Glossary of Poetic Terms
A Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.
Not popularized in Western literature until the early 1900s, the form originates from the Japanese hokku, or the opening section of a longer renga sequence. In this context, the hokku served to begin a longer poem by establishing a season, often with a pair of seasonal images. Unlike the rest of the renga sequence, which was composed collaboratively, the hokku was often created by a single poet working alone, and was subsequently used as an exercise for students. Over time, the hokku began to be appreciated for its own worth and became distinct as a poetic form, formally mastered by poets such as Basho and Yosa Buson.
In 1905, Paul-Louis Couchoud became one of the first European translators of the form, converting many short Japanese verses into his native French. This began the popularization of haiku in Europe, where the form was translated by French and Spanish poets, such as José Juan Tablada. Throughout the two World Wars and the rise of Modernism, haikus were gradually adapted and celebrated by Imagist poets, such as Ezra Pound, H.D., and T.E. Hulme. In this context, the haiku was appreciated for its linguistic and sensory economy. Most notably Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” though not intended as a haiku, adapts the sparse, visual style of the Japanese form.
Despite its formal history, the haiku’s composition has expanded somewhat over time. This is due in part to the differences between the Japanese language and Western languages. In its original Japanese form, the haiku is often divided into 17 mora (a Japanese unit of syllable weight) and arranged in a single vertical line. However, in English there is no exact equivalent to the mora unit. As a result, in English and other languages, haikus are most frequently adapted into three lines of verse, usually unrhymed, composed of five, seven, and five syllables, adding up to seventeen syllables total. However, many American poets, such as Jack Kerouac, began to gradually depart from this traditional syllable and line count, in favor of depicting images as succinctly as possible.
Despite its many adaptions into multiple languages and styles, the haiku remains a powerful form due to its economic use of language to evoke a specific mood or instance. Most often occurring in the present tense, a haiku frequently depicts a moment by using pair of distinct images working in tandem, as in these lines by Kobayashi Issa, translated by Jane Hirshfield:
On a branch
a cricket, singing.
(Notice how, in translating from Japanese to English, Hirshfield compresses the number of syllables.)
The haiku continues to be a popular form today, and its different qualities have been emphasized and expanded by a wide variety of writers. Poets such as Etheridge Knight emphasize the formal and sonic quality of the verse, as seen in his piece “Haiku,” whereas poets such as Scott Helmes have chosen to emphasize the haiku’s visual arrangement, as seen in his piece, “haiku #62.”
For further examples, see also “Three Haiku, Two Tanka” by Philip Appleman and Robert Hass’s “After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa.” In addition, see the Imagist poets of the early 20th century, most notably Ezra Pound.
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A period of musical, literary, and cultural proliferation that began in New York’s African-American community during the 1920s and early 1930s. The movement was key to developing a new sense of Black identity and aesthetics as writers, visual artists, and musicians articulated new modes of African-American experience and experimented with artistic forms, modernist techniques, and folk culture. Harlem Renaissance artists and activists also influenced French and Caribbean Négritude and Negrismo movements in addition to laying a foundation for future Black Arts champions like Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka. Writing luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance include Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, and Arna Bontemps. Important publications included the anthology The New Negro (1925), edited by Alan Locke, and the magazines Crisis, Opportunity, Fire!!, and the Messenger. See also Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) and Elizabeth Alexander’s more recent historical article “The Black Poet as Canon-Maker”. Browse more Harlem Renaissance poets.
A Classical Greek and Latin metrical line consisting of 11 syllables: typically a spondee or trochee, a choriamb, and two iambs, the second of which has an additional syllable at the end. The classical Latin poet Catullus favored the line. It is seldom used in English, although Algernon Charles Swinburne worked with the meter in “Hendecasyllabics”:
In the month of the long decline of roses
I, beholding the summer dead before me,
Set my face to the sea and journeyed silent,
Gazing eagerly where above the sea-mark
Flame as fierce as the fervid eyes of lions
Half divided the eyelids of the sunset . . .
A meter made up of seven feet and usually 14 syllables total (see Fourteener). George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s the Iliad is written in heptameter, as is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” See also Poulter’s measure.
- See couplet.
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.
- See ode.
- 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.
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.