for that of a griot or a Russian Acmeist, my idea of poetry is vastly enlarged by reading the Russian poets of the 1920s, or the T’ang Dynasty poets, or the Renaissance poets in Italy, Spain, and England, or learning about the epic poets of India and the Balkans. Then there is Zen poetry. The 18th-century Zen monk Ryokan states categorically:

          Who says my poems are poems?
          My poems are not poems.
          When you know that my poems are not poems,
          Then we can speak of poetry.
             (tr. John Stevens)

Originally Published: May 20th, 2014

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), Spells: New and Selected Poems (2013), and Poetry Witch Book of Spells (2019), as well as the long poems The Encyclopedia of...

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