Related to acrostic, a poem in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the alphabet. See Jessica Greenbaum, “A Poem for S.” Tom Disch’s “Abecedary” adapts the principles of an abecedarian poem, while Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror/The Terror of Future” sequence also uses the alphabet as an organizing principle. Poets who have used the abecedarian across whole collections include Mary Jo Bang, in The Bride of E, and Harryette Mullen, in Sleeping with the Dictionary.
- Accentual verse
Verse whose meter is determined by the number of stressed (accented) syllables—regardless of the total number of syllables—in each line. Many Old English poems, including Beowulf, are accentual; see Ezra Pound’s modern translation of “The Seafarer.” More recently, Richard Wilbur employed this same Anglo-Saxon meter in his poem “Junk.” Traditional nursery rhymes, such as “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,” are often accentual.
- Accentual-syllabic verse
Verse whose meter is determined by the number and alternation of its stressed and unstressed syllables, organized into feet. From line to line, the number of stresses (accents) may vary, but the total number of syllables within each line is fixed. The majority of English poems from the Renaissance to the 19th century are written according to this metrical system.
A poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, name, or phrase when read vertically. See Lewis Carroll’s “A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky.”
An extended metaphor in which the characters, places, and objects in a narrative carry figurative meaning. Often an allegory’s meaning is religious, moral, or historical in nature. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are two major allegorical works in English.
The repetition of initial stressed, consonant sounds in a series of words within a phrase or verse line. Alliteration need not reuse all initial consonants; “pizza” and “place” alliterate. Example: “We saw the sea sound sing, we heard the salt sheet tell,” from Dylan Thomas’s “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed.” Browse poems with alliteration.
A brief, intentional reference to a historical, mythic, or literary person, place, event, or movement. “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot’s influential long poem is dense with allusions. The title of Seamus Heaney’s autobiographical poem “Singing School” alludes to a line from W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (“Nor is there singing school but studying /Monuments of its own magnificence”). Browse poems with allusions.
A word, statement, or situation with two or more possible meanings is said to be ambiguous. As poet and critic William Empson wrote in his influential book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), “The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.” A poet may consciously join together incompatible words to disrupt the reader’s expectation of meaning, as e.e. cummings does in [anyone lived in a pretty how town]. The ambiguity may be less deliberate, steered more by the poet’s attempts to express something ineffable, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover.” At the sight of a bird diving through the air, the speaker marvels, “Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume here / Buckle!” The ambiguity of this phrase lies in the exclamation of “buckle”: The verb could be descriptive of the action, or it could be the speaker’s imperative. In both cases, the meaning of the word is not obvious from its context. “Buckle” could mean “fall” or “crumple,” or it could describe the act of clasping armor and bracing for battle.
Someone or something placed in an inappropriate period of time. Shakespeare’s placing of a clock in Julius Caesar is an anachronism, because clocks had not yet been invented in the period when the play is set. In Charles Olson’s epic The Maximus Poems, the central figure encompasses the poet’s alter ego, the second-century Greek philosopher Maximus of Tyre, and the fourth-century Phoenician mystic Maximus. This persona arises from outside of time to reflect on the state of American culture by recounting the history of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
A word spelled out by rearranging the letters of another word; for example, “The teacher gapes at the mounds of exam pages lying before her.”
Often used in political speeches and occasionally in prose and poetry, anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which uses anaphora not only in its oft-quoted “I have a dream” refrain but throughout, as in this passage when he repeats the phrase “go back to”:
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina,
go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and
ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can
and will be changed.
In Joanna Klink's poem “Some Feel Rain,” the phrase "some feel" is repeated, which creates a rhythm and a sense of an accumulating emotions and meanings:
Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
in its ghost-part when the bark
slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.
A form of personification in which human qualities are attributed to anything inhuman, usually a god, animal, object, or concept. In Vachel Lindsay’s “What the Rattlesnake Said,” for example, a snake describes the fears of his imagined prey. John Keats admires a star’s loving watchfulness (“with eternal lids apart”) in his sonnet “Bright Star, Would I Were as Steadfast as Thou Art.”
Contrasting or combining two terms, phrases, or clauses with opposite meanings. William Blake pits love’s competing impulses—selflessness and self-interest—against each other in his poem “The Clod and the Pebble.” Love “builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair,” or, antithetically, it “builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
A basic model from which copies are made; a prototype. According to psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes emerge in literature from the “collective unconscious” of the human race. Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, explores archetypes as the symbolic patterns that recur within the world of literature itself. In both approaches, archetypical themes include birth, death, sibling rivalry, and the individual versus society. Archetypes may also be images or characters, such as the hero, the lover, the wanderer, or the matriarch.
- Ars Poetica
A poem that explains the “art of poetry,” or a meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem. Horace’s Ars Poetica is an early example, and the foundation for the tradition. While Horace writes of the importance of delighting and instructing audiences, modernist ars poetica poets argue that poems should be written for their own sake, as art for the sake of art. Archibald MacLeish’s famous “Ars Poetica” sums up the argument: “A poem should not mean / But be.” See also Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” William Wordsworth’s Prelude, and Wallace Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry.”
- Augustan Age
The first half of the 18th century, during which English poets such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift emulated Virgil, Ovid, and Horace—the great Latin poets of the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE to 14 CE). Like the classical poets who inspired them, the English Augustan writers engaged the political and philosophical ideas of their day through urbane, often satirical verse. Browse more Augustan poets.
A popular narrative song passed down orally. In the English tradition, it usually follows a form of rhymed (abcb) quatrains alternating four-stress and three-stress lines. Folk (or traditional) ballads are anonymous and recount tragic, comic, or heroic stories with emphasis on a central dramatic event; examples include “Barbara Allen” and “John Henry.” Beginning in the Renaissance, poets have adapted the conventions of the folk ballad for their own original compositions. Examples of this “literary” ballad form include John Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Browse more ballads.
An Old French verse form that usually consists of three eight-line stanzas and a four-line envoy, with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbc bcbc. The last line of the first stanza is repeated at the end of subsequent stanzas and the envoy. See Hilaire Belloc’s “Ballade of Modest Confession” and Algernon Charles Swinburne’s translation of François Villon’s “Ballade des Pendus” (Ballade of the Hanged).
- Beat poets
A national group of poets who emerged from San Francisco’s literary counterculture in the 1950s. Its ranks included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. Poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth influenced the development of the “Beat” aesthetic, which rejected academic formalism and the materialism and conformity of the American middle class. Beat poetry is largely free verse, often surrealistic, and influenced by the cadences of jazz, as well by Zen and Native American spirituality. Browse more Beat poets.
- Black Mountain poets
A group of progressive poets who, in the 1940s and 1950s, were associated with the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. These poets, including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, promoted a nontraditional poetics described by Olson in 1950 as “projective verse.” Olson advocated an improvisational, open-form approach to poetic composition, driven by the natural patterns of breath and utterance. Browse more Black Mountain poets.
- Blank verse
Unrhyming iambic pentameter, also called heroic verse. This 10-syllable line is the predominant rhythm of traditional English dramatic and epic poetry, as it is considered the closest to English speech patterns. Poems such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, and Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” are written predominantly in blank verse. Browse more blank verse poems.
See pastoral poetry.
Harsh or discordant sounds, often the result of repetition and combination of consonants within a group of words. The opposite of euphony. Writers frequently use cacophony to express energy or mimic mood. See also dissonance.
The patterning of rhythm in natural speech, or in poetry without a distinct meter (i.e., free verse).
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?”)
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. Early versions include Petrarch’s five to six-line stanzas plus an envoi, as well as Dante’s modification: five twelve-line stanzas with repeated end words, finished by a five-line envoi. The canzone influenced the development of the sonnet and later writers such as James Merrill, W.H. Auden, and Ezra Pound took up the form. See Daryl Hine’s “Canzone” and “About the Canzone,” by John Hollander.
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
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”).
A roundabout wording, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “twice five miles of fertile ground” (i.e., 10 miles) in “Kubla Khan.” Like periphrasis, which also involves the use of more words to convey what could be said in fewer, circumlocution is a way of saying something in a less direct manner.
- Cockney School of poets
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.
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.”).
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.”)
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
- 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.
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.
Also known as amphimacer. A Greek and Latin metrical foot consisting of a short syllable enclosed by two long syllables. Often found in folk poetry, its use in English poetry is rare, though instances can be found in proverbs and idiomatic expressions such as “After a while, crocodile.” Contemporary uses of the cretic can be found in slogans and advertising phrases, and it is often used to make comparisons.
- 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
A movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire. The founders of this movement struck upon this essentially nonsense word to embody a simultaneously playful and nihilistic spirit alive among European visual artists and writers during and immediately after World War I. They salvaged a sense of freedom from the cultural and moral instability that followed the war, and embraced both “everything and nothing” in their desire to “sweep, sweep clean,” as Tristan Tzara wrote in his Dadaist Manifesto in 1920. In visual arts, this enterprise took the form of collage and juxtaposition of unrelated objects, as in the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp. T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s allusive, often syntactically and imagistically fractured poems of this era reflect a Dadaist influence. Dadaism gave rise to surrealism.
A poststructuralist theory mainly based on the writings of the French intellectual Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction posits that meaning, as accessed through language, is indeterminate because language itself is indeterminate. It is a system of signifiers that can never fully “mean”: a word can refer to an object but can never be that object. Derrida developed deconstruction as a response to certain strains of Western philosophy; in the United States, deconstruction was the focus of a group of literary theorists at Yale, including Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman. Used as a method of literary critique, deconstruction refocuses attention on a work as open-ended, endlessly available to interpretation, and far beyond the reach of authorial intention. Deconstruction traces how language generates meaning both within a text and across texts, while insisting that such meaning can only ever be provisional.
- Deep Image
A term originally coined by poets Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Kelly to describe stylized, resonant poetry that operated according to the Symbolist theory of correspondences, which posited a connection between the physical and spiritual realms. Rothenberg and Kelly were inspired by Federico García Lorca’s “deep song.” The idea was later redeveloped by the poet Robert Bly, and deep image became associated with a group of midcentury American poets including Galway Kinnell and James Wright. The new group of deep-image poets was often narrative, focusing on allowing concrete images and experiences to generate poetic meaning.
- Didactic poetry
Poetry that instructs, either in terms of morals or by providing knowledge of philosophy, religion, arts, science, or skills. Although some poets believe that all poetry is inherently instructional, didactic poetry separately refers to poems that contain a clear moral or message or purpose to convey to its readers. John Milton's epic Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man are famous examples. See also William Blake’s “A Divine Image,” Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
A line of verse composed of two feet. “Some go local / Some go express / Some can’t wait / To answer Yes,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in her poem “Yes,” in which the dimeter line predominates. Kay Ryan’s “Blandeur” contains this series of mostly dimeter lines:
Even out Earth’s
the Grand Canyon.
to arable land,
A disruption of harmonic sounds or rhythms. Like cacophony, it refers to a harsh collection of sounds; dissonance is usually intentional, however, and depends more on the organization of sound for a jarring effect, rather than on the unpleasantness of individual words. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s use of fixed stresses and variable unstressed syllables, combined with frequent assonance, consonance, and monosyllabic words, has a dissonant effect. See these lines from “Carrion Comfort”:
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” does not lack a musical quality, but its rapid repetition of sounds and varied sentence lengths create dissonance through tension and instability:
This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
Incy is short for incubus.
A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.
Bad verse traditionally characterized by clichés, clumsiness, and irregular meter. It is often unintentionally humorous. The “giftedly bad” William McGonagall was an accomplished doggerelist, as demonstrated in “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:
It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
- Double dactyl
A form of light verse invented and promoted by Paul Pascal, Anthony Hecht, and John Hollander. The double dactyl consists of two quatrains, each with three double-dactyl lines followed by a shorter dactyl-spondee pair. The two spondees rhyme. Additionally, the first line must be a nonsense phrase, the second line a proper or place name, and one other line, usually the sixth, a single double-dactylic word that has never been used before in any other double dactyl. For example:
Bacon, lord Chancellor.
Negligent, fell for the
Bribery toppled him,
Finished him, testing some
Poultry on ice.
(by Ian Lancashire)
Browse more double dactyl poems.
- Dramatic monologue
A poem in which an imagined speaker addresses a silent listener, usually not the reader. Examples include Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Ai’s “Killing Floor.” A lyric may also be addressed to someone, but it is short and songlike and may appear to address either the reader or the poet. Browse more dramatic monologue poems.
A brief, dramatic pastoral poem, set in an idyllic rural place but discussing urban, legal, political, or social issues. Bucolics and idylls, like eclogues, are pastoral poems, but in nondramatic form. See Edmund Spenser’s “Shepheardes Calendar: April,” Andrew Marvell’s “Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn,” and John Crowe Ransom’s “Eclogue.”
Similar to ethnopoetics in its emphasis on drawing connections between human activity—specifically the making of poems—and the environment that produces it, ecopoetics rose out of the late 20th-century awareness of ecology and concerns over environmental disaster. A multidisciplinary approach that includes thinking and writing on poetics, science, and theory as well as emphasizing innovative approaches common to conceptual poetry, ecopoetics is not quite nature poetry. The influential journal Ecopoetics, edited by Jonathan Skinner, publishes writing that explores “creative-critical edges between making and writing” and features poets such as Jack Collom, Juliana Spahr, and Forrest Gander.
“Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. A notable example is “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the poet John Keats speculates on the identity of the lovers who appear to dance and play music, simultaneously frozen in time and in perpetual motion:
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new. . . .
See W. S. DiPiero’s poem guide on Robert Browning for more on ekphrasis. Browse more ekphrastic poems.
In traditional English poetry, it is often a melancholy poem that laments its subject’s death but ends in consolation. Examples include John Milton’s “Lycidas”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”; and Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” More recently, Peter Sacks has elegized his father in “Natal Command,” and Mary Jo Bang has written “You Were You Are Elegy” and other poems for her son. In the 18th century the “elegiac stanza” emerged, though its use has not been exclusive to elegies. It is a quatrain with the rhyme scheme ABAB written in iambic pentameter. Browse more elegies.
The omission of unstressed syllables (e.g., “ere” for “ever,” “tother” for “the other”), usually to fit a metrical scheme. “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,” goes the first line of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, in which “amorous” is elided to “am’rous” to establish the pentameter (five-foot) line.
- Elizabethan Age
The period coinciding with the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), considered to be the literary height of the English Renaissance. Poets and dramatists drew inspiration from Italian forms and genres such as the love sonnet, the pastoral, and the allegorical epic. Musicality, verbal sophistication, and romantic exuberance dominated the era’s verse. Defining works include Edmund Spenser’s The Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene, the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Raleigh’s lyrics. Drama especially flourished during this time; see the comedies and tragedies of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe.
In poetry, the omission of words whose absence does not impede the reader’s ability to understand the expression. For example, Shakespeare makes frequent use of the phrase “I will away” in his plays, with the missing verb understood to be “go.” T.S. Eliot employs ellipsis in the following passage from “Preludes”:
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
The possessive “your” is left out in the second and third lines, but it can be assumed that the woman addressed by the speaker is clasping the soles of her own feet with her own hands.
- Elliptical poetry
A term coined in 1998 by poet and critic Stephen Burt in a review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes. In the piece, which first appeared in the Boston Review, Burt describes elliptical poets as those who “try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” Burt’s description of elliptical poetry emphasized its quick shifts in diction and referent, and use of occluded or partially obscured back-story. A special issue of American Letters and Commentary was devoted to elliptical poetry, sparking debates over contemporary trends and schools in American poetry. Burt pointed to several poets whose work commonly exhibits these features, including Mark Levine, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Liam Rector.
A metrical line ending at a grammatical boundary or break—such as a dash or closing parenthesis—or with punctuation such as a colon, a semicolon, or a period. A line is considered end-stopped, too, if it contains a complete phrase. Many of Alexander Pope’s couplets are end-stopped, as in this passage from “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”:
Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.
The opposite of an end-stopped line is an enjambed line.
The running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped. William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” is one sentence broken into 10 enjambed lines:
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
- Envoi (or Envoy)
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
A class or category of texts with similarities in form, style, or subject matter. The definition of a genre changes over time, and a text often interacts with multiple genres. A text’s relationship to a particular genre—whether it defies or supports a genre’s set of expectations—is often of interest when conducting literary analysis. Four major genres of literature include poetry, drama, nonfiction, and fiction. Poetry can be divided into further genres, such as epic, lyric, narrative, satirical, or prose poetry. For more examples of genres, browse poems by type.
A poetic movement in England during the reign of George V (1910–1936), promoted in the anthology series Georgian Poetry. Its ranks included Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, A.E. Housman, and D.H. Lawrence. The aesthetic principles of Georgianism included a respect for formalism as well as bucolic and romantic subject matter. The devastation of World War I, along with the rise of modernism, signaled the retreat of Georgianism as an influential school of poetry. Browse more Georgian poets.
A poem or book dealing with agriculture or rural topics, which commonly glorifies outdoor labor and simple country life. Often takes the form of a didactic or instructive poem intended to give instructions related to a skill or art. The Roman poet Virgil famously wrote a collection of poems entitled Georgics, which has influenced poets since. Read a translated excerpt from Virgil's Georgics Book III or Book IV.
- Gnomic verse
- Harlem Renaissance
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 period include Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Arna Bontemps. See Hughes’s article “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “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 . . .
- Heroic 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.
- Horatian ode
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
A comparison that is made directly (for example, John Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) or less directly (for example, Shakespeare’s “marriage of two minds”), but in any case without pointing out a similarity by using words such as “like,” “as,” or “than.” See Sylvia Plath’s description of her dead father as “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God” in “Daddy,” or Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul—.” Browse poems with developed metaphors.
- Metaphysical poets
A group of 17th-century poets whose works are marked by philosophical exploration, colloquial diction, ingenious conceits, irony, and metrically flexible lines. Topics of interest often included love, religion, and morality, which the metaphysical poets considered through unusual comparisons, frequently employing unexpected similes and metaphors in displays of wit. The inclusion of contemporary scientific advancements were also typical. John Donne is the foremost figure, along with George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. For more on metaphysical poetry, see Stephen Burt’s poem guide on John Donne's “The Sun Rising.”
A figure of speech in which a related term is substituted for the word itself. Often the substitution is based on a material, causal, or conceptual relation between things. For example, the British monarchy is often referred to as the Crown. In the phrase “lend me your ears,” “ears” is substituted for “attention.” “O, for a draught of vintage!” exclaims the speaker in John Keats’s “Ode to Nightingale,” with “vintage” understood to mean “wine.” Synecdoche is closely related to metonymy.
- Mimesis (imitation)
Greek for “imitation.” In aesthetic theory, mimesis can also connote “representation,” and has typically meant the reproduction of an external reality, such as nature, through artistic expression. Plato disparaged mimesis for merely providing inferior copies of original forms; Aristotle, in his Poetics, recuperated the idea, alleging that mimesis is “natural” to humans. For Aristotle, mimesis in part both recreates the objects of reality and improves them; it provides humans with a special kind of symbolic order. In the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers and writers such as Rousseau and Lessing began to emphasize the relationship between mimesis and inner experiences and emotions, not just objective reality or nature.
By the 20th century, the term housed a number of theories, theorists, and schools of thought. Erich Auerbach’s highly influential book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) attempted to chart the history of culture through representational practices in literature. Thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, on the other hand, described mimesis as fundamental to human experience, a practice that precedes language but is suppressed or distorted by society. Rather than mimesis as the process of reproducing copies of nature, reality, or experience, these theorists suggested that mimesis has to do with social practices and inter-subjective relationships. Jacques Derrida also claimed mimesis for deconstruction, focusing on texts as “doubled” objects, which can never refer to an original source.
- Mock epic
A poem that plays with the conventions of the epic to comment on a topic satirically. In “Mac Flecknoe,” John Dryden wittily flaunts his mastery of the epic genre to cut down a literary rival. Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” recasts a petty high-society scandal as a mythological battle for the virtue of an innocent.
A broadly defined multinational cultural movement (or series of movements) that took hold in the late 19th century and reached its most radical peak on the eve of World War I. It grew out of the philosophical, scientific, political, and ideological shifts that followed the Industrial Revolution, up to World War I and its aftermath. For artists and writers, the Modernist project was a re-evaluation of the assumptions and aesthetic values of their predecessors. It evolved from the Romantic rejection of Enlightenment positivism and faith in reason. Modernist writers broke with Romantic pieties and clichés (such as the notion of the Sublime) and became self-consciously skeptical of language and its claims on coherence. In the early 20th century, novelists such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf (and, later, Joseph Conrad) experimented with shifts in time and narrative points of view. While living in Paris before the war, Gertrude Stein explored the possibilities of creating literary works that broke with conventional syntactical and referential practices. Ezra Pound vowed to “make it new” and “break the pentameter,” while T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the shadow of World War I. Shortly after The Waste Land was published in 1922, it became the archetypical Modernist text, rife with allusions, linguistic fragments, and mixed registers and languages. Other poets most often associated with Modernism include H.D., W.H. Auden, Hart Crane, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Modernism also generated many smaller movements; see also Acmeism, Dada, Free verse, Futurism, Imagism, Objectivism, Postmodernism, and Surrealism. Browse more Modern poets.
A central or recurring image or action in a literary work that is shared by other works. Unlike themes, which are messages, statements, or ideas, motifs are details whose repetition adds to the work’s larger meaning; multiple and varying motifs can take place within one work and across longer collections. For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress both feature the motif of a long journey. The repeated questions of an ubi sunt poem also compose a motif on the fleeting nature of life. Motifs are sometimes described as expressions of a collective unconsciousness; see archetype.
- Negative capability
A theory first articulated by John Keats about the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science. Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, in one of his famous letters to relatives Keats supposed that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated. See Keats’s “To Autumn.” The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact; as he writes in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Keats’s notion of Negative Capability has been influential for those working outside of aesthetics; including scholars such Roberto Unger who adopted and modified the term for his own work on social theory.
A term coined in the 1930s by Afro-Martiniquan French poet and politician Aimé Fernand Césaire, Senegalese poet and politician Léopold Senghor, and Léon Damas of French Guiana. The movement was a reaction against the European colonization of Africa and its legacy of cultural racism. Like the Harlem Renaissance writers, poets of the Négritude movement, also including David Diop and Léonard Sainville, sought to examine and uphold the unique aspects of their African cultural roots; by reclaiming the term “négritude,” they meant to foster politically revolutionary associations. Langston Hughes was an early influence on Césaire and his peers as he and Richard Wright were addressing “noireism” in their own work in the United States. Other influences include the Haitian anthropologists Antenon Firmin and Melville Herskovits, and Martiniquan Surrealists Pierre Yoyotte and J.M. Monnerot. Writers involved in the movement typically utilized a style to rebel against Europe’s colonial drive.
A newly coined word. Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is filled with them, including “slithy” and “gimble.”
- New American Poets
The group of poets included in Donald Allen’s influential 1960 anthology of the same name. Allen’s anthology, which collected 15 years of American writing, divided its contributors into groups: the New York School (John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara), the Black Mountain School (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov), the San Francisco Renaissance (Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer), and the Beats (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso). Allen alleged that he was collecting the “third generation” of writers in the Modernist tradition, and his book is notable for presenting so many poets now recognized as leading figures of 20th-century poetry. The anthology’s impact was immediate, and it continues to be recognized as both a cultural document and a collection of the finest avant-garde writing of the period.
- New Criticism
Name given to a style of criticism advocated by a group of academics writing in the first half of the 20th century. New Criticism, like Formalism, tended to consider texts as autonomous and “closed,” meaning that everything that is needed to understand a work is present within it. The reader does not need outside sources, such as the author’s biography, to fully understand a text; while New Critics did not completely discount the relevance of the author, background, or possible sources of the work, they did insist that those types of knowledge had very little bearing on the work’s merit as literature. Like Formalist critics, New Critics focused their attention on the variety and degree of certain literary devices, specifically metaphor, irony, tension, and paradox. The New Critics emphasized “close reading” as a way to engage with a text, and paid close attention to the interactions between form and meaning. Important New Critics included Allan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, and F.R. Leavis. William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley coined the term “intentional fallacy”; other terms associated with New Criticism include “affective fallacy,” “heresy of paraphrase,” and “ambiguity.”
- New Formalism
A late 20th- and early 21st-century movement that championed a return to rhyme and meter in poetry. New Formalist poets such as Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Brad Leithauser, and Marilyn Hacker responded to the popularity of the dominant free-verse poetry of the 1960s and ’70s by exploring the possibilities of prosody and form in their own work. Though not an orchestrated, coherent movement, New Formalism has been attacked by critics for its perceived retrogressive favoring of traditional metrical artifice over more recent, experimental modes of free verse.
- New Historicism
A critical approach developed in the 1980s through the works of Michel Foucault and Stephen Greenblatt, similar to Marxism. Moving away from text-centered schools of criticism such as New Criticism, New Historicism reopened the interpretation of literature to the social, political, and historical milieu that produced it. To a New Historicist, literature is not the record of a single mind, but the end product of a particular cultural moment. New Historicists look at literature alongside other cultural products of a particular historical period to illustrate how concepts, attitudes, and ideologies operated across a broader cultural spectrum that is not exclusively literary. In addition to analyzing the impact of historical context and ideology, New Historicists also acknowledge that their own criticism contains biases that derive from their historical position and ideology. Because it is impossible to escape one’s own “historicity,” the meaning of a text is fluid, not fixed. New Historicists attempt to situate artistic texts both as products of a historical context and as the means to understand cultural and intellectual history.
- New York School
A group of poets aligned with the New York School of painting in the 1950s and ’60s. A diverse group of writers, the main figures of the New York School are Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schulyer, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest. Influenced by relationships and collaborations with painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and Larry Rivers, the New York School poets are known for their urbane wit, interest in visual art, and casual address. A second generation of New York School poets grew up in the 1960s and included Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman. Browse more New York School poets.
- Objective correlative
T.S. Eliot used this phrase to describe “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” that the poet feels and hopes to evoke in the reader (“Hamlet,” 1919). There must be a positive connection between the emotion the poet is trying to express and the object, image, or situation in the poem that helps to convey that emotion to the reader. Eliot thus determined that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was an “artistic failure” because Hamlet’s intense emotions overwhelmed the author’s attempts to express them through an objective correlative. In other words, Eliot felt that Shakespeare was unable to provoke the audience to feel as Prince Hamlet did through images, actions, and characters, and instead only inadequately described his emotional state through the play’s dialogue. Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative is closely related to the Imagist movement.
A term coined by William Carlos Williams in 1930 that developed from his reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World. He described it as looking at a poem “with a special eye to its structural aspects, how it has been constructed.…” Louis Zukofsky expanded the term and attempted to articulate its principles when he guest-edited the February 1931 issue of Poetry. He included Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi. Later, the poet Lorine Niedecker was closely associated with this movement. These “objectivist” poets, Zukofsky noted, were Imagists rather than Symbolists; they were concerned with creating a poetic structure that could be perceived as a whole, rather than a series of imprecise but evocative images. For more on objectivism, read Peter O’Leary’s feature, “The Energies of Words”. Browse Objectivist poets.
- Objectivist Poets
A loosely affiliated group of American poets writing in the 1930s and ’40s. Harriet Monroe famously solicited an edition of Objectivist work for Poetry, guest-edited by Louis Zukofsky, which featured work by many of the poets later associated with the movement. The Objectivist poets, as described by Zukofsky, were influenced by the writing of Ezra Pound and took many cues from the earlier Imagists: both groups wrote poetry that featured highly concentrated language and imagery and terse vers libre. The Objectivists, however, focused on everyday life and language, treating the poem as an object itself and emphasizing sincerity and the poet’s clear vision of the world. Core Objectivist poets include Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Reznikoff, and the British poet Basil Bunting. Browse Objectivist poets.
- Occasional poem
A poem written to describe or comment on a particular event and often written for a public reading. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” commemorates a disastrous battle in the Crimean War. George Starbuck wrote “Of Late” after reading a newspaper account of a Vietnam War protester’s suicide. Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” was written for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. See also elegy, epithalamion, and ode.
A formal, often ceremonious lyric poem that addresses and often celebrates a person, place, thing, or idea. Its stanza forms vary. The Greek or Pindaric (Pindar, ca. 552–442 B.C.E.) ode was a public poem, usually set to music, that celebrated athletic victories. (See Stephen Burt’s article “And the Winner Is . . . Pindar!”) English odes written in the Pindaric tradition include Thomas Gray’s “The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode” and William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood.” Horatian odes, after the Latin poet Horace (65–8 B.C.E.), were written in quatrains in a more philosophical, contemplative manner; see Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland.” The Sapphic ode consists of quatrains, three 11-syllable lines, and a final five-syllable line, unrhyming but with a strict meter. See Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Sapphics.”
The odes of the English Romantic poets vary in stanza form. They often address an intense emotion at the onset of a personal crisis (see Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,”) or celebrate an object or image that leads to revelation (see John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “To Autumn”). Browse more odes.
A figure of speech in which the sound of a word imitates its sense (for example, “choo-choo,” “hiss,” or “buzz”). In “Piano,” D.H. Lawrence describes the “boom of the tingling strings” as his mother played the piano, mimicking the volume and resonance of the sound (“boom”) as well as the fine, high-pitched vibration of the strings that produced it (“tingling strings”).
- Ottava rima
Originally an Italian stanza of eight 11-syllable lines, with a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC. Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the form in English, and Lord Byron adapted it to a 10-syllable line for his mock-epic Don Juan. W.B. Yeats used it for “Among School Children” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Browse more ottava rima poems.
An acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), a group of writers and mathematicians formed in France in 1960 by poet Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais. Unlike the Dada and surrealist movements, OuLiPo rejects spontaneous chance and the subconscious as sources of literary creativity. Instead, the group emphasizes systematic, self-restricting means of making texts. For example, the technique known as n + 7 replaces every noun in an existing text with the noun that follows seven entries after it in the dictionary. Notable members of this group include the novelists George Perec and Italo Calvino, poet Oskar Pastior, and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.
A word, phrase, or sentence that reads the same backward and forward. The words “civic” and “level” are palindromes, as is the phrase “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama.” The reversal can be word by word as well, as in “fall leaves when leaves fall.”
An ode or song that retracts or recants what the poet wrote in a previous poem. For instance, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales ends with a retraction, in which he apologizes for the work’s “worldly vanitees” and sinful contents.
A poem of effusive praise. Its origins are Greek, and it is closely related to the eulogy and the ode. See Ben Jonson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare” or Anne Bradstreet’s “In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth.”
A Malaysian verse form adapted by French poets and occasionally imitated in English. It comprises a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the next. The second and fourth lines of the final stanza repeat the first and third lines of the first stanza. See A.E. Stallings’s “Another Lullaby for Insomniacs.” Browse more pantoums.
As a figure of speech, it is a seemingly self-contradictory phrase or concept that illuminates a truth. For instance, Wallace Stevens, in “The Snow Man,” describes the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Alexander Pope, in “An Essay on Man: Epistle II,” describes Man as “Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all.” Paradox is related to oxymoron, which creates a new phrase or concept out of a contradiction.
The metaphysical poets often fixated on the paradoxical nature of the Christian God’s triune nature (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). In his “Holy Sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” John Donne considers God’s power to restore the spirit to life by first dismantling it:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
A patchwork of lines or passages from another writer (or writers), intended as a kind of imitation. The term also refers to an original composition that deliberately mimics the style of another author, usually in a spirit of respect rather than mockery or satire.
Verse in the tradition of Theocritus (3 BCE), who wrote idealized accounts of shepherds and their loves living simple, virtuous lives in Arcadia, a mountainous region of Greece. Poets writing in English drew on the pastoral tradition by retreating from the trappings of modernity to the imagined virtues and romance of rural life, as in Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” and Sir Walter Ralegh’s response, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” The pastoral poem faded after the European Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, but its themes persist in poems that romanticize rural life or reappraise the natural world; see Leonie Adams’s “Country Summer,” Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” or Allen Ginsberg’s “Wales Visitation.” Browse more pastoral poems.
- Pathetic fallacy
The assignment of human feelings to inanimate objects, as coined by the Victorian literary critic John Ruskin. For him, a poet’s tendency to project his or her emotions outward onto the workings of the natural world was a kind of false vision. Today the term is used more neutrally, and the phenomenon is usually accepted as an integral part of the poet’s craft. It is related to personification and anthropomorphism, but emphasizes the relationship between the poet’s emotional state and what he or she sees in the object or objects. For instance, in William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the speaker sees a field of daffodils “tossing their heads in a sprightly dance,” outdoing the nearby lake’s sparkling waves with their “glee.” The speaker, in times of solitude and introspection, is heartened by memories of the flowers’ joy.
- Pattern poetry
See Concrete poetry.
A dramatic character, distinguished from the poet, who is the speaker of a poem. The persona who describes the process of composing and playing music in Robert Browning’s “Abt Vogler” is a German organist by the same name. Similarly, three historical figures (Erasmus Darwin, James Whitfield, and Josiah Wedgewood) narrate Linda Bierds’s three-part poem “The Ghost Trio.” The identity of the speaker is not always so clear; John Berryman’s sequence of Dream Songs is narrated primarily by a persona named Henry, who refers to himself in the third person.
A figure of speech in which the poet describes an abstraction, a thing, or a nonhuman form as if it were a person. William Blake’s “O Rose, thou art sick!” is one example; Donne’s “Death, be not proud” is another. Gregory Corso quarrels with a series of personified abstractions in his poem “The Whole Mess . . . Almost.” Personification is often used in symbolic or allegorical poetry; for instance, the virtue of Justice takes the form of the knight Artegal in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
- Pindaric ode
- Poetic diction
The vocabulary, phrasing, and grammatical usage deemed appropriate to verse as well as the deviations allowable for effect within it. Aristotle discussed the proper diction for writers in his Poetics, and English poets have long struggled with which kind of language to employ and when. Wordsworth argued against the ornate language of his predecessors in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Poetic diction is distinguished from common speech by effects such as circumlocution, elision, personification and Latinate terminology such as “azure skies.”
- Poetic license
A poet’s departure from the rules of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary in order to maintain a metrical or rhyme scheme; can also mean the manipulation of facts to suit the needs of a poem.
- Postcolonial theory
A theoretical approach to analyzing the literature produced in countries that were once colonies, especially of European powers such as Britain, France, and Spain. Postcolonial theory also looks at the broader interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized by dealing with issues such as identity (including gender, race, and class), language, representation, and history. Because native languages and culture were replaced or superseded by European traditions in colonial societies, part of the postcolonialist project is reclamation. Acknowledging the effect of colonialism’s aftermath—its language, discourse, and cultural institutions—has led to an emphasis on hybridity, or the mingling of cultural signs and practices between colonizer and colonized. The Palestinian American cultural critic Edward Said was a major figure of postcolonial thought, and his book Orientalism is often credited as its founding text. Other important postcolonial critics include Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Frantz Fanon.
Defined variously as a reaction to modernism or merely the movement that followed it, postmodernism remains a controversial concept. As a term, it tends to refer to an intellectual, artistic, or cultural outlook or practice that is suspicious of hierarchy and objective knowledge and embraces complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, and diversity. It includes other 20th-century theoretical movements such as poststructuralism and deconstruction, mainly through a common emphasis on discourse and the power of language in structuring thought and experience. Because it attacks traditional concepts of history, knowledge, and reality itself—arguing that “truth” is culturally and historically specific—postmodernism has often been accused of relativism. Many of the central postmodernist theorists are French and include Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard.
A school of thought that responded negatively to structuralism’s insistence on frameworks and structures as access points to “truth.” Poststructuralism, like deconstruction, emphasized the instability of meaning. While structuralism regarded language as a closed system, poststructuralism identified an inevitable gap between signifier and signified. In poststructuralism, the reader and not the writer became paramount: the author’s intended meaning, because it could never be truly known, was less important than the reader’s perceived meaning. Like other postmodern theories that interrogated cultural assumptions, poststructuralists believe in studying both the text and the systems of knowledge that produced that text. Poststructuralism is associated with many French writers and thinkers, namely Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.
- Poulter's measure
Couplets in which a 12-syllable iambic line (see Alexandrine) rhymes with a 14-syllable iambic line (see Fourteener). It was used frequently during the English Renaissance; see “Complaint of the Absence of Her Love Being upon the Sea,” in which Henry Howard breaks the couplets into quatrains. This is a common feature of hymn and ballad meter as well. Limericks can be scanned as Poulter’s measure. See also common measure.
- Prose poem
A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See Amy Lowell’s “Bath,” “Metals Metals” by Russell Edson, “Information” by David Ignatow, and Harryette Mullen’s “[Kills bugs dead.]” Browse more prose poems.
The principles of metrical structure in poetry. See meter.
- Psychoanalytic theory
A critical approach influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work on the unconscious and human behavior. Freud believed that the existence of three competing impulses in the psyche—the ego, id, and superego—and the conflict inherent in child-parent relations structured human responses to the world. Initially, psychoanalytic literary theory consisted of applying psychoanalysis to either the author or the main character of a work, seeking unconscious or latent meaning underneath the manifest language and analyzing the symbols contained in a given work. Freud himself wrote many essays in this vein, applying his theories to characters such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ibsen’s Rebecca West. Influenced by Jacques Lacan, later psychoanalytic theory focused on the unconscious and language and shared some concerns with deconstruction and poststructuralist theory. Psychoanalytic theory has been enormously influential on a number of other theories, such as reader-response and feminist theory, as well as on individual thinkers. For example, critic Harold Bloom’s theory of the struggle between “strong” and “weak” poets owes much to Freud’s Oedipus complex.
Wordplay that uses homonyms (two different words that are spelled identically) to deliver two or more meanings at the same time. Harryette Mullen riffs on the multiple meanings of “slip” in [Of a girl, in white]. “Ah, nothing more obscure than Browning / Save blacking,” writes Ambrose Bierce in “With a Book,” making a pun on the name of poet Robert Browning and the color brown.
- Pyrrhic meter
A metrical unit consisting of two unstressed syllables, in accentual-syllabic verse, or two short syllables, in quantitative meter. Though regularly found in classical Greek poetry, pyrrhic meter is not generally used in modern systems of prosody: unaccented syllables are instead grouped with surrounding feet. Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” contains examples of pyrrhic meter, here in bold: “To a green thought in a green shade.”
- Quantitative meter
The dominant metrical system in Classical Greek and Italian poetry, in which the rhythm depends not on the number of stresses, but on the length of time it takes to utter a line. That duration depends on whether a syllable is long or short—a distinction that is harder to hear in English pronunciation. Edmund Spenser attempted to adapt quantitative meter to English in his poem “Iambicum Trimetrum.”
A four-line stanza, rhyming
-ABAC or ABCB (known as unbounded or ballad quatrain), as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
-AABB (a double couplet); see A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.”
-ABAB (known as interlaced, alternate, or heroic), as in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” or “Sadie and Maud” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
-ABBA (known as envelope or enclosed), as in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” or John Ciardi’s “Most Like an Arch This Marriage.”
-AABA, the stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Browse poems with quatrains.
- Reader-response theory
A theory, which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to poststructuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them. Unlike text-based approaches such as New Criticism, which are grounded upon some objective meaning already present in the work being examined, reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. The reader-response critic’s job is to examine the scope and variety of reader reactions and analyze the ways in which different readers, sometimes called “interpretive communities,” make meaning out of both purely personal reactions and inherited or culturally conditioned ways of reading. The theory is popular in both the United States and Germany; its main theorists include Stanley Fish, David Bleich, and Wolfgang Iser.
A phrase or line repeated at intervals within a poem, especially at the end of a stanza. See the refrain “jump back, honey, jump back” in Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “A Negro Love Song” or “return and return again” in James Laughlin’s “O Best of All Nights, Return and Return Again.” Browse poems with a refrain.
The repetition of syllables, typically at the end of a verse line. Rhymed words conventionally share all sounds following the word’s last stressed syllable. Thus “tenacity” and “mendacity” rhyme, but not “jaundice” and “John does,” or “tomboy” and “calm bay.” A rhyme scheme is usually the pattern of end rhymes in a stanza, with each rhyme encoded by a letter of the alphabet, from a onward (ABBA BCCB, for example). Rhymes are classified by the degree of similarity between sounds within words, and by their placement within the lines or stanzas.
-Eye rhyme rhymes only when spelled, not when pronounced. For example, “through” and “rough.”
-End rhyme, the most common type, is the rhyming of the final syllables of a line. See “Midstairs” by Virginia Hamilton Adair:
And here on this turning of the stair
Between passion and doubt,
I pause and say a double prayer,
One for you, and one for you;
And so they cancel out.
-Feminine rhyme applies to the rhyming of one or more unstressed syllables, such as “dicing” and “enticing.” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Day of Wrath” employs feminine rhyme almost exclusively. Half rhyme is the rhyming of the ending consonant sounds in a word (such as “tell” with “toll,” or “sopped” with “leapt”). This is also termed “off-rhyme,” “slant rhyme,” or apophany. See consonance.
-Identical rhyme employs the same word, identically in sound and in sense, twice in rhyming positions.
-Internal rhyme is rhyme within a single line of verse When a word from the middle of a line is rhymed with a word at the end of the line.
-Masculine rhyme describes those rhymes ending in a stressed syllable, such as “hells” and “bells.” It is the most common type of rhyme in English poetry.
-Monorhyme is the use of only one rhyme in a stanza. See William Blake’s “Silent, Silent Night.”
-Pararhyme is poet Edmund Blunden’s term for double consonance, where different vowels appear within identical consonant pairs. For example, see Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”: “Through granites which Titanic wars had groined. / Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned.”
See also alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Browse poems with rhymed stanzas.
- Rhyme royal (rime royale)
A stanza of seven 10-syllable lines, rhyming ABABBCC, popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer and termed “royal” because his imitator, James I of Scotland, employed it in his own verse. In addition to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, see Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me” and William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence.”
French in origin, a genre of long narrative poetry about medieval courtly culture and secret love. It triumphed in English with tales of chivalry such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” and Troilus and Criseyde.
A poetic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that turned toward nature and the interior world of feeling, in opposition to the mannered formalism and disciplined scientific inquiry of the Enlightenment era that preceded it. English poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron produced work that expressed spontaneous feelings, found parallels to their own emotional lives in the natural world, and celebrated creativity rather than logic. Browse more Romantic poets.
Originating in France, a mainly octosyllabic poem consisting of between 10 and 15 lines and three stanzas. It has only two rhymes, with the opening words used twice as an unrhyming refrain at the end of the second and third stanzas. The 10-line version rhymes ABBAABc ABBAc (where the lower-case “c” stands for the refrain). The 15-line version often rhymes AABBA AABc AABAc. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Now welcome, summer” at the close of The Parlement of Fowls is an example of a 13-line rondeau.
A rondeau redoublé consists of six quatrains using two rhymes. The first quatrain consists of four refrain lines that are used, in sequence, as the last lines of the next four quatrains, and a phrase from the first refrain is repeated as a tail at the end of the final stanza. See Dorothy Parker’s “Roudeau Redoublé (and Scarcely Worth the Trouble at That).”
- Rondel (roundel)
A poetic form of 11 to 14 lines consisting of two rhymes and the repetition of the first two lines in the middle of the poem and at its end. Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “The Roundel” is 11 lines in two stanzas.
- San Francisco Renaissance
Not a single movement, but a constellation of writers and artists active in the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of World War II. Poets associated with the San Francisco Renaissance include Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, and Michael McClure. Though the poets wrote in different styles and often espoused different aesthetic and political views, all favored the Modernist tradition of innovation, and many were influenced by Charles Olson and the Black Mountain School. Donald Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poets included a section devoted to the “San Francisco Renaissance,” and many claim that by labeling the group, Allen in some way invented it. However, the poets writing in San Francisco at that time were active and influential across many genres, and often read and collaborated with one another.
- Sapphic verse
A six-line stanza, or the final six lines of a 14-line Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. A sestet refers only to the final portion of a sonnet, otherwise the six-line stanza is known as a sexain. The second stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul has Bandaged Moments” is a sexain. “Sestina: Like,” by A.E. Stallings possesses several sexains. See also Sestina.
A complex French verse form, usually unrhymed, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order as end words in each of the subsequent five stanzas; the closing envoy contains all six words, two per line, placed in the middle and at the end of the three lines. The patterns of word repetition are as follows, with each number representing the final word of a line, and each row of numbers representing a stanza:
1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)
See Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “The Complaint of Lisa," John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," and David Ferry’s “The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People." Browse more sestinas.
- Shakespearean sonnet
The variation of the sonnet form that Shakespeare used—comprised of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg—is called the English or Shakespearean sonnet form, although others had used it before him. This different sonnet structure allows for more space to be devoted to the buildup of a subject or problem than the Italian/Petrarchan form, and is followed by just two lines to conclude or resolve the poem in a rhyming couplet. Learn more about sonnet forms here.
A Korean verse form related to haiku and tanka and comprised of three lines of 14-16 syllables each, for a total of 44-46 syllables. Each line contains a pause near the middle, similar to a caesura, though the break need not be metrical. The first half of the line contains six to nine syllables; the second half should contain no fewer than five. Originally intended as songs, sijo can treat romantic, metaphysical, or spiritual themes. Whatever the subject, the first line introduces an idea or story, the second supplies a “turn,” and the third provides closure. Modern sijo are sometimes printed in six lines.
A comparison (see Metaphor) made with “as,” “like,” or “than.” In “A Red, Red Rose,” Robert Burns declares:
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Langston Hughes in “Harlem”:
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Browse poems with developed similes.
A competitive poetry performance in which selected audience members score performers, and winners are determined by total points. Slam is a composite genre that combines elements of poetry, theater, performance, and storytelling. The genre’s origins can be traced to Chicago in the early 1980s. Since then, groups of volunteers have organized slams in venues across the world. The first National Poetry Slam was held in 1990, and has become an annual event in which teams from cities across the United States compete at events in a host city. For more on poetry slams, see Jeremy Richards’s series “Performing the Academy”. See also poets Tyehimba Jess, Bob Holman, and Patricia Smith.
A 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme originating in Italy and brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey in the 16th century. Literally a “little song,” the sonnet traditionally reflects upon a single sentiment, with a clarification or “turn” of thought in its concluding lines. There are many different types of sonnets.
The Petrarchan sonnet, perfected by the Italian poet Petrarch, divides the 14 lines into two sections: an eight-line stanza (octave) rhyming ABBAABBA, and a six-line stanza (sestet) rhyming CDCDCD or CDEEDE. John Milton’s “When I Consider How my Light Is Spent” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” employ this form. The Italian sonnet is an English variation on the traditional Petrarchan version. The octave’s rhyme scheme is preserved, but the sestet rhymes CDDCEE. See Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt, I Know Where Is an Hind” and John Donne’s “If Poisonous Minerals, and If That Tree.” Wyatt and Surrey developed the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet, which condenses the 14 lines into one stanza of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG (though poets have frequently varied this scheme; see Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”). George Herbert’s “Love (II),” Claude McKay’s “America,” and Molly Peacock’s “Altruism” are English sonnets.
These three types have given rise to many variations, including:
-The caudate sonnet, which adds codas or tails to the 14-line poem. See Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire.”
-The curtal sonnet, a shortened version devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins that maintains the proportions of the Italian form, substituting two six-stress tercets for two quatrains in the octave (rhyming ABC ABC), and four and a half lines for the sestet (rhyming DEBDE), also six-stress except for the final three-stress line. See his poem “Pied Beauty.”
-The sonnet redoublé, also known as a crown of sonnets, is composed of 15 sonnets that are linked by the repetition of the final line of one sonnet as the initial line of the next, and the final line of that sonnet as the initial line of the previous; the last sonnet consists of all the repeated lines of the previous 14 sonnets, in the same order in which they appeared. Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till is a contemporary example.
-A sonnet sequence is a group of sonnets sharing the same subject matter and sometimes a dramatic situation and persona. See George Meredith’s Modern Love sequence, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, Rupert Brooke’s 1914 sequence, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.
-The Spenserian sonnet is a 14-line poem developed by Edmund Spenser in his Amoretti, that varies the English form by interlocking the three quatrains (ABAB BCBC CDCD EE).
-The stretched sonnet is extended to 16 or more lines, such as those in George Meredith’s sequence Modern Love.
-A submerged sonnet is tucked into a longer poetic work; see lines 235-48 of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
Browse more sonnets. You can also read the educational essays “Learning the Sonnet” and “The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon.”
- Spenserian stanza
The unit of Edmund Spenser’s long poem The Faerie Queene, consisting of eight iambic-pentameter lines and a final alexandrine, with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBCC. Later uses of this stanza form include John Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais,” and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters.”
- Spoken word
A broad designation for poetry intended for performance. Though some spoken word poetry may also be published on the page, the genre has its roots in oral traditions and performance. Spoken word can encompass or contain elements of rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theater, and jazz, rock, blues, and folk music. Characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and word play, spoken word poems frequently refer to issues of social justice, politics, race, and community. Related to slam poetry, spoken word may draw on music, sound, dance, or other kinds of performance to connect with audiences. See Murdoch Burnett, Kevin Coval, and Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz for examples of spoken word performers. For spoken word’s connection with music, see David Browne’s essay “Pop Star Poetics.”
- Sprung rhythm
A metrical system devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins composed of one- to four-syllable feet that start with a stressed syllable. The spondee replaces the iamb as a dominant measure, and the number of unstressed syllables varies considerably from line to line (see also accentual verse). According to Hopkins, its intended effect was to reflect the dynamic quality and variations of common speech, in contrast to the monotony of iambic pentameter. His own poetry illustrates its use; though there have been few imitators, the spirit and principles of sprung rhythm influenced the rise of free verse in the early 20th century.
A grouping of lines separated from others in a poem. In modern free verse, the stanza, like a prose paragraph, can be used to mark a shift in mood, time, or thought.
A syllable uttered in a higher pitch—or with greater emphasis—than others. The English language itself determines how English words are stressed, but sentence structure, semantics, and meter influence the placement and perception of stress. See also accentual verse, accentual-syllabic verse, foot, meter, rhythm, and scansion.
In Greek drama, the strophe (turning) signified the first section of a choral ode, and was recited by the Chorus as it moved across the stage. The Chorus’s movement back to its original side was accompanied by the antistrophe. Finally, the Chorus stood still to chant the epode, the final section of the ode, which used a new metrical structure. This classic structure is explicitly foregrounded in Ben Jonson’s “A Pindaric Ode.” Strophe came to be synonymous with the stanzas in an ode; see Coleridge’s “France: An Ode.” It has also been used to describe units or verse paragraphs in free verse. See Robert Duncan’s, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” and Geoffrey Hill’s “On Reading Crowds and Power” for examples of this contemporary usage.
A movement of thought in the humanities, widespread in anthropology, linguistics, and literary theory, and influential in the 1950s and ’60s. Based primarily on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism considered language as a system of signs and signification, the elements of which are understandable only in relation to each other and to the system. In literary theory, structuralism challenged the belief that a work of literature reflected a given reality; instead, a text was constituted of linguistic conventions and situated among other texts. Structuralist critics analyzed material by examining underlying structures, such as characterization or plot, and attempted to show how these patterns were universal and could thus be used to develop general conclusions about both individual works and the systems from which they emerged. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was an important champion of structuralism, as was Roman Jakobsen. Northrop Frye’s attempts to categorize Western literature by archetype had some basis in structuralist thought. Structuralism regarded language as a closed, stable system, and by the late 1960s it had given way to poststructuralism.
A lofty, ennobling seriousness as the main characteristic of certain poetry, as identified in the treatise On the Sublime, attributed to the 3rd-century Greek rhetorician Cassius Longinus. The concept took hold in the 18th century among English philosophers, critics, and poets who associated it with overwhelming sensation. In A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke identified the sublime as the experience of the infinite, which is terrifying and thrilling because it threatens to overpower the perceived importance of human enterprise in the universe. Aesthetes and writers of the era saw the natural world and its wild, mysterious expanses as a gateway to the experience of the sublime. Romantic poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth were influenced by this notion.
An artistic philosophy that took hold in 1920s Paris and spread throughout the world in the decades that followed. André Breton outlined its aims in his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), affirming the supremacy of the “disinterested play of thought” and the “omnipotence of dreams” rather than reason and logic. Breton and his colleagues were inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis and its emphasis on the power of unconscious thought. Through “automatic writing” and hypnosis, artists could free their imaginations to reveal deeper truths. The French poets Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Pierre Reverdy embodied early surrealist principles, as did Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Surrealist practices were also used in the visual arts, particularly in the paintings of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, and René Magritte, and in the films of Jean Cocteau. A second generation of surrealist writers emerged in other parts of the world, especially in Latin America; see the poems of Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. The surrealist aesthetic has influenced modern and contemporary poets writing in English as well; James Tate, John Ashbery, and Michael Palmer are notable examples.
- Syllabic verse
Poetry whose meter is determined by the total number of syllables per line, rather than the number of stresses. Marianne Moore’s poetry is mostly syllabic. Other examples include Thomas Nashe’s “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss” and Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October.” Browse more poems in syllabic verse.
A single unit of speech sound as written or spoken; specifically, a vowel preceded by zero to three consonants (“awl,” “bring,” “strand”), and followed by zero to four consonants (“too,” “brag,” “gloss,” “stings,” “sixths”).
Something in the world of the senses, including an action, that reveals or is a sign for something else, often abstract or otherworldly. A rose, for example, has long been considered a symbol of love and affection.
Every word denotes, refers to, or labels something in the world, but a symbol (to which a word, of course, may point) has a concreteness not shared by language, and can point to something that transcends ordinary experience. Poets such as William Blake and W.B. Yeats often use symbols when they believe in—or seek—a transcendental (religious or spiritual) reality.
A metaphor compares two or more things that are no more and no less real than anything else in the world. For a metaphor to be symbolic, one of its pair of elements must reveal something else transcendental. In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” for instance, Yeats’s image of the rose on the cross symbolizes the joining of flesh and spirit. As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren write in their book Understanding Poetry (3rd ed., 1960),“The symbol may be regarded as a metaphor from which the first term has been omitted.”
See also allegory and imagism.
- Symbolist Movement
A group of late 19th-century French writers, including Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, who favored dreams, visions, and the associative powers of the imagination in their poetry. They rejected their predecessors’ tendency toward naturalism and realism, believing that the purpose of art was not to represent reality but to access greater truths by the “systematic derangement of the senses,” as Rimbaud described it. The translated works of Edgar Allan Poe influenced the French Symbolists.
In description, a blending or intermingling of different sense modalities. While synesthesia appears in ancient literatures, including both the Iliad and Odyssey, it became especially popular in the 19th century through the work of poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud and the symbolist movement. Examples of synesthesia include Baudelaire’s “The Ragpickers’ Wine,” where he writes of “the dazzling, deafening debauch / of bugles.” In her heavily synesthetic poem “Aubade,” Dame Edith Sitwell describes the “dull blunt wooden stalactite / Of rain creaks, hardened by the light.” In George Meredith’s “Modern Love: I,” a woman’s heart is made to “drink the pale drug of silence.” Synesthetic effects include textual amplification, complication, and richness. Some poets, notably Percy Bysshe Shelley, have used synesthesia to suggest visionary states.
A statement redundant in itself, such as “free gift” or “The stars, O astral bodies!” Also, a statement that is necessarily true—a circular argument—such as “she is alive because she is living.”
A poetic unit of three lines, rhymed or unrhymed. Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” rhymes AAA BBB; Ben Jonson’s “On Spies” is a three-line poem rhyming AAA; and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is written in terza rima form. Examples of poems in unrhymed tercets include Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” and David Wagoner’s “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop.”
Browse more poems with tercets.
- Terza rima
An Italian stanzaic form, used most notably by Dante Alighieri in Commedia (The Divine Comedy), consisting of tercets with interwoven rhymes (ABA BCB DED EFE, and so on). A concluding couplet rhymes with the penultimate line of the last tercet. See Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Derek Walcott’s “The Bounty,” and Omeros, and Jacqueline Osherow’s “Autumn Psalm.”
Browse more poems in terza rima.
- Textual criticism
A branch of literary criticism concerned with analyzing and determining the accuracy of texts. By examining the documents themselves in print and manuscript form—as well as any associated documentation such as letters, journals, or notebooks—textual critics attempt to identify and remove errors resulting from multiple transcriptions and printings and restore the work to its most original state. They also seek to present the text in a format that benefits readers and scholars, often with facsimile reproductions of the original manuscripts or print versions, along with a critical apparatus explaining textual variants between versions, critical commentaries, and bibliographies. Textual criticism developed out of ancient, classical, and Biblical scholarship, but has increasingly been used to deal with variations found in much modern literature, whether as a matter of typographical error, authorial revision, or historical and cultural textual support. Recent prominent textual critics include W.W. Greg, Fredson Bowers, G. Thomas Tanselle, D.C. Greetham, Peter Shillingsburg, and Jerome McGann.
The poet’s attitude toward the poem’s speaker, reader, and subject matter, as interpreted by the reader. Often described as a “mood” that pervades the experience of reading the poem, it is created by the poem’s vocabulary, metrical regularity or irregularity, syntax, use of figurative language, and rhyme.
A strain of Romanticism that took root among writers in mid-19th-century New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson laid out its principles in his 1836 manifesto Nature, in which he asserted that the natural and material world exists to reveal universal meaning to the individual soul via one’s subjective experiences. He promoted the poet’s role as seer, a “transparent eyeball” that received insight intuitively through his or her perception of nature. Henry David Thoreau was an early disciple of Emerson’s philosophy.
- Ubi sunt
A number of medieval European poems begin with this Latin phrase meaning “Where are they?” By posing a series of questions about the fate of the strong, beautiful, or virtuous, these poems meditate on the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. The phrase can now refer to any poetry that treats these themes. One of the most famous ubi sunt poems is “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (“Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past”) by medieval French poet François Villon, with its refrain “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” See also Thomas Nashe’s “Adieu, Farewell, Earth’s Bliss,” Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella CII: ‘Where be the roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?’”, and “Where Are the Waters of Childhood?” by Mark Strand.
- Vers libre
A French phrase meaning “free verse.”
As a mass noun, poetry in general; as a regular noun, a line of poetry. Typically used to refer to poetry that possesses more formal qualities.
- Verse paragraph
A group of verse lines that make up a single rhetorical unit. In longer poems, the first line is often indented, like a paragraph in prose. The long narrative passages of John Milton’s Paradise Lost are verse paragraphs. The titled sections of Robert Pinsky’s “Essay on Psychiatrists” demarcate shifts in focus and argument much as prose paragraphs would. A shorter lyric poem, even when broken into stanzas, could be considered a single verse paragraph, insofar as it expresses a unified mood or thought; see Gail Mazur’s “Evening.”
Poetry written in England during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) may be referred to as Victorian poetry. Following Romanticism, Victorian poets continued many of the previous era’s main themes, such as religious skepticism and valorization of the artist as genius; but Victorian poets also developed a distinct sensibility. The writers of this period are known for their interest in verbal embellishment, mystical interrogation, brooding skepticism, and whimsical nonsense. The most prolific and well-regarded poets of the age included Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Oscar Wilde. Browse more Victorian poets.
A French verse form consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. These two refrain lines form the final couplet in the quatrain. See “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “The House on the Hill.”
Browse more villanelles.
Italian word for “turn.” In a sonnet, the volta is the turn of thought or argument: in Petrarchan or Italian sonnets it occurs between the octave and the sestet, and in Shakespearean or English before the final couplet. See Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt, I Know Where Is an Hind” and William Shakespeare's Sonnet CXXIX, “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” for examples of voltas of each type.
A figure of speech in which one verb or preposition joins two objects within the same phrase, often with different meanings. For example, “I left my heart—and my suitcase—in San Francisco.” Zeugma occurs in William Shakespeare’s “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun”: “Golden Lads, and Girles all must / As chimney-sweepers come to dust.” Here, “coming to dust” refers to the chimney-sweeper’s trade as well as the body’s decay.
Browse through the full archive of Poetry magazine back to 1912.