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Hexameter

A metrical line of six feet, most often dactylic, and found in Classical Latin or Greek poetry, including Homer’s Iliad. In English, an iambic hexameter line is also known as an alexandrine. Only a few poets have written in dactylic hexameter, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the long poem Evangeline:

               Now had the season returned, when the nights grow colder and longer,
               And the retreating sun the sign of the Scorpion enters.
               Birds of passage sailed through the leaden air, from the ice-bound,
               Desolate northern bays to the shores of tropical islands.

Horatian ode

See ode.

Hymn

A poem praising God or the divine, often sung. In English, the most popular hymns were written between the 17th and 19th centuries. See Isaac Watts’s “Our God, Our Help,” Charles Wesley’s “My God! I Know, I Feel Thee Mine,” and “Thou Hidden Love of God” by John Wesley.

Hyperbole

A figure of speech composed of a striking exaggeration. For example, see James Tate’s lines “She scorched you with her radiance” or “He was more wronged than Job.” Hyperbole usually carries the force of strong emotion, as in Andrew Marvell’s description of a forlorn lover:

             The sea him lent those bitter tears
             Which at his eyes he always wears;
             And from the winds the sighs he bore,
             Which through his surging breast do roar.
             No day he saw but that which breaks
             Through frighted clouds in forkèd streaks,
             While round the rattling thunder hurled,
             As at the funeral of the world.

Iamb

A metrical foot consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The words “unite” and “provide” are both iambic. It is the most common meter of poetry in English (including all the plays and poems of William Shakespeare), as it is closest to the rhythms of English speech. In Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking” the iamb is the vehicle for the “natural,” colloquial speech pattern:

       My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
       Toward heaven still,
       And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
       Beside it, and there may be two or three
       Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
       But I am done with apple-picking now.
       Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
       The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

Imagery

Elements of a poem that invoke any of the five senses to create a set of mental images. Specifically, using vivid or figurative language to represent ideas, objects, or actions. Poems that use rich imagery include T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” and Mary Oliver’s “At Black River.”

Imagism

An early 20th-century poetic movement that relied on the resonance of concrete images drawn in precise, colloquial language rather than traditional poetic diction and meter. T.E. Hulme, H.D., and William Carlos Williams were practitioners of the imagist principles as laid out by Ezra Pound in the March 1913 issue of Poetry (see A Retrospect” and “A Few Don'ts). Amy Lowell built a strain of imagism that used some of Pound's principles and rejected others in her Preface to the 1916 anthology, Some Imagist Poets. Browse more imagist poets.

Invocation

An address to a deity or muse that often takes the form of a request for help in composing the poem at hand. Invocations can occur at the beginning of the poem or start of a new canto; they are considered conventions of the epic form and are a type of apostrophe. See the opening of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Alexander Pope mocked the convention in the first canto of “The Rape of the Lock.” A contemporary example is Denise Levertov’s poem “Invocation.”

Irony

As a literary device, irony implies a distance between what is said and what is meant. Based on the context, the reader is able to see the implied meaning in spite of the contradiction. When William Shakespeare relates in detail how his lover suffers in comparison with the beauty of nature in “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing like the Sun,” it is understood that he is elevating her beyond these comparisons; considering her essence as a whole, and what she means to the speaker, she is more beautiful than nature.

Dramatic or situational irony involves a contrast between reality and a character’s intention or ideals. For example, in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus searches for his father’s murderer, not knowing that he himself is that man. In “The Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy contrasts the majesty and beauty of the ocean liner Titanic with its tragic fate and new ocean-bottom inhabitants:

             Over the mirrors meant
                          To glass the opulent
            The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Italian sonnet

See Sonnet.

Kenning

A figurative compound word that takes the place of an ordinary noun. Many kennings rely on myths or legends to make meaning and are found in Old Germanic, Norse, and English poetry, including The Seafarer, in which the ocean is called a “whale-path.” (See Ezra Pound’s translation). “The Oven Bird” by Robert Frost also includes examples such as “mid-wood” and “petal-fall.” The speaker in Frank Bidart’s poem, “The Third Hour of the Night,” mentions a creature referred to as the “wound-dresser.”  See also Franny Choi’s “The Second Mouth.”

Lament

Any poem expressing deep grief, usually at the death of a loved one or some other loss. Related to elegy and the dirge. See “A Lament” by Percy Bysshe Shelley; Thom Gunn’s “Lament”; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Lament.”

Landays

A form of folk poetry from Afghanistan. Meant to be recited or sung aloud, and frequently anonymous, the form is a couplet comprised of 22 syllables. The first line has 9 syllables and the second line 13 syllables. Landays end on “ma” or “na” sounds and treat themes such as love, grief, homeland, war, and separation. See Eliza Griswold’s extensive reporting on the form in the June 2013 issue of Poetry, in which she explains how the form was created by and for the more than 20 million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Language poetry

Taking its name from the magazine edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), Language poetry is an avant garde poetry movement that emerged in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a response to mainstream American poetry. It developed from diverse communities of poets in San Francisco and New York who published in journals such as This, Hills, Tottels, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and Tuumba Press. Rather than emphasizing traditional poetic techniques, Language poetry tends to draw the reader’s attention to the uses of language in a poem that contribute to the creation of meaning. The writing associated with language poetry, including that by Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, Rae Armantrout, and many others, is often associated with deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the Objectivist tradition. Browse more Language poetry.

Light verse

Whimsical poems taking forms such as limericks, nonsense poems, and double dactyls. See Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Other masters of light verse include Dorothy Parker, G.K. Chesterton, John Hollander, and Wendy Cope.

Limerick

A fixed light-verse form of five generally anapestic lines rhyming AABBA. Edward Lear, who popularized the form, fused the third and fourth lines into a single line with internal rhyme. Limericks are traditionally bawdy or just irreverent; see “A Young Lady of Lynn” or Lear’s “There was an Old Man with a Beard.” Browse more limericks.

Litotes

A deliberate understatement for effect; the opposite of hyperbole. For example, a good idea may be described as “not half bad,” or a difficult task considered “no small feat.” Litotes is found frequently in Old English poetry; “That was a good king,” declares the narrator of the Beowulf epic after summarizing the Danish king’s great virtues. See also Irony.

Lyric

Originally a composition meant for musical accompaniment. The term refers to a short poem in which the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker expresses personal feelings. See Robert Herrick’s “To Anthea, who May Command Him Anything,” John Clare’s “I Hid My Love,” Louise Bogan’s “Song for the Last Act,” or Louise Glück’s “Vita Nova.”

Madrigal

A song or short lyric poem intended for multiple singers. Originating in 14th-century Italy, it became popular in England in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It has no fixed metrical requirements. See “Rosalind’s Madrigal” by Thomas Lodge.

Marxism

A type of literary criticism based on the writings of German philosopher Karl Marx. In its simplest form, Marxist criticism attempts to show the relationship between literature and the social—mainly economic—conditions under which it was produced. Originally, Marxist critics focused on literary representations of workers and working classes. For later Marxists, however, literature became a document of a kind of knowledge and a record of the historical conditions that produced that knowledge. Like cultural criticism, Marxist literary criticism offers critiques of the “canon” and focuses on the ways in which culture and power intersect; for a Marxist critic, literature both reproduces existing power relations and offers a space where they can be contested and redefined. Important 20th-century Marxist literary critics include Georg Lucáks, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams, and Frederic Jameson.

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