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Epic

A long narrative poem in which a heroic protagonist engages in an action of great mythic or historical significance. Notable English epics include Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s  The Faerie Queene (which follows the virtuous exploits of 12 knights in the service of the mythical King Arthur), and John Milton’s   Paradise Lost, which dramatizes Satan’s fall from Heaven and humankind’s subsequent alienation from God in the Garden of Eden. Browse more epics.

Epic simile

A detailed, often complex poetic comparison (see simile) that unfolds over the course of several lines. It is also known as a Homeric simile, because the Greek poet Homer is thought to have originated the device in the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the following passage from Book I of Paradise Lost, John Milton compares Lucifer’s massive army to scattered autumn leaves:

            His legions—angel forms, who lay entranc’d
            Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
            In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
            High over-arch’d embow’r; or scatter’d sedge
            Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion arm’d
            Hath vex’d the Red-Sea coast, whose waves o’erthrew
            Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
            While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
            The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
            From the safe shore their floating carkases
            And broken chariot-wheels: so thick bestrown,
            Abject and lost, lay these, covering the flood,
            Under amazement of their hideous change.

Epigram

A pithy, often witty, poem. See Walter Savage Landor’s “Dirce,” Ben Jonson’s “On Gut,” or much of the work of J.V. Cunningham:

       This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
       Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

Browse more epigrams.

Epigraph

A quotation from another literary work that is placed beneath the title at the beginning of a poem or section of a poem. For example, Grace Schulman’s “American Solitude” opens with a quote from an essay by Marianne Moore. Lines from Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” preface Alfred Corn’s “Sugar Cane.” Browse more poems with epigraphs.

Epistle

A letter in verse, usually addressed to a person close to the writer. Its themes may be moral and philosophical, or intimate and sentimental. Alexander Pope favored the form; see his “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” in which the poet addresses a physician in his social circle. The epistle peaked in popularity in the 18th century, though Lord Byron and Robert Browning composed several in the next century; see Byron’s “Epistle to Augusta.” Less formal, more conversational versions of the epistle can be found in contemporary lyric poetry; see Hayden Carruth’s “The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill” or “Dear Mr. Fanelli” by Charles Bernstein. Browse more epistles.

Epitaph

A short poem intended for (or imagined as) an inscription on a tombstone and often serving as a brief elegy. See Robert Herrick’s “Upon a Child That Died” and “Upon Ben Jonson”; Ben Jonson’s “Epitaph on Elizabeth, L. H.”; and “Epitaph for a Romantic Woman” by Louise Bogan.

Epithalamion

A lyric poem in praise of Hymen (the Greek god of marriage), an epithalamion often blesses a wedding and in modern times is often read at the wedding ceremony or reception. See Edmund Spenser’s “Epithalamion.” Browse more epithalamions.

Ethnopoetics

In linguistics, folkloristics and anthropology, a method of analyzing linguistic structures in oral literature. The term was coined in 1968 by Jerome Rothenberg, whose anthology Technicians of the Sacred is considered a definitive text of the movement. In poetry, ethnopoetics refers to non-Western, non-canonical poetries, often those coming from ancient and autochthonous cultures. In the early 20th century, Modernist and avant-garde poets such as Antonin Artaud and Tristan Tzara used “primitive” or oral traditions in their work; by midcentury, a curiosity regarding world literature had coalesced into a movement led by Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock, who together edited the journal Alcheringa from 1970 to 1980. Contemporary poets with an interest in ethnopoetics include Gary Snyder, Kathleen Stewart, and William Bright.

Feminist theory

An extension of feminism’s critique of male power and ideology, feminist theory combines elements of other theoretical models such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction to interrogate the role of gender in the writing, interpretation, and dissemination of literary texts. Originally concerned with the politics of women’s authorship and representations of women in literature, feminist theory has recently begun to examine ideas of gender and sexuality across a wide range of disciplines including film studies, geography, and even economics. Feminist theory emerged from the struggle for women’s rights, beginning in the 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft’s publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Important feminist theorists of the 20th century include Betty Friedan, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Elaine Showalter, Carol Gilligan, and Adrienne Rich.

Figure of speech

An expressive, nonliteral use of language. Figures of speech include tropes (such as hyperbole, irony, metaphor, and simile) and schemes (anything involving the ordering and organizing of words—anaphora, antithesis, and chiasmus, for example). Browse all terms related to figures of speech.

Fixed and unfixed forms

Poems that have a set number of lines, rhymes, and/or metrical arrangements per line. Browse all terms related to forms, including alcaics, alexandrine, aubade, ballad, ballade, carol, concrete poetry, double dactyl, dramatic monologue, eclogue, elegy, epic, epistle, epithalamion, free verse, haiku, heroic couplet, limerick, madrigal, mock epic, ode, ottava rima, pastoral, quatrain, renga, rondeau, rondel, sestina, sonnet, Spenserian stanza, tanka, tercet, terza rima, and villanelle.

Flarf

Originally a prank on the scam contest sponsored by the organization Poetry.com, the experimental poetry movement flarf has slowly assumed a serious position as a new kind of Internet-based poetic practice. Known for its reliance on Google as a means of generating odd juxtapositions, surfaces, and grammatical inaccuracies, flarf also celebrates deliberately bad or “incorrect” poetry by forcing clichés, swear words, onomatopoeia, and other linguistic aberrations into poetic shape. Original flarf member Gary Sullivan describes flarf as “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’” Flarf poets collaborate on poems, revising and sometimes plagiarizing them in semipublic spaces such as blogs or webzines. Original members of the “Flarfist Collective” include Sullivan, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, and Nada Gordon. Poetry magazine published a special section devoted to flarf in its July/August 2009 issue, guest-edited by Kenneth Goldsmith.

Foot

The basic unit of measurement of accentual-syllabic meter. A foot usually contains one stressed syllable and at least one unstressed syllable. The standard types of feet in English poetry are the iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and pyrrhic (two unstressed syllables).

Formalism (Russian)

A brief but influential 20th-century critical method that originated in St. Petersburg through the group OPOYAZ, and in Moscow via the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Important Formalists included Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky. Formalism viewed literature as a distinct and separate entity, unconnected to historical or social causes or effects. It analyzed literature according to devices unique to literary works and focused on the “literariness” of a text: words were not simply stand-ins for objects but objects themselves. Formalists advanced the concept of ostranenie, or defamiliarization, arguing that literature, by calling attention to itself as such, estranged the reader from ordinary experience and made the familiar seem new. Formalism’s tendency to collapse form and content is somewhat similar to New Criticism’s approach, though its main influence was on structuralism.

Found poem

A prose text or texts reshaped by a poet into quasi-metrical lines. Fragments of found poetry may appear within an original poem as well. Portions of Ezra Pound’s Cantos are found poetry, culled from historical letters and government documents. Charles Olson created his poem “There Was a Youth whose Name Was Thomas Granger” using a report from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation.

Fourteener

A metrical line of 14 syllables (usually seven iambic feet). A relatively long line, it can be found in narrative poetry from the Middle Ages through the 16th century. Fourteener couplets broken into quatrains are known as common measure or ballad meter. See also Poulter’s measure.

Free verse

Nonmetrical, nonrhyming lines that closely follow the natural rhythms of speech. A regular pattern of sound or rhythm may emerge in free-verse lines, but the poet does not adhere to a metrical plan in their composition. Matthew Arnold and Walt Whitman explored the possibilities of nonmetrical poetry in the 19th century. Since the early 20th century, the majority of published lyric poetry has been written in free verse. See the work of William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and H.D.  Browse more free-verse poems.

Fugitives

A group of Southern poets associated with the Fugitive, a literary magazine produced in the early 1920s. Its prominent ranks included Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. In general, their poetry was formal, featuring traditional prosody and concrete imagery frequently drawn from the rural Southern experience. These poet-critics’ principles gave rise to the method of close reading and textual analysis known as New Criticism. Browse more Fugitive poets.

Futurism

An avant-garde aesthetic movement that arose in Italy and Russia in the early 20th century. Its proponents—predominantly painters and other visual artists—called for a rejection of past forms of expression, and the embrace of industry and new technology. Speed and violence were the favored vehicles of sensation, rather than lyricism, symbolism, and “high” culture. F. T. Marinetti, in his futurist Manifesto (1909), advocated “words in freedom”—a language unbound by common syntax and order that, along with striking variations in typography, could quickly convey intense emotions. Marinetti and other Italian futurists allied themselves with militaristic nationalism, which alienated their cause internationally following World War II. Russian futurist poets such as Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky profoundly influenced the development of Russian formalism, while in England the futurist movement was expressed as Vorticism by Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis in their magazine BLAST. Listen to “Futurism and the New Manifesto” here. See also Mina Loy’s “Aphorisms on Futurism”.

Gender studies

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of gender, sexual categories, and identity. As a discipline, gender studies borrows from other theoretical models like psychoanalysis—particularly that of Jacques Lacan—deconstruction, and feminist theory in an attempt to examine the social and cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity as they relate to class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Like gender studies, queer theory also questions normative definitions of gender and sexuality. As approaches to literary texts, gender studies and queer theory tend to emphasize the power of representation and linguistic indeterminacy.

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