Search the Glossary
  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F
  7. G
  8. H
  9. I
  10. J
  11. K
  12. L
  13. M
  14. N
  15. O
  16. P
  17. Q
  18. R
  19. S
  20. T
  21. U
  22. V
  23. W
  24. X
  25. Y
  26. Z
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 comic imitation of another author’s work or characteristic style. See Joan Murray’s “We Old Dudes,” a parody of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”
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

A line made up of five feet. It is the most common metrical line in English. Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” is written in iambic pentameter. Hart Crane maintains pentameter lines made up of variable feet in The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge.” See also blank verse and iamb.


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
See Ode.
Poet laureate
According to Virgil, the Greek god Apollo decreed that poets should receive laurels as a prize. The British crown created the post of poet laureate in 1688 and awarded it to poets for life. In the United States, the Library of Congress appoints the position, with the official title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Recipients of the honor usually serve for one year and promote poetry to the public through readings, lectures, or educational projects.
Poet's Corner
An area in the south transept of Westminster Abbey in London that holds both monuments and graves of famous poets, playwrights, and writers. Among the poets buried there are Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy.
A derogatory term for an inferior poet. See also Doggerel.
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.”

Other Information