Ten years in the making, A Poet’s Glossary (Harcourt, 2014) is a followup to former Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch’s best-selling book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (Harcourt, 1999). Readers called for an expansion of the book’s addendum of poetic terms, and Hirsch responded by creating an international and inclusive collection. With terms ranging from abededarian to zeugma, Hirsch brings us along on a journey that includes basic poetic terms alongside forms from poetry around the world.
We’re proud to feature more than forty individual entries from A Poet’s Glossary. Browse the following poetic terms and forms below:
All entries are excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Irish for “dream.” The aisling (pronounced “ashling”) is a vision or dream poem, which developed in Gaelic poetry in Munster during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has its origins in the Old French reverdie, which celebrates the arrival of spring, often in the form of a beautiful woman. The aislingí present and personify Ireland in the form of a woman, who can be young or old, haggard or beautiful, lamenting her woes. The woman is usually referred to as a spéir-bhean (sky-woman). Aodhagán Ó Raithille inaugurated the tradition of the political aisling with his eighteenth-century poem “Mac an Cheannuidhe” (“The Merchant’s Son”), which closes on a note of total despair. Throughout the eighteenth century, the form took on a strong political ethos, expressing a passion for Irish deliverance.
In The Hidden Ireland (1924), Daniel Corkery calls the aisling an “intimate expression of the hidden life of the people among whom it flourished.” The aisling provides the legacy for such iconic female figures as Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the Shan Van Vocht, and Dark Rosaleen. The subgenre still reverberates, though reflexively. Seamus Heaney has several aislings, including “Aisling” (1974), “An Aisling in the Burren” (1984), and “The Disappearing Island” (1987), which he recognizes as “a form of aisling, a vision poem about Ireland, even though it is an aisling inflected with irony: ‘All I believe that happened there was vision.’” In Paul Muldoon’s mock-vision poem, “Aisling” (1983), written in light of the 1981 prison hunger strike in Northern Ireland, the maternal figure of Ireland is recast as Anorexia. In A Kind of Scar (1989), Eavan Boland calls the aisling tradition “that old potent blurring of feminine and national.”
The vocal music of birds has always had a great hold on poets. “Sir, we are a nest of singing birds,” Samuel Johnson told James Boswell. The seventh century B.C.E. Greek poet Alcman of Sardis claimed to know the strains of all the birds. In Bright Wings (2012), Billy Collins points out that in early English poetry, “birds can be emblematic (the royal eagle), mythological (the reborn phoenix), or symbolic (the self-wounding pelican as Christ).” Over the centuries, poets have frequently identified with cuckoos (“Sumer is icumen in — / Lhude, sing cuccu!”) and mockingbirds, seagulls, herons, and owls. They have also noted their difference from us. They have watched them in their backyards (John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” 1819; Anthony Hecht, “House Sparrows,” 1979), followed them into the woods (Robert Burns, “Address to the Woodlark,” 1795; Amy Clampitt, “A Whippoorwill in the Woods,” 1990), and tracked them to the shore (May Swenson, “One of the Strangest,” 1978; Galway Kinnell, “The Gray Heron,” 1980). They have treated birds as messengers from the beyond, the embodiment of a transcendent vocation. One thinks of Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, William Cullen Bryant’s waterfowl, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s windhover, W. B. Yeats’s wild swans at Coole, Robinson Jeffers’s hawks, Wallace Stevens’s blackbird, Osip Mandelstam’s goldfinch, Randall Jarrell’s mockingbird . . . The tradition of imitating bird song is so strong that it sometimes begs for counterstatement, as in Michael Collier’s poem “In Certain Situations I’m Very Much Against Birdsong” (2011).
The nightingale—a small, secretive, solitary songbird that goes on singing late into the night—has always had a special metaphorical and symbolic power. It fills an apparently irresistible need to attribute human feelings to the bird’s pure and persistent song. Poets, who are often nocturnal creatures, have identified with “spring’s messenger, the sweet-voiced nightingale,” as Sappho (late seventh century BCE) calls it. The romantic poets especially considered the bird a symbol of imaginative freedom. In “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley established the connection between the poet and the nightingale: “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” The singing of the nightingale becomes a metaphor for writing poetry, and listening to that bird, that natural music, becomes a metaphor for reading it. One of the romantic premises of Shelley’s metaphor is that the poet “sings” in “solitude” without any consideration for an audience and that the audience, his “auditors,” responds to the work of an “unseen musician.”
The nightingale has had a rich history of representations in poetry, which begins with one of the oldest legends in the world, the poignant tale of Philomela, who had her tongue cut out and was changed into the nightingale, which laments in darkness, but nonetheless expresses its story in song. The tale reverberates through Greco-Roman literature. Ovid gave it a poignant rendering in Metamorphoses (8 C.E.), and it echoes down the centuries from William Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus, 1589) and Philip Sidney (“Philomela,” 1595) to Matthew Arnold (“Philomela,” 1853), T. S. Eliot (“The Waste Land,” 1922), and John Crowe Ransom (“Philomela,” 1923). Even without the mythological scrim, poets have often responded to the piercing woe-begotten quality of the nightingale’s song, which Keats beautifully imitates in his nightingale ode. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first romantic poet to attack the idea that the nightingale’s song was necessarily lonesome and sad (“The Nightingale,” 1798). In the 1830s, the rural poet John Clare observed how nightingales actually look, sound, and behave. “I have watched them often at their song,” he said. He objected to the old threadbare epithets such as “lovelorn nightingale” and with a naturalist’s eye remembered how assiduously he had observed one as a boy. Here is how he describes hearing a nightingale in his poem “The Progress of Rhyme” (1835):
“Chew-chew chew-chew” and higher still,
“Cheer-cheer cheer-cheer” more loud and shrill,
“Cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up” — and dropped
Low — “Tweet tweet jug jug jug” — and stopped
One moment just to drink the sound
Her music made, and then a round
Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird:
“Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
“Woo-it woo-it” — and could this be her?
“Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
Chew-rit chew-rit” — and ever new —
“Will-will will-will grig-grig grig-grig.”
In Hinduism, bhakti is a mystical devotion to God. The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of God,” fifth to second century BCE) was the first text to use the term bhakti to designate a religious path. Medieval bhakti poetry is the devotional genre of love poetry. The word bhakti derives from the Sanskrit root bhaj, meaning “to share, to possess,” and bhakti poetry is an intense way of sharing in the divine. It is an ecstatic poetry. The Bhakti movement originated in the south of India in the sixth century and gradually spread to the rest of the subcontinent. From the seventh to the ninth century, the South-Indian poet-saints, the Vaisnava Alvars and Saiva Nayanars, traveled from temple to temple, singing of their gods and spreading bhakti energy throughout India. These itinerant poets drew upon Sanskrit models, but composed their hymns in their own local languages. They centered their work on the gods Visnu and Siva, and their poems establish direct, emotional bonds with these divines. Many of the bhakti poets came from the lower rungs of the Hindu caste ladder—among them, there is a cobbler, a tailor, a boatman, a weaver, a maidservant—and wrote in the vernaculars (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati) rather than Sanskrit, the language of Brahmans. They reach from the lowest to the highest, the One Deity.
Scholars make a useful distinction between poet-saints who composed verses extolling God “with attributes” (saguna bhaktas) and those extolling God “without attributes” (nirguna bhaktas). One of the great sagunas was Mirabai (ca. 1498–ca. 1557), who sang passionately of her love for Krishna, her true husband, her ishtadevata, the god one makes through desire. One of the great nirgunas was Kabir (1440–1518), who questioned the hierarchies of the caste system and pondered God’s greatness “without qualities.” Both poets wrote out of personal experience. As Meena Alexander puts it in an essay on bhakti poetry: “There is a simplicity, a grace if you will, in the poetry of both Mirabai and Kabir. A dwelling in the body that does not cut consciousness apart from the desiring, perishing body and sings, sings through sorrow into joy. A precarious joy that remains at the edge of the world.”
The couplet, two successive lines of poetry, usually rhymed (aa), has been an elemental stanzaic unit—a couple, a pairing—as long as there has been written rhyming poetry in English. It can stand as an epigrammatic poem on its own, a weapon for aphoristic wit, as in Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness” (1734):
I am his Highness’ Dog at Kew;
Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?
The couplet also serves as an organizing pattern in long poems (Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” 1592–1593; Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander,” 1593) or part of a larger stanzaic unit. It stands as the pithy conclusion to the ottava rima stanza (abababcc), the rhyme royal stanza (ababbcc), and the Shakespearean sonnet (ababcdcdefefgg).
The rhyming iambic pentameter or five-stress couplet—later known as the heroic couplet—was introduced into English by Chaucer in “The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women” (1386), in imitation of French meter, and employed for most of The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1387–1400). It has sometimes been nicknamed riding rhyme, probably because the pilgrims reeled them off while they were riding to Canterbury. It was taken up and used with great flexibility by the Tudor and Jacobean poets and dramatists. Nicholas Grimald’s pioneering experiments with the heroic couplet should be better known (Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557). Christopher Marlowe employed the heroic couplet for his daring translation of Ovid’s Amores (16 B.C.E.), which he called Ovid’s Elegies (1594–1595). The mighty two-liner was also used by William Shakespeare, George Chapman, and John Donne, and then stamped as a neoclassical form by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson, who wrote:
Let Observation with extensive View
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru . . .
This closed form of the couplet is well suited to express aphoristic wit.
The octosyllabic or four-stress couplet, probably based on a common Latin meter, became a staple of English medieval verse (such as The Lay of Havelok the Dane, ca. 1280–1290), then was virtually reinvented by Samuel Butler in his mock-heroic satire Hudibras (1663–1680), whose couplets became known as Hudibrastics, and raised to a higher power by Milton (“L’Allegro” and “II Penseroso,” both 1645), Marvell (“To His Coy Mistress,” ca. 1650s), and Coleridge (“Christabel,” 1797–1800).
We call a couplet closed when the sense and syntax come to a conclusion or strong pause at the end of the second line, thus giving a feeling of self-containment and enclosure, as in the first lines of “To His Coy Mistress”:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We call a couplet open when the sense carries forward past the second line into the next line or lines, as in the beginning of Keats’s Endymion (1818):
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams . . .
Ben Jonson told William Drummond that he deemed couplets “the bravest Sort of Verses, especially when they are broken.” All two-line stanzas in English carry the vestigial memory of closed or open couplets.
This common Hindi form is a self-contained rhyming couplet. Each twenty-four-syllable line divides into unequal parts of thirteen (6, 4, 3) and eleven syllables (6, 4, 1). A sortha, an inverted doha, transposes the two parts of the line. The simple form of the doha, which conveys an image or idea in two verses, has made it especially useful to describe devotional, sensual, and spiritual states, as in the mystical poetry of Kabir (1440-1518) and Nanak (1469-1539). It often has a proverbial feeling. Goswami Tulsidas employed dohas to adapt the Sanskrit epic Ramayana (fifth to fourth century B. C. E.). His Ramcharitmanas (sixteenth century) are as well known among Hindus in northern India as the Bible is rural in America.
A poem of mortal loss and consolation. The word elegy derives from the Greek élegos, "funeral lament.” It was among the first forms of the ancients, though in Greek literature it refers to a specific verse form as well as the emotions conveyed by it. Any poem using the particular meter of the elegiac couplet or elegiac distich was termed an elegy. It was composed of a heroic or dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter. Here are two lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Elegiac Verse” (1882):
So the Hexameter, rising and singing, with cadence sonorous,
Falls; and in refluent rhythms back the Pentameter flows.
There were elegies, chanted aloud and traditionally accompanied by the flute, on love (amatory complaints) and war (exhortatory martial epigrams) as well as death. But, as Peter Sacks puts it, “Behind this array of topics there may have lain an earlier, more exclusive association of the flute song’s elegiacs with the expression of grief.”
Since the sixteenth century, the elegy has designated a poem mourning the death of an individual (as in W. B. Yeats’s “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” 1918) or a solemn meditation on the passing of human life (as in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” 1751). The elegy does what Freud calls “the work of mourning.” It ritualizes grief into language and thereby makes it more bearable. The great elegy touches the unfathomable and originates in the unspeakable, in unacceptable loss. It allows us to experience mortality. It turns loss into remembrance and delivers an inheritance. It opens a space for retrospection and drives a wordless anguish toward the consolations of verbal articulation and ceremony.
The sense of overwhelming loss that powers the poetry of lamentation exists in all languages and poetries. It has roots in religious feeling and ritual. The process, the action of mourning, of doing something to pass on the dead, thus clearing a space between the dead and the living, has residual force in the ceremonial structure of the elegy. Classical antiquity had several literary vehicles for the formal expression of deep sorrow. The dirge was a song of lament deriving from the Greek epicedium, a mourning song sung over the body of the dead. The threnody was a Greek “wailing song” sung in memory of the dead. Originally a choral ode, it evolved into the monody (Greek: “alone song”), an ode sung by a single actor in a Greek tragedy or a poem mourning someone’s death. John Milton described “Lycidas” (1638), a poem inspired by the death of Edward King, as a monody; Matthew Arnold also termed “Thyrsis” (1866), a lament for Arthur Clough, a monody.
These two poems, along with Edmund Spenser’s “Astrophel” (1586), a lament for Sidney, and Percy Shelley’s “Adonais” (1821), a lament for John Keats, belong to a subspecies of the tradition called the pastoral elegy. The laments of three Sicilian poets writing in Greek—Theocritus (third century BCE), Moschus (second century BCE), and Bion (second century BCE)—inspired the pastoral conventions of the later English elegy. These highly elaborated conventions (the invocation to the muse, the representation of nature in the lament, the procession of mourners, and so forth) become the formal channel of mourning. “The elegy follows the ancient rites in the basic passage from grief or darkness to consolation and renewal,” Sacks writes. The pastoral conventions are dropped in a poem such as Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849), his heartbroken book on the death of Arthur Hallam, but the ritualistic feeling remains. There is a sense of lineage and inheritance in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s hieratic Baudelairean elegy for Charles Baudelaire, “Ave atque Vale” (“a mourning musical of many mourners,” 1868), and Thomas Hardy’s Swinburnean elegy for Swinburne, “A Singer Asleep” (1910). The dignified formality opens out into elegies commemorating a public figure, such as Walt Whitman’s poem for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865) and W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” (1939). It empowers the elegy for a friend who is also a public figure, such as Federico García Lorca’s “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” (1935).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was thinking of the elegy as a de-particularized form, a poem with a certain meditative mood or style, when he described it as “the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind.” The definition of the elegy as a serious reflection on a serious subject applies to the so-called Anglo-Saxon elegies, some of the earliest poems in the English tradition, such as “The Wanderer” (tenth century) and “The Seafarer” (tenth century), which are poems of great personal deprivation shading off into meditations on mutability and petitions for divine guidance and consolation. This sense of the elegy carries forward through Thomas Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague” (1600), Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742–1746), and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1923).
The sense of a highly self-conscious dramatic performance, of a necessary and sometimes reluctant reentry into language, continues to power the elegy in our century, but the traditional consolations and comforts of the elegy have often been called into question. For example, Hardy radicalizes the genre by speaking from a position of uncompromising isolation in emotionally unsheltered elegies for his dead wife, Poems of 1912–13. Think, too, of Wilfred Owen’s ironically titled “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917) and his poems “Greater Love” (1917) and “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?,” 1917), of Isaac Rosenberg’s “Dead Man’s Dump” (1917) and Edward Thomas’s “Tears” (“It seems I have no tears left,” 1915), of Edith Sitwell’s “Dirge for the New Sunrise” (1945) and Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” (1945).
The American elegist in particular seems to suffer from what Emily Dickinson calls a “polar privacy,” a dark sense of isolation, of displacement from the traditional settings of grief and the consolations of community. This is accompanied by a more naked experience of grief. A saving and even ceremonial formality still comes to the aid of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1928), James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (1976–1982), Amy Clampitt’s “A Procession at Candlemas” (1981), Charles Wright’s The Southern Cross (1981), and Richard Howard’s deeply aggrieved elegies for dead friends. How many dead paternities stalk like ghosts through the precincts of American poetry! One thinks of Dickinson (“Burgler! Banker — Father!”) and Sylvia Plath (“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”), of Robert Lowell (Life Studies, 1959), Philip Levine (1933, 1974), and Sharon Olds (The Father, 1992), of mournful poems to the father by James Agee, John Berryman, Stanley Kunitz, Stanley Plumly, William Matthews, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, Alberto Rios. I have been moved over the years by William Meredith’s memorial poems to his beloved friends in poetry, by Robert Hayden’s “Elegies for Paradise Valley” (1978), by L. E. Sissman’s self-elegies (Hello, Darkness, 1978), by Mark Doty’s elegies for a lover dying of AIDS (My Alexandria, 1993), by Larry Levis’s posthumous collection, Elegy (1977). These poems continue to ask, as Auden writes in his elegy “At the Grave of Henry James” (1941), “What living occasion can / Be just to the absent?”
In The Idiom of Poetry (1946), Frederick Pottle used the term elliptical for a kind of pure poetry that omits prosaic information. He recognized ellipticism in various historical works, but contended that “the modern poet goes much farther in employing private experiences or ideas than would formerly have been thought legitimate.” To the common reader, he says, “the prime characteristic of this kind of poetry is not the nature of its imagery but its obscurity, its urgent suggestion that you add something to the poem without telling what that something is.” He names that something “the prose frame.” Robert Penn Warren used the term “elliptical” in his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” (1943) to summarize T. S. Eliot’s notion that some poets “become impatient of this meaning [explicit statement of ideas in logical order] which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination.”
Stephen Burt redeployed the term elliptical poetry to characterize a kind of oblique, gnomic poetry. He calls elliptical poets “post-avant-gardist, or post‘postmodern.’” Emily Dickinson and Marina Tsvetaeva could be considered two great precursors to the elliptical mode, since they charged their sometimes secretive and oblique poems with maximum intensity and meaning.
A long narrative poem, exalted in style, heroic in theme. The earliest epics all focus on the legendary adventures of a hero against the backdrop of a historical event: think of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s action-packed journey home in the eighth century BCE Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, the models for epic poetry ever since; or the territorial battles of a warrior culture in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, dated between the eighth and eleventh centuries; or the preservation of a city and a civilization in the Babylonian Gilgamesh (ca. 1600–1000 BCE). These epics seem to be the written versions of texts long sung and retold, composed and recomposed by many epic singers over time, all telling the tale of a tribe. The first audiences for the epics were listeners, the later ones readers. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) considered the Homeric epic the prototype of tragedy. The epic carried important cultural truths but, as M. I. Finley puts it, “Whatever else the epic may have been, it was not history. It was narrative, detailed and precise, with minute description of fighting and sailing, and feasting and burials and sacrifices, all very real and vivid; it may even contain, buried away, some kernels of historical fact—but it was not history.” The epic is inherently nostalgic. It looks back to greater and more heroic times—the emergence of tribes, the founding of countries, the deeds of legendary figures. It is removed from the contemporary world of the audience and looks back to what Goethe and Schiller called the vollkommen vergangen, or “perfect past.” It moves beyond individual experience. It binds people to their own outsize communal past and instills a sense of grandeur.
The epic singer of tales brings together a powerful memory and strong improvisatory technique, using formulaic phrases, lines, and half-lines; propulsive rhythms; stock descriptions; and recurrent scenes and incidents to build a tale with encyclopedic range and cyclical action. The epic is purposefully recited in segments. In the epic, Bakhtin writes, “It is, therefore, possible to take any part and offer it as the whole . . . the structure of the whole is repeated in each part, and each part is complete and circular like the whole.” The epic poets who worked at the same time as Homer are sometimes called the Cyclic poets because they covered the entire war cycle. “The cyclical form of the classical epic is based on the natural cycle,” Northrop Frye explains. “The cycle has two main rhythms: the life and death of the individual, and the slower social rhythm which, in the course of years . . . brings cities and empires to their rise and fall.”
Some examples: the great Sanskrit epics of ancient India are the Mahābhārata (ninth to eighth century BCE) and the Rāmāyana (fifth to fourth century BCE); the major epic poem in Persian is the Iranian epic Shāhnāma (ca. 977–1010). The epics of Mesopotamia survived in tales written in Sumerian and Akkadian. The Nibelungenlied (ca. 1180–1210) is the great epic of Middle High German. La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland, ca. 1090) is the pinnacle of the French epic tradition of chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds [lineage]”), which influenced the most complete example in the thriving Spanish epic tradition, the Poema de mío Cid (Poem of the Cid, twelfth century). The Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) was first written down by monks in the ninth century, but the story dates to the La Tène period of civilization, possibly about 100 BCE It intersperses lyrics and verse duologues with the main tale told in prose. The story, which narrates the great deeds of the warrior Cuchulainn, has attracted a large number of subsidiary tales called remscéla, or introductory tales, and iarscéla, or after-tales. In his translation from Old Russian, Vladimir Nabokov calls The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the Twelfth Century (1960) “a harmonious, many leveled, many hued, uniquely poetical structure created in a sustained and controlled surge of inspiration by an artist with a fondness for pagan gods and a percipience of sensuous things.” In the early nineteenth century, a group of medieval German texts were grouped together as Spielmannsepen, or “minstrel epics.” These historic legends included König Rothar (ca. 1160), Herzog Ernst (ca. 1180), Der Münchener Oswald (fifteenth century), Orendel (late twelfth century), and Salman und Moralf (late twelfth century). In the 1830s, the folklorist Elias Lönnrot linked and organized Finnish runo-songs (runo-laulu) to create the Kalevala, a magisterial Balto-Finnish epic (“It is my desire, it is my wish, / my desire to recite, / to get ready to sing”). In the 1860s, the folklorist F. Reinhold Kreutzwald followed suit and used Estonian runo songs to compose Estonia’s national epic, Kalevipoeg.
There are two main types of European songs that tell stories: epics and ballads. Whereas the ballad is a short strophic form that focuses on a primary event, the epic song is a long non-strophic form that focuses on a variety of events. But the genres sometimes blur and there is considerable thematic overlap between the longer ballads and the shorter epic songs, often dramatic, that have been collected in a wide range of cultures.
The Serbs, Croatians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, and Albanians all have epic songs, which are performed by guslars (the gusle or gusla is a single-stringed instrument). The guslars specialized in junačke pesme (“men’s songs”), heroic narratives chanted or sung on aggressively masculine themes, like war. They also performed narodne pesme (“people’s songs”) — the word pesma also means “poem.” There are nine epic cycles of these popular narrative poems based on historical events, which were collected in the nineteenth century by the Serbian scholar Vuk Karadžić. The guslari provided the models for Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s theories of an oral-formulaic method that stretches back to the Homeric bards. The slow-moving, unrhymed, and typically unaccompanied Russian epic songs are called byliny. The Ukrainian version of the epic is a body of songs called dumy, which were traditionally performed by itinerant Cossack bards called kobzani. The Tibetan Epic of King Gesar (ca. twelfth century), one of the major epic cycles of Central and East Asia, is performed both by amateurs and professional epic bards. A typical episode of the story contains five to ten thousand lines of verse (fifty to one hundred songs) linked by a spoken narration. The Mande epic of Son-Jara is recited by professional finah (poet-historians) and runs to more than three thousand lines. The Kyrgy national epic, Manas (ca. eighteenth century), can range close to half a million lines and take up to three weeks to recite.
Sïrat Banï Hiläl (ca. eleventh century) is the epic history of the Banï Hiläl Bedouin tribe. It has been told and retold throughout the Arab world from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Coast for almost a thousand years. Dwight Fletcher Reynolds points out that “in different regions and over different historical periods the epic has been performed as a complex tale cycle narrated entirely in prose, as a prose narrative embellished with lengthy poems, as a narrative recited in rhymed verse, and as a narrative sung to the accompaniment of various musical instruments.” It is both a textual and a performance tradition. Al-Bakātūsh, a village in northern Egypt, is known throughout the Nile Delta as the “village of the poets” because of its large community of hereditary epic singers who recite and perform the poem.
Ezra Pound called the epic “a poem including history.” Literary or secondary epics—one thinks not just of Virgil’s Aeneid (29–19 BCE), but also of Dante’s Divine Comedy (ca. 1308–1321), Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516), Camões’s The Lusiads (1572), Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590–1596), Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (1581), Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)—adopted many of the conventions and strategies of the traditional epic, even though they are written poems meant to be read (and reread) rather than oral ones intended to be told and sung. “Homer makes us hearers,” Alexander Pope said, “and Virgil leaves us readers.” The editors of Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World argue, “Epic conceived as a poetic narrative of length and complexity that centers around deeds of significance to the community transcends the oral and literary divide that has long marked the approach to the genre.” Byron playfully satirizes the epic apparatus he employs in this stanza from Don Juan (1819–1824):
My poem’s epic, and is meant to be
Divided in twelve books; each book containing,
With Love, and War, a heavy gale at sea,
A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,
New characters; the episodes are three:
A panoramic view of Hell’s in training,
After the style of Virgil and of Homer,
So that my name of Epic’s no misnomer.
The epic also generated several types of revisionary and even anti-epics, such as the epic with a recent action (Lucan’s Pharsalia, ca. 61–65 CE) or Christian “brief epics” (Abraham Cowley’s Davideis: A Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David, 1656, or John Milton’s Paradise Regained, 1671), which were supposedly modeled on the book of Job but more closely followed the classical epic. “All the types of Biblical epic developed during the Divine Poetry movement [in sixteenth-century England] answered the pagan epic repertoire feature by feature,” Alastair Fowler explains. The pagan muse was replaced by the Holy Spirit, or a prayer to God, and the national or legendary action became the redemptive history of Scripture.
Pound’s Cantos (1915–1969) were a bid to revive the epic as a modernist form. Nikos Kazantzakis’s Greek poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1924–1938), David Jones’s Welsh poem Anathemata (1952), and Derek Walcott’s West Indian Omeros (1990) all make epic bids. From a Turkish prison cell, Nazim Hikmet wrote a five-volume epic novel in verse, Human Landscapes from My Country (1963), which he regarded as a historical synthesis of oral poetry, designed to be sung, and the printed novel, designed to be read silently in private. An epic apparatus has been employed by American poets from Anne Bradstreet’s Exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies (1650), which could be called the first North American epic, to William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1940–1961), H. D.’s Helen in Egypt (1974), Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1928–1968), Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1950–1970), and James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (1976–1982).
All in all, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “the epic is one of the necessities of the human mind.”
From the Greek epigramma, “to write upon.” An epigram is a short, witty poem or pointed saying. Ambrose Bierce defined it in The Devil’s Dictionary (1881–1911) as “a short, sharp saying in prose and verse.” In Hellenistic Greece (third century B.C.E.), the epigram developed from an inscription carved in a stone monument or onto an object, such as a vase, into a literary genre in its own right. It may have developed out of the proverb. The Greek Anthology (tenth century, fourteenth century) is filled with more than fifteen hundred epigrams of all sorts, including pungent lyrics on the pleasures of wine, women, boys, and song.
Ernst Robert Curtius writes in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953): “No poetic form is so favorable to playing with pointed and surprising ideas as epigram—for which reason seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany called it ‘Sinngedicht.’ This development of the epigram necessarily resulted after the genre ceased to be bound by its original definition (an inscription for the dead, for sacrificial offerings, etc.).” Curtius relates the interest in epigrams to the development of the “conceit” as an aesthetic concept.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined the epigram in epigrammatic form (1802):
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity and wit its soul.
The pithiness, wit, irony, and sometimes harsh tone of the English epigram derive from the Roman poets, especially Martial, known for his caustic short poems, as in 1.32 (85–86 B.C.E.): “Sabinus, I don’t like you. You know why? / Sabinus, I don’t like you. That is why.”
The epigram is brief and pointed. It has no particular form, though it often employs a rhymed couplet or quatrain, which can stand alone or serve as part of a longer work. Here is Alexander Pope’s “Epigram from the French” (1732):
Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
Geoffrey Hartman points out that there are two diverging traditions of the epigram. These were classified by J. C. Scaliger as mel and fel (Poetics Libri Septem, 1561), which have been interpreted as sweet and sour, sugar and salt, naïve and pointed. Thus Robert Hayman, echoing Horace’s idea that poetry should be both “dulce et utile,” sweet and useful, writes in Quodlibets (1628):
Short epigrams relish both sweet and sour,
Like fritters of sour apples and sweet flour.
The “vinegar” of the epigram was often contrasted with the “honey” of the sonnet, especially the Petrarchan sonnet, though the Shakespearean sonnet, with its pointed final couplet, also combined the sweet with the sour. “By a natural development,” Hartman writes, “since epigram and sonnet were not all that distinct, the pointed style often became the honeyed style raised to a higher power, to preciousness. A new opposition is frequently found, not between sugared and salty, but between pointed (precious, overwritten) and plain.”
The sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, and sometimes sweet-and-sour epigram has been employed by contemporary American formalists, such as Howard Nemerov, X. J. Kennedy, and especially J. V. Cunningham. Here is a two-line poem that Cunningham translated in 1950 from the Welsh epigrammatist John Owen (1.32, 1606):
Life flows to death as rivers to the sea,
And life is fresh and death is salt to me.
The filídh were a professional caste of poets in early Ireland who were often credited with the supernatural power of prophecy. The words fili and filídh are etymologically connected to “seer.” These poets, who were the successors of the druids and could practice divination, were magicians and lawgivers. They were the highest-ranking members of a group called the áes dána (literally, “the people of skill, craft”). In English, the word bard usually denotes a Celtic poet, but the filídh were in fact more aristocratic and enjoyed greater privileges than the bards. Their poetry is nonetheless called bardic, since they were entrusted with an oral tradition, the full knowledge of the tribe, which predated Christianity. Their education was daunting and they spent years at a dedicated school where poetry was studied as a craft. There were seven orders of filídh; the highest grade, the ollamh, studied for twelve years. The filídh practiced an elaborate form of syllabic poetry and mastered complex metrical forms, which employed both internal and end-rhymes, consonance, alliteration, and other devices of sound. They learned by heart at least 300 poetic meters, 250 primary stories, and 100 secondary stories. They recited traditional tales and topographical lore. They also served as crucial advisors and historical chroniclers, who remembered the genealogies of their patrons. They were so bound by tradition that there is little change in their work for the four centuries from 1250 to 1650. The poet Giolla Bríghde Mac Con Midhe explained in the thirteenth century:
If poetry were to be suppressed, my people,
if we were without history, without ancient lays,
forever, but the father of each man,
everyone will pass unheralded.
Ted Hughes said that the fili “was the curator and re-animator of the inner life which held the people together and made them what they were.”
A part broken off, something cut or detached from the whole, something imperfect. Much of the work of the ancients comes down to us in fragments and tatters, cut pieces. As W. R. Johnson puts it in The Idea of Lyric (1982):
No experience in reading, perhaps, is more depressing and more frustrating than to open a volume of Sappho’s fragments and to recognize, yet again—one always hopes that somehow this time it will be different—that this poetry is all but lost to us. . . . Even though we know that Greek lyric is mere fragments, indeed, because we know that Greek lyric is mere fragments, we act, speak, and write as if the unthinkable had not happened, as if pious bishops, careless monks, and hungry mice had not consigned Sappho and her lyrical colleagues to irremediable oblivion.
In the medieval and Renaissance eras, fragments were often allegorical, suggesting something broken off from a divine whole. They were survivals from an earlier era. Readers had become so accustomed to reading unfinished texts by the early nineteenth century that it became acceptable and even fashionable to publish poems that were intentionally fragmentary. The passion for ruins as well as the taste for poetic relics and antiquities contributed to the acceptance of the romantic fragment, which we now recognize as a genre in its own right and a prototype of romantic poetry in general. One of Friedrich Schlegel’s fragments defines the genre: “A Fragment must as a miniature work of art be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and perfect in itself, like a hedgehog.” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan: or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment” (1816), Keats’s “Hyperion. A Fragment” (1818–1819), and Byron’s “The Giaour. A Fragment of a Turkish Tale” (1813) all were presented as lyrics with a purposeful partiality. Anne Janowitz characterizes the romantic fragment as “a partial whole—either a remnant of something once complete and now broken or decayed, or the beginning of something that remains unaccomplished.” It becomes a radiant moment out of time, which can never be completed because it aspires to the infinite.
The modernist poets reinvented the fragment as an acutely self-conscious mode of writing that breaks the flow of time, leaving gaps and tears, lacunae. They created discontinuous texts, collages and mosaics, fragmentary epics such as Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1915–1969), Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1927–1978), and T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), which he summarizes as “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” There is even greater vertigo in the destabilizing fragments of contemporary poetry, sometimes coolly giddy, as in John Ashbery, sometimes desperate for insight, as in Jorie Graham. In general, postmodernism is less regretful and nostalgic than modernism—it no longer yearns for wholeness—and postmodern poets typically view the fragment as a kind of emancipation that breaks the omnipotence of totalizing systems. As a genre of disruption, the postmodern aesthetic of the fragment revels in its own incompleteness, its partiality, since all texts are incomplete and all poetic language insufficient. “The interruption of the incessant,” Maurice Blanchot writes, “that is the distinguishing characteristic of fragmentary writing.”
A poetry of organic rhythms, of deliberate irregularity, improvisatory delight. Free verse is a form of nonmetrical writing that takes pleasure in a various and emergent verbal music. “As regarding rhythm,” Ezra Pound writes in “A Retrospect” (1918): “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” Free verse is often inspired by the cadence—the natural rhythm, the inner tune—of spoken language. It possesses visual form and uses the graphic line to differentiate itself from prose. “The words are more poised than in prose,” Louis MacNeice states in Modern Poetry (1938); “they are not only, like the words in typical prose, contributory to the total effect, but are to be attended to, in passing, for their own sake.” The dream of free verse: an originary verbal music for every poem. Jorge Luis Borges explains: “Beyond its rhythm, the typographical appearance of free verse informs the reader that what lies in store for him is not information or reasoning but emotion.”
The term free verse is a literal translation of vers libre, which was employed by French symbolist poets seeking freedom from the strictures of the alexandrine. It has antecedents in medieval alliterative verse, in highly rhythmic and rhymed prose, in Milton’s liberated blank-verse lines and verse paragraphs. But the greatest antecedent is the King James versions of the Psalms and the Song of Songs, based in part on the original Hebrew cadences. The rhetorical parallelism and expansive repetitions of the Hebrew Bible inspired Christopher Smart, who created his own canticles of praise in Jubilate Agno (1759–1763); William Blake, whose long-lined visionary poems have the power of prophetic utterance; and Walt Whitman, the progenitor of American free verse, who hungered for a line large enough to express the totality of life:
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself...
Whitman’s rhythms directly influenced Gerard Manley Hopkins’s long-lined metrical experiments and William Carlos Williams’s exercises in a new measure, the three-ply line and the variable foot. They are an influence, mostly repressed, on T. S. Eliot, who initiated modern poetry with the iambic-based free-verse rhythms of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1920), and Ezra Pound, whose poem “The Return” (1912) W. B. Yeats praised as the “most beautiful poem that has been written in the free form, one of the few in which I find real organic rhythms.” Some of Whitman’s international progeny: Apollinaire (France), Pessoa (Portugal), Lorca (Spain), Vallejo (Peru), Neruda (Chile), Paz (Mexico), Borges (Argentina), Martí (Cuba), Darío (Nicaragua). Whitman leads a long line of visionary poets, such as Hart Crane and D. H. Lawrence, Galway Kinnell, Gerald Stern, and Muriel Rukeyser. Formally, Whitman is the progenitor of C. K. Williams’s rangy inclusive cadences and Charles Wright’s use of a two-part dropped line, a long line with an additional rhythmic (and spatial) thrust. So, too, Whitman stands behind the improvisatory free-verse rhythms of such poets as Langston Hughes, Philip Levine, and Michael Harper, all influenced by jazz, and such New York poets as Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler, all influenced by abstract expressionism. Jazz and action painting are two good American analogues for modern free verse.
“If one thinks of the literal root of the word verse, ‘a line, furrow, turning—vertere, to turn . . . ,’ he will come to a sense of ‘free verse’ as that instance of writing in poetry which ‘turns’ upon an occasion intimate with, in fact, the issue of its own nature,” Robert Creeley explains in “Notes Apropos ‘Free Verse’ ” (1966). Free verse also turns in the space of short-lined poems. The short line often gives a feeling that something has been taken away, which has proved especially suitable for poems of loss. It can also give the feeling of clearing away the clutter and has thus proved useful for the imagist poems of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and H. D., and the objectivist works of George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Louis Zukofsky. As the length of the lines varies in free-verse poems, so the reader participates in the making of poetic thought. The free-verse poem fits no mold; it has no preexistent pattern. The reader supplies the verbal speeds, intonations, emphasis. Or as Frank O’Hara says: “You just go on your nerve.”
futurism: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) dramatically launched the futurist movement on February 20, 1909, with his “violently upsetting, incendiary manifesto” called “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (“We had stayed up all night, my friends and I”) and then bombarded Europe with his proclamations about the future. The word futurism had a startling success, and the new movement spread rapidly through Italy, France, Spain, England, and Russia. The hyperkinetic Marinetti, who christened himself “the caffeine of Europe,” the self-proclaimed “primitive of a new sensibility,” was the driving force of futurism. “I felt, all of a sudden, that articles, poetries, and polemics no longer sufficed,” he said. “You had to change methods, go down in the street, seize power in all the theatres, and introduce the fisticuff into the war of art.” The manifesto was his weapon, and he used it to praise danger and revolt, aggressive action, “the beauty of speed” (he famously proclaimed that “A racing car . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”), “the metallization of man,” the violent joys of crowds and cities. He also showed appalling innocence about war, which he glorified as “the world’s only hygiene.”
The Italian futurists include the poets Paolo Buzzi and Corrado Govani; the painters Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, Carlo Carra, and Giacomo Balla; the composers Luigi Russolo and Francesco Balilla Pratella; and Il Duce himself, Benito Mussolini. Even in Italy, there were a variety of futurisms, including Noisism or Bruitism, which wanted to join experiences and senses to each other (Carlo Carra called it “The Painting of Sounds, Noises, and Smells,” 1913), and Tactilism (the futurism of touch) and a Futurism of Woman (Valentine de Saint-Point, “Manifesto of Futurist Woman,” 1912). As Apollinaire noted in his parody manifesto “L’Antitradition futuriste” (1913), futurism was the first collective effort to suppress history in the name of art. There is no greater critique than Walter Benjamin’s summary judgment at the end of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936):
Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while reserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into public life.
All efforts to make politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and only war can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property systems.
Fiat ars — pereat mundus, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the con- summation of l’art pour l’art. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a point that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.
Communism responds by politicizing art.
Russian futurism was an offshoot of futurism that was so rich, various, and contradictory that it became its own complex movement. The Russian avant-garde poets and artists did not think of themselves as futurists per se (the name was pinned on them by newspapers). The poet, painter, and publisher David Burliuk (1882–1967) organized the Hylean poets, as they first called themselves, and convinced them to issue the joint manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” (1912), which he signed along with Alexei Kruchenykh (1886–1968), Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), and Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922). It announced that “We alone are the face of our Time”; it pledged “to stand on the rock of the word ‘we’ amidst the sea of boos and outrage”; and it predicted “the New Coming Beauty of the Self-sufficient (self-centered) Word.” Mayakovsky’s poetry faces the future and his defiant, revolutionary early work testifies to futurist energies. Khlebnikov was possibly the most radical experimenter in futurism. He cofounded with Kruchenykh the wildly imaginative, disruptive sound poetry called zaum.
There were four distinct Russian futurist groups: Cubo-futurism, ego- futurism, the Mezzanine of Poetry, and Centrifuge. What these groups shared was a dedication to modernism and a determination to denounce each other.
The Hylean Group developed into the Cubo-futurists, a group of painters who combined the Cubist techniques of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques, and Juan Gris with the dynamism of the Italian futurists. Painters such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and Kazimir Malevich were inspired by futurist poems, and they included various letters, at times even whole words, in their compositions. They treated words as material things.
The ego-futurist collective paid direct homage to Marinetti and introduced the word futurism to the Russian literary scene. The aristocratic poet Igor Severyanin tried to create a new trend within futurism in 1911 with his small brochure Prolog (Ego-Futurism) that attacked the extreme objectivity of the Cubo-futurists and proposed an alternative subjectivity, which included a more ostentatious egoism and sensuality. “All of history lies before us,” Graal-Arelsky (the pseudonym of Stepan Stepanovich Petrov) argued in “Egopoetry in Poetry” (1912): “Nature created us. Only She should rule us in our actions and efforts. She placed egoism inside of us; we should develop it. Egoism unites us all, because we are all egoists.”
Lev Zak introduced the short-lived movement the Mezzanine of Poetry, which consisted of Konstantin Bolshakov, Riuruk Ivnev, Vadim Shershenevich, Marinetti’s eager translator, and Zak himself. “Darling! Please come to the opening of our Mezzanine!” Zak wrote in his invitation to the movement: “The image of the Most Charming One, which each of us has locked in his soul, makes all things, all thoughts, and all passions equally poetic.”
Centrifuge was the last offshoot of futurism before the Russian Revolution. It was launched in 1914 by Sergei Bobrov, Nikolay Aseyev, and Boris Pasternak with the almanac Rukonog (a trans-rational coinage that meant Handfoot). Pasternak cosigned a scurrilous charter denouncing rival futurists. This led to a settling of accounts between the anti-Centrifuge futurists and the Centrifuge futurists at a Moscow café on a hot day in May 1914. But at the meeting, Pasternak was infatuated with Mayakovsky, his supposed enemy, and immediately opted out of the proposed feud. “I carried the whole of him with me that day from the boulevard into my life,” he said later. “But he was enormous; there was no holding on to him when apart from him. And I kept losing him.”
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
A type of comic narrative poetry, Hudibrastic verse (Hudibrastics) consists of jangling eight-syllable rhyming couplets. It is named after Samuel Butler’s satirical long poem Hudibras (1663–1680), which uses deliberately absurd, iambic tetratmeter couplets to ridicule and attack the Puritans. Here is an example from Canto III:
He would an elegy compose
On maggots squeez’d out of his nose;
In lyric numbers write an ode on
His mistress, eating a black-pudden;
And, when imprison’d air escap’d her,
It puft him with poetic rapture.
Jonathan Swift used the octosyllabic rhyming couplet with greater variety, as in these lines from “Vanbrugh’s House” (1703):
So, Modern Rhymers strive to blast
The Poetry of Ages past,
Which having wisely overthrown,
They from it’s Ruins build their own.
Swift’s use of Hudibrastics provided a model for contemporaries, such as Oliver Goldsmith (“New Simile, in the Manner of Swift,” 1765) and Alexander Pope (“The Seventh Epistle of the First Book of Horace, Imitated in the Manner of Dr. Swift,” 1739), and pointed the way to the use of modern Hudibrastics, such as W. H. Auden’s 1940 “New Year Letter.” John Barth, who based his novel The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) on a poem in Hudibrastics by Ebenezer Cook (ca. 1672–1732), declared: “The Hudibrastic couplet, like Herpes simplex, is a contagion more easily caught than cured.”
A formulaic use of words to create magical effects. Incantation derives from a Latin word meaning “to consecrate with charms or spells,” and, indeed, charms, spells, chants, and conjurations all employ the apparatus of sympathetic magic. Incantations, whether spoken or chanted, are characteristic of archaic poetries everywhere, which have always employed the rudimentary power of repetition to create enchantment. Oracular and prophetic poets rely on what Roman Jakobson calls “the magic, incantatory function” of language to raise words beyond speech, to create dream states and invoke apocalyptic forces, dangerous transcendent powers. The Orphic poets and Hebrew prophets, as well as those outsize vatic figures who identify with them (Christopher Smart, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Robert Desnos), deliver incantations formally, not haphazardly, and harness the rhythmic power of repetition through parallel structures and catalogs. Here is a statement from “The Song of Amergin,” which was said, as Robert Graves has pointed out, to have been chanted by the chief bard of the Milesian invaders as he set his foot on the soil of Ireland, in the year of the world 2736 (1268 BCE).
Invoke, People of the Sea, invoke the poet, that he may
compose a spell for you.
For I, the Druid, who set out letters in Ogham, I, who part
I will approach the rath of the Sidhe to seek a cunning poet
that together we may concoct incantations.
I am a wind of the sea.
A poem or song expressing grief. The lament is powered by a personal sense of loss. The poetry of lamentation, which arose in oral literature alongside heroic poetry, seems to exist in all languages and poetries. One finds it, for example, in ancient Egyptian, in Hebrew, in Chinese, in Sanskrit, in Zulu. A profound grief is formalized as mourning, as in Lamentations 2:10:
The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground, and keep silence: they have cast up dust upon their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth: the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground.
The poetry of intense grief and mourning, such as the Lamentations of Jeremiah or David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, has its roots in religious feeling and ritual. The Hebrew Bible is filled with both individual laments (a worshiper cries out to Yahweh in times of need) and communal laments, which mourn a larger national calamity.
Laments may have developed from magic spells to call back what was lost—a destroyed temple, a dead god. The “Lament for the Destruction of Ur” (early second millennium B.C.E.) memorialized the catastrophic destruction of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 B.C.E.) and turned out to be the last great masterwork of Sumerian civilization. It is one of five known Mesopotamian “city laments,” which were the province of elegists called gala (“The Lament for Sumer and Ur,” “The Lament for Nippur,” “The Lament for Eridu,” and “The Lament for Uruk”). Thorkild Jacobsen points out that “the great laments for destroyed temples and cities usually divide into a part called bala—g ‘harp,’ which was to be sung to the strains of the harp, and a following ershemma, a lament to be accompanied by a tambourine-like drum called shem.” He suggests that the laments served ritual purposes. The ones for dead gods were performed during annual mourning processions of weeping; the ones for destroyed temples were “originally performed in the ruins to induce the gods to rebuild the destroyed structure.”
A few other haunting early examples of laments: the scop, or minstrel, in the Anglo-Saxon poem “Deor’s Lament” (ninth or tenth century) is a poet who is no longer favored and consoles himself by reciting the misfortunes of others (“That trouble passed. So can this”). The medieval poet Yosef Ibn Avitor’s “Lament for the Jews of Zion” (eleventh century) is a mournful Spanish-Hebrew poem written after Jews were attacked by Bedouins from the tribe of Bnei Jaraakh in Palestine in 1024 (“Weep, my brothers, and mourn”); Avraham Ibn Ezra’s “Lament for Andalusian Jewry” (mid-twelfth century) is an elegy for the Jewish communities of Spain and North Africa destroyed in 1146 by the invading Almohads (“Calamity came upon Spain from the skies, / and my eyes pour forth their streams of tears”).
The late eighteenth-century poet Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, or Dark Eileen, majestically mourns the death of her husband in “Lament for Art O’Leary” (1773). “The Hag of Beare” (ninth century), the greatest of all early Irish poems written by a woman, is a piercing lament not just for one but for many loves, an outcry against aging. The Polish poet Jan Kochanowski’s Laments (1580) consists of nineteen poems that wrestle with his grief over the death of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter (“Wisdom for me was castles in the air; / I’m hurled, like all the rest, from the topmost stair”). They desperately try to “Bear humanly the human lot.” Here is Shelley’s ten-line “A Lament” (Posthumous Poems, 1824):
O World! O life! O time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more—Oh, never more!
Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight;
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar,
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight,
No more—Oh, never more!
A kind of letter in poetry. The verse epistle, as it was once called, is a poem specifically addressed to a friend, a lover, or a patron. In his Epistles (20–14 B.C.E.), Horace established the type of epistle poem that reflects on moral and philosophical subjects. In his Heroides (ca. 25–16 BCE), Ovid established the type of epistle poem that reflects on romantic subjects. They are fictional letters from the legendary women of antiquity (Helen, Medea, Dido) to their lovers. Horace’s letters on the art of poetry, known since Quintilian as the Ars Poetica(ca. 18–19 BCE), are also verse epistles, and so are Ovid’s poignant poems of exile, Tristia (9–12 C.E.).
Ovid’s Heroides particularly influenced the troubadours and their poems of courtly love, which are shaped as love songs from a distance. The Horatian epistle had a lasting influence throughout the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. There are Petrarch’s Epistulae metricae (1331–1361) in Latin, Ariosto’s Satires (1517–1525) in vernacular Italian, Garcilaso’s Epístola a Boscán (1543) in Spanish, and Boileau’s À mes vers (1695) and Sur l’amour de Dieu (1698) in French. Ivan Funikov’s ironic verse epistle, “Message of a Nobleman to a Nobleman” (1608), is the oldest dated Russian work in verse. It jokes about his misfortunes in riotously funny rhymed couplets. Epistolary poetry was also the most popular literary genre in fourteenth-century Uzbekistan. Elif Batuman explains, “Poems during this period took the form of love letters between nightingales and sheep, between opium and wine, between red and green. One poet wrote to a girl that he had tried to drink a lake so he could wallow her reflection: this girl was cleaner than water.”
Samuel Daniel introduced the epistle into English in his Letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius (1599) and in Certain Epistles (1601–1603). Ben Jonson employed the Horatian mode in The Forest (1616), which was also taken up by John Dryden in his epistles to Congreve (1694) and to the duchess of Ormond (1700). Alexander Pope modeled “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717) on Ovid’s Heroides, and adapted the Horatian epistle in his Moral Essays (1731–1735) and An Epistle to Dr. Arbuhnot (1735). The epistle fell into disuse in the romantic era. Since then, it has been occasionally revived and renamed as a letter, as in W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland (1937). Richard Hugo brings the form closer to a real letter in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977). Robert Lowell created a controversy in the 1970s by taking actual letters from Elizabeth Hardwick and reshaping them as unrhymed sonnets.
The letter poem is addressed to a specific person and written from a specific place, which locates it in time and space. It imitates the colloquial familiarity of a letter, though sometimes in elaborate forms. Some create fictive speakers, as in Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Li Po, “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (1915). Some are addressed to those long dead, as in Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937), others to contemporaries. But unlike an actual letter, the letter poem is never addressed to just its recipient; it is always meant to be overheard by a third person, a future reader.
A unit of meaning, a measure of attention. The line is a way of framing poetry. All verse is measured by lines. On its own, the poetic line immediately announces its difference from everyday speech and prose. It creates its own visual and verbal impact; it declares its self-sufficiency. Paul Claudel called the fundamental line “an idea isolated by blank space.” I would call it “words isolated by blank space,” because the words can go beyond the idea, they can plunge deeper than thought. Adam Zagajewski says, “Tragedy and joy collide in every line.”
“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.” There are one-line poems called monostiches, which are timed to deliver a single poignancy. An autonomous line in a poem makes sense on its own, even if it is a fragment or an incomplete sentence. It is end-stopped and completes a thought. An line carries the meaning over from one line to the next. Whether end-stopped or enjambed, however, the line in a poem moves horizontally, but the rhythm and sense also drive it vertically, and the meaning continues to accrue as the poem develops and unfolds.
In “Summa Lyrica” (1992), Allen Grossman proposes a theory of the three modular versions of the line in English:
1. Less than ten syllables more or less.
2. Ten syllables more or less.
3. More than ten syllables more or less.
The ten-syllable or blank verse line provides a kind of norm in English poetry. Wordsworth (1771–1850) and Frost (1874–1963) both perceived that the blank verse line could be used to give the sensation of actual speech, a person engaging others. “The topic of the line of ten is conflict,” Grossman says, which is why it has been so useful in drama, where other speakers are always nearby. It has a feeling of mutuality. In the line of less than ten syllables, then, there is a sense that something has been taken away or subtracted, attenuated or missing. There is a greater silence that surrounds it, a feeling of going under speech, which is why it has worked well for poems of loss. It has also proved useful for the stripped-down presentation of objects, what the Imagists called “direct treatment of the thing.” We feel the clutter has been cleared away to create a clean space. Poems with drastically reduced lines aspire to be lyrics of absolute concentration, rhythmic economy. The line of more than ten syllables consequently gives a feeling of going above or beyond the parameters of oral utterance, or over them, beyond speech itself. The long lines widen the space for reverie. “The speaker in the poem bleeds outward as in trance or sleep toward other states of himself,” Grossman says. This line, which has a dreamlike associativeness, also radiates an oracular feeling, which is why it has so often been the line of prophetic texts, visionary poetry.
A bedtime song or chant to put a child to sleep. Lullabies typically begin “Hush-a-bye baby, on the tree top,” or “Rock-a-bye, baby,” or “Sleep, my child,” or “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.” The English term lullaby may derive from the sounds lu lu or la la, a sound that mothers and nurses make to calm babies, and by byor , another lulling sound or else a good-night term. The oldest lullaby to survive may be the lullaby of Roman nurses recorded in a scholium on Persius: “Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, / aut dormi, aut lacte” (Lullaby, Lullaby, Lullaby, / either go to sleep or suckle). As ancient folk poems, lullabies range from meaningless jingles to semi-ballads. They are closely related to nursery rhymes. Rodrigo Caro called these soothing melodies, which are found all over the world, the “reverend mothers of all songs.” Federico García Lorca noted that “Spain uses its very saddest melodies and most melancholy texts to darken the first sleep of her children” and concluded: “The European cradle song tries only to put the child to sleep, not, as the Spanish one, to wound his sensibility at the same time” (“On Lullabies,” 1928). Lorca reminds us that cradle songs were invented by women desperate to put their children to sleep. The women soothe their children by expressing their own weariness. The poems thus have a double purpose. He found the most ardent lullaby sung in Béjar and said, “This one would ring like a gold coin if we dropped it on the rocky earth.” It begins:
Sleep, little boy,
sleep, for I am watching you.
God, give you much luck
in this lying world.
Joseph Brodsky’s poignant late poem to his infant daughter, “Lullaby” (“Birth I gave you in a desert”) echoes one of W. H. Auden’s most beautiful early lyrics, “Lullaby” (“Lay your sleeping head, my love”). Reetika Vazirani (1962–2003) wrote a startling and inconsolable three-line poem called “Lullaby” (2002), which wounds:
I would not sing you to sleep.
I would press my lips to your ear
and hope the terror in my heart stirs you.
Naked poetry is a term for the radical modern impulse to strip poetry down to its bare essentials. Lafcadio Hearn coined the phrase naked poetry for one of his general lectures at the Imperial University in Tokyo (1896–1903). He said:
I want to make a little discourse about what we might call Naked Poetry . . . that is, poetry without any dress, without any ornament, the very essence or body of poetry unveiled by artifice of any kind.
The sparseness and classical restraint of Japanese poetry helped lead Hearn to the concept. The Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez also invented the termpoesia desnuda (naked poetry) in Eternidades (1916–1917). In his poem “At first she came to me pure” he remembers how poetry first came to him in his youth as a naked young girl “dressed only in her innocence,” and he loved her. Gradually she dressed up and put on more ornaments and he started to hate her without knowing why. Years later she sheds her clothes and returns as a young girl again: “Naked poetry, always mine, / that I have loved my whole life!”
The impulse to a pure and exposed poetry has had many modern articulations. Charles Baudelaire took the title My Heart Laid Bare (1887) for his intimate journals, which were never completed, from Edgar Allan Poe, who said that if any man dared to write such a book with complete frankness it would be a masterpiece. “But to write it — there is the rub,” Poe said: “No man dare write it. No man ever will dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen” (1848).
W. B. Yeats’s 1914 poem “A Coat” personifies his “song” as a coat embroidered with old mythologies, which he then sheds: “For there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” In 1921, the Yiddish poet Peretz Ravitch published a collection entitled Nakete Lider (Naked Songs). The Greek poet Pantelis Prevalakis borrowed Jiménez’s phrase and called his second and third books The Naked Poetry (1939) and The Most Naked Poetry (1941). He wanted a verse free of artifice, sincere and unguarded, bare. Jiménez’s naked poetry, which was translated by Robert Bly, had a strong influence on American poets of the 1960s and ’70s. In 1969, Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey borrowed Jiménez’s phrase for their anthology, Naked Poetry, which they followed seven years later with The New Naked Poetry. These anthologies of free-verse poetry in open forms reflect their conviction that “the strongest and most alive poetry in America has abandoned or at least broken the grip of traditional meters and had set out, once again, into ‘the wilderness of unopened life.’” They suggest that poems “take shape from the shapes of their emotions.”
The natural world has been one of the recurring subjects of poetry, frequently the primary one, in every age and every country. Yet we cannot easily define nature, which, as Gary Snyder points out in his preface to No Nature (1992), “will not fulfill our conceptions or assumptions” and “will dodge our expectations and theoretical models.” Yet the urge to describe the natural world — its various landscapes, its changing seasons, its surrounding phenomena — has been an inescapable part of the history of poetry. Wendell Berry provides a simple useful definition of nature poetry as poetry that “considers nature as subject matter and inspiration.”
Our concepts of nature are relative, historically determined. The nature poem is affected by ideology, by literary conventions as well as social and cultural ideas. Raymond Williams contends, “Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” The term nature is itself contested now because it seems to assume an oversimplified relationship between the human and the environment. “Nature” has been the site of so many different naïve symbolisms, such as purity, escape, and savagery. That’s why poets and critics often refer to green poetry or environmental poetry, which presupposes a complicated interconnection between nature and humankind.
The idea that the seasons structure the actual rhythms or symbolic passages of life goes back to antiquity. The Canaanite mythical "Poem of Aqhat" (fifteenth century BCE) rotates around seasonal change. Hesiod’s Works and Days (eighth century B.C.E.) takes special interest in agricultural practices. There is a long tradition of the pastoral, stemming from Theocritus’s idylls (third century BCE), which honor the simplicities of rural life and create such memorable figures as Lycidas, the archetypal poet-shepherd who inspired John Milton's pastoral elegy “Lycidas” (1638). Virgil’s Eclogues (37–30 BCE) define the tradition by characterizing the peaceful serenity of shepherds living in idealized natural settings. The Chinese Book of Songs (tenth to fifth century BCE) is rife with seasonal poetry and so is the Japanese haiku, which began as a short associative meditation on the natural world. Think of the Old English “Seafarer” and the Middle English “Cuckoo’s Song” (“Sumer is icumen in / Lhude sing, cuccu!”), of the passage of seasons in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (fourteenth century). In the Renaissance, urbane poets apprenticed themselves to poetry by writing pastoral soliloquies or dialogues, which construct and imagine rural life. The tradition is exemplified by Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580) and Edmund Spenser’s The Shephearde’s Calender (1579), which uses the months of the year to trace the changes in a shepherd’s life. Rural poetry flourished in seventeenth-century retirement and garden poems, in landscape poems that delivered formal and structured descriptions of topography, such as John Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill” (1642).
James Thomson, the first important eighteenth-century nature poet, infused his lovingly detailed descriptions in The Seasons (1730) with his age’s sense of God’s sustaining presence in nature. As he writes in “Spring”: “Chief, lovely spring, in thee, and thy soft scenes / The SMILING GOD is seen; while water, earth / And air attest his bounty.” Alexander Pope leads his “Essay on Criticism” (1711) with the rule, “First follow Nature.” For him, “following nature” means honoring classical precedent: “Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy Them.” Pope describes these rules as “Nature Methodiz’d.” Writing at a time when English society was being transformed from an agricultural society to an industrial one, the romantic poets treated nature in a groundbreaking way, dwelling in its localities, praising its nurturing powers, spiritualizing it. Think of these summary lines from William Wordsworth’s defining nature poem, “Tintern Abbey” (1798):
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, — both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
John Clare was inspired by Thomson’s The Seasons to become a poet with a rural muse, and his more than 3,500 poems seek out the secret recesses of nature, a hidden, underappreciated, overlooked country, which he detailed with a sharp eye and a naturalist’s sensibility. “Poets love nature and themselves are love,” he wrote in a late sonnet. His poetry intimately chronicles a world that was rapidly disappearing, systematically divided up into rectangular plots of land, fenced off and restricted, enclosed. There is an ethic of reciprocity that he brought to his encounters with the natural world. Indeed, each of the English romantics had a particular view of that world, a singular way of describing it—they were sometimes solaced, sometimes frightened by its alienating majesty and inhuman force—and yet romantic poetry as a whole inaugurated a new ecological consciousness, a fresh way of treating human beings and nature as interdependent.
Henry David Thoreau is the guiding spirit of American nature writing in general and American nature poetry in particular. “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” he asks in Walden (1854). Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (1836) is foundational, but Walden is a forerunner and a reference point for green writing and reading, green thinking. It would take a volume in itself to track the ways that American poets have envisioned the environment—in Democratic Vistas (1871) Walt Whitman calls nature “the only complete, actual poem” —but I would pause over Emily Dickinson’s garden poems and Whitman’s luminous meditation “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1860), over William Cullen Bryant’s celebration of the prairie and Robert Frost’s terrifying notion of “design,” over Robinson Jeffers’s California poems that mourn “the broken balance, the hopeless prostration of the earth / Under men’s hands and their minds” (“The Broken Balance,” 1928) and Theodore Roethke’ horticultural reminiscences, over A. R. Ammons’s ecological lyrics (“ecol- ogy is my word: tag / me with that”), Wendell Berry’s agricultural ideals, and Gary Snyder’s lifetime of lyrics, which often turn to Native American models for a sense of right relationship with the earth. W. S. Merwin also invokes native peoples for a reaffirmation of our connection to the natural world. I wish I had time to compare North American nature poems, which are so often sympathetic to natural forces, with those of Canadian poets, who often manifest, as Northrop Frye points out, “a tone of deep terror in regard to nature.” There is an eco-feminist pastoralism that includes poetry in Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) and a recent anthology, Black Nature (2010), celebrates the overlooked tradition of African American nature poetry over four centuries. We are not yet done imagining the earth and envisioning the natural world.
John Keats coined this term in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas (December 21, 1817). He wrote:
several things dove tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
The displacement of the poet’s protean self into another existence was for Keats a key feature of the artistic imagination. He attended William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets (1818) and was spurred further to his own thinking by Hazlitt’s groundbreaking idea that Shakespeare was “the least of an egotist that it was possible to be” and “nothing in himself,” that he embodied “all that others were, or that they could become,” that he “had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling,” and he “had only to think of anything in order to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it.” Keats took to heart the ideal of “disinterestedness,” of Shakespeare’s essential selflessness, his capacity for anonymous shift-shaping. In a letter to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818), he describes the selfless receptivity he considers necessary for the deepest poetry. He exults in the poetic capacity for total immersion, for empathic release, for entering completely into whatever is being described:
As to the poetical Character itself . . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated —It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous Philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, The Moon, The Sea, and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.
A night scene. John Donne was the first English poet to employ the term nocturnal to designate a genre in “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day” (1633). Donne sets his poem at midnight (“’Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s”) and creates an elegy on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, by borrowing from the night offices of the Roman Catholic canonical hours. In early church writings, the term nocturnes (Nocturni or Nocturna) refers to “night prayer” or night vigil. The notion of associating night with spiritual contemplation goes back at least as far as the Neo-Platonists. “I shall sing of Night, mother of gods and men,” one Orphic hymn begins. “The night is often the secret site of initiation, purification, and other threshold activities bridging the relation between what is human and what is not human and providing a context for changed roles and states of being,” Susan Stewart writes, pointing to the Japanese tradition of night poems as well as to the Navajo tradition of yerbichai, or “night chants,” sung during Night Way rituals. The nocturne became a European musical type in the nineteenth century, a pensive, moody instrumental piece especially suitable for playing at night, and thereafter poetic nocturnes frequently evoke the melancholy feelings or tonalities of piano nocturnes.
One could make a good international anthology of the modern poetic nocturne, which is frequently a threshold poem that puts us in the presence of nothingness or God—it returns us to origins—and stirs poets toward song. It often flows from an urban sensibility. Charles Baudelaire considered calling his book of prose poems Poèmes nocturnes (Nocturnal poems). Nocturnes are often poems of sleeplessness, the cry of the solitary and bereft ensouled in poetic form (Rubén Dario’s “Nocturne,” which begins “You who have sounded the heart of the night,” 1905; Federico García Lorca’s “Sleepless Night [Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne],” 1929; Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Insomnia,” 1923). Many are elegies, as in Gabriela Mistral’s Tala (1938), which includes a series of mystical “nocturnos,” graveside meditations occasioned by her mother’s death, and Léopold Sédar Senghor’s book of intimacies, Nocturnes (1961).
Midnight is often the witching hour. At this culminating moment in the nocturnal realm, everything must be let go that is associated with day or daylight mind. Rather, the mind is now loosened for reverie and illumination. Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight” (1881) is an incantation that delivers a sense of overpowering spiritual immensity:
Thus is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering
the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Milman Parry (1902–1935) and his student Albert Lord (1912–1991) discovered and studied what they called the oral-formulaic method of oral epic singers in the Balkans. Their method has been variously referred to as “oral-traditional theory,” “the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition,” and the “Parry-Lord theory.” Parry used his study of Balkan singers to address what was then called the “Homeric Question,” which circulated around the questions of “Who was Homer?” and “What are the Homeric poems?” Parry’s most critical insight was his recognition of the “formula,” which he initially defined as “a group of worlds which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given idea.”
The formula revised the standard ideas of “stock epithets,” “epic clichés,” and “stereotyped phrases.” Such often repeated Homeric phrases as “eos rhododaktylos” (“rosy-fingered dawn”) and “oinops pontos” (“wine-dark sea”) were mnemonic devices that fitted a certain metrical pattern and aided the epic singer, or aiodos, in his extemporaneous composition. Such phrases could be substituted and adapted, serving as placeholders, as a response to the needs of both grammar and narrative. These formulas, which could also be extended, were not particular to individual artists, but a shared traditional inheritance of many singers. Parry’s work revolutionized the study of the Homeric poems by treating them as essentially oral texts. For example, Parry and Lord observed the same use of formulas in Serbian oral poetry that they found in the Homeric poems.
Parry and Lord discovered that the epic form was well-suited to the singer’s need for fluency and flexibility, for composition as well as memorization. The singers composed poems orally by calling upon a rich storehouse of ready-made building blocks (traditional patterns), which moved well beyond phrasing. Singers could call upon this stock of lines and formulas for describing places, expressing different characters, and narrating action — and thus perform epics of 10,000 lines or more with uninterrupted fluency. Parry and Lord provided us with a generative model of epic performance. F. P. Magoun explains that oral poetry is composed “rapidly in the presence of a live audience by means of ready-made phrases filling just measures of isochronous verse capable of expressing every idea that the singer may wish to express in various metrical situations.” The oral-formulaic method has subsequently been applied to a wide variety of texts and genres, such as Babylonian, Hittite, and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry; medieval romances; Russian byliny; the corpus of pre-Islamic poetry; Toda ritual songs; Coorg dance songs; English and Spanish ballads; and even African American revivalist sermons. Oral formulas also clearly influenced written poetry. It is now possible, for example, to view Old English poems as transitional texts, written poems that embody oral formulas.
Since the development of natural history and biology in the eighteenth century, the word organic has primarily referred to things living and growing. Machines took on new significance during the Industrial Revolution, and romantic thinkers began to reject eighteenth-century mechanical philosophies of mind, differentiating between organic and inorganic systems, natural and mechanical bodies. Taking a lead from the German critic A. W. Schlegel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge distinguished between mechanic form and organic form in an essay on Shakespeare:
The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material — as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form on the other hand is innate, it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward Form. Such is the Life, such is the form. Nature, the prime genial artist, inexhaustible in diverse powers, is equally inexhaustible in forms.
Coleridge made a strong distinction between the mechanical fancy and the living imagination, and suggested that the work of art is like a living organism, especially a plant, which originates in a seed, continues to grow (in Shakespeare, “All is growth, evolution, genesis,—each line, each word almost, begets the following”), assimilates and “enters into open communion with all the elements,” and evolves spontaneously from within,” effectuating “its own secret growth.”
The metaphor of organic or appropriate form, something that develops naturally from within, has been crucial to the development of romantic and certain crucial strands of American poetry. The idea that art derives from nature rather than from other art has fueled American ideas of originality. Ralph Waldo Emerson created a credo for American poetry when he adapted Coleridge’s botanical metaphor for poetic form and declared in “The Poet” (1844): “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” Henry David Thoreau similarly used the language of biology for the genesis of poems: “As naturally as the oak bears an acorn, and the vine a gourd, man bears a poem . . . since his song is a vital function like breathing, and an integral result like weight” (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849).
The premise of all theories of organic form is that form should not be prescribed or fixed but should emerge from the subject matter at hand. It should, as Emerson said, “ask the fact for the form.” Ezra Pound formulated an imagist version when he wrote, “I think there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase” (1918). In the 1960s, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan developed a more broadly theological concept of organic form. They believed that the form of the individual poem intuits the divine. Thus Levertov defined organic form as “a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories” (“Some Notes on Organic Form,” 1965). Duncan suggested that the poet “seeks to penetrate to that most real where there is no form that is not content, no content that is not form” (“Toward an Open Universe,” 1966).
In literary criticism and aesthetics, the word organic is commonly used to indicate the interrelationship between the parts of a work. We are employing a metaphor from nature when we say that things have an organic relation or organic connection, meaning that they seem to occur “naturally” rather than being imposed “artificially.”
Oríkì is the oral praise poetry of the indigenous Yórùbá communities of Western Africa. Similar praise poems turn up throughout much of Africa (Zulu izibongo, Basuto lithoko, etc.). The invocation or praise poem starts out as the stringing together of praise names that describe the qualities of a particular man, animal, plant, place, or god. These praise names are handed down from the past and invented by relatives or neighbor or often drummers. The akewi are praise-singers at a king’s court. The oríkì of a plant or an animal is sung by hunters; the oríkì of a god is sung by his worshipers. Olatunde Olatunji explains, “Oríkì is the most popular of Yórùbá poetic forms. Every Yórùbá poet therefore strives to know the oríkì of important people in his locality as well as lineage oríkì because every person, common or noble, has his own body of utterances by which he can be addressed.” In Yórùbá culture, a person’s name relates to his or her spiritual essence (“a child’s name follows him”) and each individual has a series of praise names. The use of one’s praise name is a part of daily life as well as of traditional performance. Call people by their oríkìs and you inspire them.
Oríkì Esu are the narrative praise poems or panegyrics to Esu, the divine trickster of Yórùbá mythology. Here is a traditional Oríkì Esu, which Leo Frobenius quotes in The Voice of Africa (1913):
Edju plays many tricks
Edju made kindred people go to war;
Edju pawned the moon and carried off the sun:
Edju made the Gods strive against themselves.
But Edju is not evil.
He brought us the best there is; He gave us the Ifa oracle;
He brought the sun.
But for Edju, the fields would be barren.
The Western pantoum adapts a long-standing form of oral Malayan poetry (pantun) that first entered written literature in the fifteenth century. The most basic form of the pantun is a quatrain with an abab rhyme scheme. Each line contains between eight and twelve syllables. Like the ghazal, it is a disjunctive form, since the sentence that makes up the first pair of lines (ab) has no immediate logical or narrative connection with the second pair of lines (ab). The prefatory couplet is called the pembayang and the closing couplet the maksud. The rhymes and other verbal associations, such as puns and repeating sounds (assonance, consonance), connect them. But there is also an oblique but necessary relationship, and the first statement often turns out to be a metaphor for the second one. John Hollander summarizes: “Pantuns in the original Malay / Are quatrains of two thoughts, but of one mind.” The most famous pantuns are learned by heart and interconnected by refrains, which serve as an aid to memory for both the oral poet and his audience. The pantun is sung very slowly according to a fixed rhythm. As R. J. Wilkinson described it in Malay Literature (1924):
To an English reader the quatrains seem overcrowded with meaning; they force him continually to stop and think. But the pantun is not intended to be read. Slowly sung, with a long chorus or refrain after each line, it gains in merit by occupying the mind during the chorus instead of being dismissed as too transparent in its meaning. A verse, written to be read and to carry its meaning on the surface, would not stand the test of pantun-singing; it would make the chorus intolerably monotonous. This fact again makes it difficult to reproduce the attractiveness of the Malay quatrain through the medium of a foreign language and in the plain black-and-white of a printed page.
In Tradition and Change in Contemporary Malay-Indonesian Poetry (1977), Muhammad Haji Salleh provides an example of a well-known pantun “intense and compact”:
Tinggi, tinggi simatahari,
Anak kerbau mati tertambat,
Dari dahulu sasya mencari
Baru ini saya mendapat.
Higher and higher climbs the sun,
The young buffalo dies at its peg,
So long have I waited my only one,
Only now are you found.
The Malayan pantun berkait is what we know as the pantoum. It is a highly repetitive form of indefinite length that inscribes something of its oral quality. It unfolds in interweaving quatrains and often rhymes abab. Lines two and four of each stanza repeat as lines one and three of the following stanza. The reader always takes four steps forward and two back. A pantoum typically begins:
Line 1: A
Line 2: B
Line 3: C
Line 4: D
Line 5: B
Line 6: E
Line 7: D
Line 8: F
Line 9: E
Line 10: G
Line 11: F
Line 12: H
It is customary for the second and fourth lines in the last stanza of the poem to repeat the first and third lines of the initial stanza, so that the whole poem circles back to the beginning, like a snake eating its tail. This slow and highly balanced repetitive form was introduced to Western poetry in the nineteenth century by the French Orientalist Ernest Fouinet (the malais pantun) and popularized by Victor Hugo in his book Les Orientales (1829). It was a recognizable form in nineteenth-century French poetry (Théodore de Banville, Louisa Siefert, Leconte de Lisle, Charles Baudelaire) and entered English poetry through the vogue for songlike French forms, such as the villanelle and the ballade. As a form, the pantoum is always looking back over its shoulder, and thus it is well-suited to evoke a sense of times past. It is always turning back while moving forward; that’s why it works so well for poignant poems of loss, such as Donald Justice’s “Pantoum of the Great Depression” (1995), and poems of departure, such as Louis MacNeice’s “Leaving Barra” (1937), which calls the sea “A carpet of brilliance taking / My leave forever of the island.”
The poetic contest, a verbal duel, is common worldwide. It has been documented in a large number of different poetries as a highly stylized form of male aggression, a model of ritual combat, an agonistic channel, a steam valve, a kind of release through abuse. The poetic contest may be universal because it provides a socially acceptable form of rivalry and battle. It is a forum for insults with a built-in release valve—humor and exaggeration. It also provides a competitive venue for those who are not physically strong but enterprising, intelligent, and quick-witted.
The poetic contest has an ancient origin. There are instances, for example, in Aristophanes’s plays The Clouds (423 BCE) and The Frogs (405 BCE), where he depicts Aeschylus competing against Euripides (after Sophocles declines to compete) and winning the exclusive right as the greatest tragedian to return to life from the underworld. The poetic contest—two speakers going back and forth against each other—played a crucial role in the development of drama, which is driven by agon. The Greek rhapsodes contended for prizes at religious festivals. Indeed, the Greeks created contests out of nearly every form of poetry, from wine songs to high tragedy. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, usually dated to the seventh century BCE, depicts competitive singing, which is also mentioned in the Hymns to Aphrodite (from the same period). Hesiod claimed that he won a prize for performing a song at the funeral games for Amphidamas in Euboea. Eris, “competition” or “strife,” is a god, Hesiod says, and wealth increases when “potter strives against potter, beggar against beggar, and singer against singer” (Works and Days, eighth century BCE). Singing competitions in local peasant communities stand behind the literary pastoral, and there are just such contests of wit in the idylls of Theocritus and the eclogues of Virgil (amoebean verses, “responsive verses”). In antiquity, the memorization of poetry was frequently turned into a contest, a sort of philological parlor game, to enliven festive gatherings. The sophist Athenaeus (ca. 220) gives a description in “Scholars at a Banquet”:
Clearchus of Soli, a man of the school of Aristotle, also tells us how the ancients went about this. One recited a verse, and another had to go on with the next. One quoted a sentence, and a sentence from some other poet expressing the same idea had to be produced. Verses of such and such a number of syllables were demanded, or the leaders of the Greeks and of the Trojans had to be enumerated, or cities in Asia and Europe beginning with the same letter to be named in turn. They had to remember lines of Homer which begin and end with the same letter, or the first and last syllable taken together must yield a name or an implement or a food. The winner gained a garland, but anyone who blundered had brine poured into his drink and had to drain the whole cup at a draught.
Walter Ong suggests, “In pre-romantic, rhetorical culture, the poet is essentially a contestant.” The poetic contest is a way of asserting, establishing, and proving selfhood.
The first professional competition for Welsh bards, an eisteddfod, or “session,” was held in the twelfth century. The Sängerkrieg (minstrel’s contest) or Wartburkrieg (Wartburg contest) was a legendary competition among the German Minnesänger at Thuringia in 1207. The French débat, which was especially popular in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, sets up a contest, a quarrel or debate. The tenson (tenzone, tencon) was a type of debate poem developed by the troubadours in the twelfth century. From the twelfth to the seventeenth century, musical and literary societies in northern France, which were called puys, competed against each other in poetic contests. One of the heirs of the French debate poem is the Brazilian improvised verse dialogues or contests called desafios or pelejas. In northwestern Brazil, ballad singers with guitars still square off against each other in competitions known as repentismo. The audience shouts out themes, and the singers respond by improvising verses in a range of complicated meters. The pregunta-respuesta was a form of poetic debate in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Castialian cancionero court poetry. One poet asks a question or a series of questions (the pregunta or requesta) and the other replies in matching form (the respuesta). There is verbal dueling in fifteenth-century Spanish plays. In these poetic contests known as echarse pullas, as J. P. Wickerhsam Crawford explained in 1915, “one person wished all sorts of misfortunes, for the most part obscene, upon another, who replied in a similar strain.” The golden age scholar Rodgrigo Caro called these contests darse grita, or “shouting at one another,” and traces Hispanic verbal dueling back to Horace, who in the Epistolae (Epistles, 2.1.145–146) speaks of the ritual, invented by the Fescennians, of hurling alternate verses at each other, opprobria rustica, or rustic taunts (Días geniales o lúdicos, ca. 1618). Crawford also describes among the Eskimos “a formal contest . . . which consists of heaping insulting terms upon each other until one of the contestants is exhausted.” There are both formal and informal models for poetry contests. The Chamoru natives of the Mariana Islands have an ancient style of improvised rhyming debate known as Kantan Chamorrita. In Greenland, song duels were used as a judicial weapon. The offender and the victim faced off in front of a group of spectators, who served as the court.
Hija, or the poetry of invective, was one of the main modes of classical Arabic verse. It was often brutally insulting and frequently obscene. Abū al- Faraj al-Isfahānī’s Kītab al-Aghānī (Book of Songs, tenth century), the most well-known compendia of medieval Arabic poetry, is filled with anecdotes of pre-Islamic and medieval poets dueling and debating, taking up challenges from their patrons, responding to rivals. There was a form of poetic contest in which one poet completed the lines of another to create a single poem (the mumālatah); there were duels in the rajaz meter (the murājazah) and duels in which poems shared the same rhyme and meter (mu’āradah); there were boasting competitions (the mufākharah); and there were tribal disputes worked out in a form of boasts and insults (the munāfarah). The Aghānī refers to the powerful poetry competitions at Sūq ‘Ukāz (the market of ‘Ukāz), where al-Nābighah al-Dhubyāni (ca. 535–ca. 604), one of the great court poets of Arabic literature, served as the first judge, and where the seventh-century female poet al-Kansā gained fame for her elegies for her brothers, who had died in battle, and dueled with the likes of Hind Bint ‘Atabah and Hassān Ibn Thābit. When al-Nābighah suggested that she was the best of poets with a uterus, she responded “and of those with testicles as well!”
There is evidence that the spontaneously composed verbal duel in colloquial Hispano-Arabic dates to the tenth century, which makes it the oldest extant poetry composed in the Hispano-Arabic dialect. In 1161, the poets of the Levantine flocked to Gibraltar for a poetic contest presided over by ‘Abd al-Mu’min to celebrate his conquest of al-Andalus. In Japan, in the years between 1087 and 1199, there were approximately 200 formal poetry competitions held in the imperial palace as well as in temples and shrines. Utaawase is the equivalent Japanese form of the poetry match. Poets were often assigned a theme or dai (“given subject”) for competitions. A danjo utaawase pitted men against women in a tanka contest. The topics were handed out well in advance for such major competitions as Roppyakuban Utawaase or “Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds” (1193) and the Sengohyakuban Utaawase or “Poetry Contest in 1,500 Rounds” (1201). The utaawise is a more gentle art than the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scottish flyting, which consisted of two bards excoriating each other and the chieftains with which they were associated. The word flyting derives from the Scots word for “scolding,” and indeed, verbal contests are called scolding in Scandinavia. The Scottish poet James Hogg made his reputation on a minstrel contest poem, The Queen’s Wake (1813), which dramatizes a contest of bards held before Mary, Queen of Scots on her arrival in Edinburgh. The poem, as Erik Simpson puts it, “splinters its minstrelsy into a din of competing voices.”
There is tremendous energy in the West Indian picong, a series of sustained taunts or insults, which originated as a verbal duel in song. It is still a spontaneous competitive art form in calypso festivals. So, too, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of Northwest China, competitive dialogue songs have long been popular, especially at Hua’er festivals. These competitions take place between two singers or two groups of people. There are singing contests in central Asia among the Kirghis and the Kazakhians, among the Telengites in southeastern Altai, where they are known as chenezh-kozhandar, among the Shor, among the Yakut of northern Siberia. E. Emsheimer points out that they are a traditional part of the wedding festivities among the Iranian mountain Tajik in the Pamir Mountains. Among the hill-dwelling peoples of Negal, such as the Tamangs, pairs of men and women duel each other in improvised duets. The risk is great, especially for women, since a woman who loses is sometimes offered in marriage to the victor. Oral poetry duels are still an integral part of rural Palestinian weddings in the Galilee. The individual poetic duel, or “wedding didong” (didong ngerjë), was once the dominant verbal performance form of the Gayo, who live in the mountainous central highlands of the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. These duels are still performed in the Terangon district of southern Gayoland. They have a strong element of formal oratory and involve two different virtuosi (céh) from different villages or units of villages. John R. Bowen points out that group poetic combats (didong klub) also emerged in the town of Takèngen in the late 1940s, which involved two teams, each consisting of ten to thirty men and boys, representing their respective villages and enacting a rivalry between two social domains. He writes that between 1900 and 1985, “Gayo poetic duels have shifted from a form that represents dominant sociopolitical relations as fixed and timeless to a form in which social combat, political control, and challenges to that control vie for a voice in the performance setting.” The poetic duel is a form of “social modeling.”
Improvised verbal confrontations are the center of bertzolaritza, oral Basque poetry. In the late nineteenth century, folk poets along the Texas-Mexico border competed to improvise ten-verse décimas, a tradition that is still alive in the Canary Islands. The payada—the term is Argentine—was a poetic contest of questions and answers among the gauchos, which was made famous in part two of José Fernandez’s Martin Fierro (1879). In Panama, poetic duels and competitions (duelos y porfias) continue to take place in formalized public settings. In Madagascar, hain-teny (“the knowledge of words”) is structured as a competitive verbal exchange between two “opponents” on the subject of love. The Chamula of Southern Mexico have a genre of verbal dueling they call “truly frivolous talk,” Gary Gossen points out, “a verbal game in which two players, typically adolescent males, exchange as few as two or as many as 250 verbal challenges.” Each opponent tries to marshal a maximum attack with a minimal shift in sound.
The African American verbal game of playing the dozens—an edgy contest of escalating insults—continues to thrive in American cities. The only successful slander and retaliation is a witty one. The poetry contest has been given a vital sociopolitical slant in contemporary American slam poetry, and there are now slam competitions in all fifty states. The beat goes on—fiery, social, engaged, competitive.
Poetic diction refers to the operating language of poetry, language employed in a manner that sets poetry apart from other kinds of speech or writing. It involves the vocabulary, the phrasing, and the grammar considered appropriate and inappropriate to poetry at different times. In Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928), Owen Barfield writes, “When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as poetic diction.”
Aristotle established poetic diction as a subject in the Poetics (350 BCE). “Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered,” he declared, and he then considered each type of word in turn. His overall concern was “how poetry combines elevation of language with perspicuity.” Changes in poetic fashion, reforms in poetry, often have to do with the effectiveness of poetic diction, the magic of language. How, if at all, is poetic speech marked differently than ordinary speech? “The weightiest theoretical legacy which antiquity and the Renaissance passed on to neoclassicism was the ornamental conception of poetic style,” Emerson Marks writes. “Till the dawn of Romanticism, writers continued to regard the characteristics of verse as raiment adorning the ‘body’ of a poet’s thought.” In The Life of Dryden (1779–1781), Samuel Johnson argued that before the time of Dryden, there was simply
no poetical diction: no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purposes of a poet.
In the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802), William Wordsworth argued against the ornate effects of his predecessors and insisted on the essential identity of poetic and non-poetic language. He argued that poetry should employ “the real language of men in any situation.” Wordsworth revolutionized the idea of poetic diction by connecting it to speech. Poetry is linked to speech, to the way that people actually talk at any given time, but it is also framed and marked differently.
An inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language; an experience through words. Jorge Luis Borges believed that “poetry is something that cannot be defined without oversimplifying it. It would be like attempting to define the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn.” Even Samuel Johnson maintained, “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer.”
Poetry is a human fundamental, like music. It predates literacy and precedes prose in all literatures. There has probably never been a culture without it, yet no one knows precisely what it is. The word poesie entered the English language in the fourteenth century and begat poesy (as in Sidney’s “The Defence of Poesy,” ca. 1582) and posy, a motto in verse. Poetrie (from the Latin poetria) entered fourteenth-century English vocabulary and evolved into our poetry. The Greek word poiesis means “making.” The fact that the oldest term for the poet means “maker” suggests that a poem is constructed.
Poets (and others) have made many attempts over the centuries to account for poetry, an ancient and necessary instrument of our humanity:
Dante’s treatise on vernacular poetry, De vulgari eloquentia, suggests that around 1300, poetry was typically conceived of as a species of eloquence.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) said that poetry is “a representing, counterfetting, a figuring foorth: to speak metaphorically: a speaking picture: with this end, to teach and delight.”
Ben Jonson (1572–1637) referred to the art of poetry as “the craft of making.”
The baroque Jesuit poet Tomasso Ceva (1649–1737) said, “Poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”
Coleridge (1772–1834) claimed that poetry equals “the best words in the best order.” He characterized it as “that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.”
Wordsworth (1771–1850) famously called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility.”
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) followed up Wordsworth’s emphasis on overflowing emotion when he wrote that poetry is “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.”
Shelley (1792–1822) joyfully called poetry “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” He said that poetry “redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.”
Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) narrowed the definition to “a criticism of life.”
Ezra Pound (1885–1972) later countered, “Poetry is about as much a ‘criticism of life’ as red-hot iron is a criticism of fire.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) characterized it as “speech framed . . . to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning.”
W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) loved Gavin Douglas’s 1553 definition of poetry as “pleasance and half wonder.”
George Santayana (1863–1952) said that “poetry is speech in which the instrument counts as well as the meaning.” But he also thought of it as something beyond “verbal expression,” as “that subtle fire and inward light which seems at times to shine through the world and to touch the images in our minds with ineffable beauty.”
Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) characterized poetry as “a revelation of words by means of the words.”
Tolstoy (1828–1910) noted in his diary, “Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.” Years later, Marianne Moore (1887–1972) responded “[N]or is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books.’” Instead, she called poems “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) decided, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.”
Robert Frost (1874–1963) said wryly, “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”
Robert Graves (1895–1985) thought of it as a form of “stored magic,” Andre Breton (1896–1966) as a “room of marvels.”
Howard Nemerov (1920–1991) said that poetry is simply “getting something right in language.”
Poetry seems at core a verbal transaction. In its oral form, it establishes a relationship between a speaker and a listener; in its written form, it establishes a relationship between a writer and a reader. Yet at times that relationship seems to go beyond words. John Keats (1795–1821) felt that “Poetry should . . . strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.” The Australian poet Les Murray (b. 1938) argues that “poetry exists to provide the poetic experience.” That experience is “a temporary possession.” We know it by contact, since it has an intensity that cannot be denied.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) wrote in an 1870 letter:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
A. E. Housman wrote in The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933):
A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. One of these symptoms was described in connection with another object by Eliphaz the Termanite: 'A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.' Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water in the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’ last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, 'everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.'
Poetry of social concern and conscience, politically engaged poetry. The feeling often runs high in the social poetry of engagement, especially when it is partisan. Poets write on both sides of any given war, defend the State, attack it. All patriotic and nationalistic poetry is by definition political. Political poetry, ancient and modern, good and bad, frequently responds vehemently to social injustice. Thus the poet is Jeremiah crying out to the assembly to witness the folly, unprecedented in both West (Cyprus) and East (Kedar), of a people who have forsaken the fountain of living waters for the stagnant water at the bottom of a leaky cistern. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, a series of poems mourning the desolation of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her people after the siege and destruction of the city and the burning of the Temple by the Babylonians, is also a political poem.
Strabo came up with the label stasiotika (“stasis-poems”) for Alcaeus’s partisan songs, political poems, which are propagandistic poems of civil war and exile, accounts of his political commitments. The premise of political poetry is that poetry carries “news” or information crucial to the populace. Political poetry is a poetry self-consciously written inside of history, of politics. It responds to external events. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” W. H. Auden famously decreed in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, and so, too, we might say that the madness of any country’s brutality has often wounded its poets into a political response in poetry. “I stand as a witness to the common lot, / survivor of that time, that place,” Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1961. Behind the poem in quest of justice, these lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623): “our size of sorrow, / Proportion’d to our cause, must be as great / As that which makes it.”
There is an ephemeral quality to a lot of political poetry—most of it dies with the events it responds to—but a political poem need not be a didactic poem. It can be a poem of testimony and memory. For the best political poems of the twentieth century, I think of Vahan Tekeyan’s poems of the Armenian genocide; of the Spanish Civil War poet Miguel Hernandez’s haunting prison poems, especially “Lullaby of the Onion” (1939); and the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s equally poignant prison poems, especially “On Living” (1948) and “Some Advice to Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison” (1949); of Bertolt Brecht’s World War II poems and Nelly Sachs’s Holocaust poems. I think of the Italian poet Cesare Pavese’s testimonies to ordinary people in trouble, Hard Labor (Lavorare stanca, 1936), and Pablo Neruda’s epic testament, Canto General (1950). I think of the many poems of indictment and summons, of land and liberty, collected in the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka’s breakthrough anthology, Poems of Black Africa (1975).
There is a strong tradition in England of political poems. Edmund Spenser’s Complaints (1591) takes aim at social and political targets. John Milton wrote a series of pro-Cromwellian short poems in the 1640s and ’50s. Some of John Dryden’s greatest poetry was written in response to events, such as his two-part political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682). William Wordsworth’s political poems are among his best, such as his sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” (1803), though a few of his late patriotic poems are also among his worst. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "The Mask of Anarchy" (1819), which was “Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” (“I met Murder on the way — / He had a mask like Castlereagh”), is a frankly political poem that always gives me a chill. Elizabeth Barrett Browning published two striking books of political poetry during her Italian sojourn, Casa Guidi Windows (1850) and Poems Before Congress (1860). The most popular Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, never distinguished between the personal and the political, the private and the public.
Political poetry has always seemed somewhat suspect in American literary history. “Our wise men and wise institutions assure us that national political events are beyond the reach of ordinary, or even extraordinary, literary sensitivity,” Robert Bly writes. Yet there is a strong underground tradition of the poetry of engagement, which we might also call the poetry of citizenzry. This runs from Walt Whitman’s political poems of the 1850s, which prefigure Leaves of Grass, and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Anti-Slavery Poems (1832–1887), to leftist poets of the 1930s (Kenneth Fearing, Edwin Rolfe, Muriel Rukeyser). The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War enraged poets, and, as Bly points out, some of the most inward poets, such as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Galway Kinnell, wrote some of the best poems against the Vietnam War. Most poetry of the 1940s and ’50s shunned politics, but Thomas McGrath (“Ode for the American Dead in Korea,” retitled in the early 1970s “Ode for the American Dead in Asia”) and Kenneth Rexroth (“A Christmas Note for Geraldine Udell,” 1949) bucked the trend. For forty years, Adrienne Rich was one of the most outspoken political poets in late twentieth-century American poetry, a model for a generation of political and activist poets. She went through several phases in relationship to polemics. She proposed a position that resists didacticism in “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman” (1978), her introduction to a collection of poems by Judy Grahn:
No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice (hence the failure, as poetry, of so much anti-Vietnam poetry of the sixties). As poetry, it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.
A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature — it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. The French writer Aloysius Bertrand established the prose poem as a minor genre in Gaspard de la nuit (1842), a book that influenced Baudelaire’s Petits poèmes en prose (1869). Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems — along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Mallarmé’s Divagations (1897) — created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Mallarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”
The prose poem, which often seems like a French import, has had a strong underground American life. It is often treated as kin to the parable. David Lehman’s anthology Great American Prose Poems (2003) begins with Emerson (“Woods, A Prose Sonnet,” 1839) and Poe (“Shadow — A Parable,” 1835), picks up speed with the experimental moderns, such as Gertrude Stein (Ten- der Buttons, 1914) and William Carlos Williams (Kora in Hell, 1920), and hits a high mark in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s with quasi-surrealist work by W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, James Wright, Mark Strand, and James Tate, among others. “The prose poem is the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist,” as Charles Simic puts it: “This is the sole instance we have of squaring the circle.”
Here is a parable-like prose poem by Russell Edson, which works by cossing the boundaries between human beings and animals. Edson has always sought what he calls “a poetry freed from the definition of poetry, and a prose free of the necessities of fiction.”
A Performance at Hog Theater (1973)
There was once a hog theater where hogs performed as men, had men been hogs.
One hog said, I will be a hog in the field which has found a mouse which is being eaten by the same hog which is in the field and which has found the mouse, which I am performing as my contribution to the performer’s art.
Oh let’s just be hogs, cried an old hog.
And so the hogs streamed out of the theater crying, only hogs, only hogs . . .
A terse didactic statement that embodies a general truth, the proverb is short and pithy, akin to the aphorism and the maxim, and draws attention to itself as a formal artistic entity. Folk and traditional proverbs are well-known expressions, usually the length of a simple sentence, that function in conversation. They are part of daily discourse. They also operate in educational situations and judicial proceedings. Proverbs take personal circumstances and embody them in impersonal form. Their meanings seem fixed, but depend on context, since texts are adapted to different situations. Proverbs are normative, consensual. The proverb simplifies a problem by naming and solving it with a traditional solution.
The linguist Roman Jakobson called the proverb “the largest coded unit occurring in our speech and at the same time the shortest poetic composition.” Proverbs frequently employ traditional devices of poetry, such as balanced phrasing (“Out of sight, out of mind”) and binary construction (“A stitch in time / saves nine”), rhyme (“Haste makes waste”), alliteration (“Live and learn”), and repetition (“Live and let live”). They often apply a metaphor to a situation (“Don’t change horses in midstream”). By definition, proverbs must be memorable. Expressions become proverbial through quotation. In “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1938), Kenneth Burke pointed out that “social structures give rise to ‘type’ situations . . . many proverbs seek to chart, in more or less homey and picturesque ways, these ‘type’ situations.” Proverbs are a fundamental way that literature provides “equipment for living.” He then extended the analysis of proverbs to the whole field of literature in Philosophy of Literary Forms: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941). “Could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be considered somewhat as ‘proverbs writ large’?”
The humble proverb has an ancient and generally overlooked literary provenance. Proverbs are amongst the oldest works in Sansrkit. Daniel Ingalls writes: “A collection of Sanskrit proverbs would soon attain a size that no book could hold, for it is consonant with the Sanskrit preference for the general over the particular, for the type over the individual, that it should use proverbs very widely.” Proverbs also animated early Germanic, Scandinavian, and especially Hebrew literature, as in the book of Proverbs, a form of wisdom literature whose principle is encapsulated in the following example:
Treasures of wickedness profit nothing:
but righteousness deliverith from death. (10:2)
The binary proverb is the literary foundation of wisdom poetry. It consists of two units brought together in a type of parallelism:
Pride goeth before destruction,
and an haughty spirit before a fall. (16:18)
A soft answer turneth away wrath:
but grievous words stir up anger. (15:1)
Proverbs entered European literature through the Bible, the Church fathers, and classical Greek writers, such as Aristophanes (ca. 450–ca. 388 BCE), Plautus (ca. 254–184 BCE), and Lucian (ca. 125–after 180). Erasmus’s enormously popular Adagia (1500) was crucial in spreading classical proverbs into vernacular European languages. John Heywood’s A Dialogue contening. . . . all the proverbs in the English tongue (1546) was the first English collection. There is an intermittent tradition of creating poems and songs from proverbs that extends from François Villon’s virtuoso display “Ballade des proverbes” (1458) to works by Gilbert and Sullivan, such as the Pinafore duet (1878), which has sixteen identifiable proverbs. The proverb contributed to the development of the epigram, an occasional short verse with a moral point. Proverbs are employed in face-to-face situations, and the literary epigram compensates by pointing to the situation, either as a title or within the poem itself. The proverb also had a direct influence on the heroic couplet, which in turn provided proverbs that became part of conventional wisdom, such as Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Proverbs are embedded in poems from Geoffrey Chaucer, especially in Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1380s), to Carl Sandburg (“Good Morning, America”) and Robert Frost (“Good fences make good neighbors”). William Blake’s provocative “Proverbs of Hell” (1790–1793) teaches that “Exuberance is Beauty.”
Repetition—the use of the same term several times—is one of the crucial elements in poetry. “Repetition in word and phrase and in idea is the very essence of poetry,” Theodore Roethke writes in “Some Remarks on Rhythm” (1960). It is one of the most marked features of all poetry, oral and written, one of the primary ways we distinguish poetry itself. Repetition, as in rhyme, is a strong mnemonic device. Oral poets especially use it for remembering structures. The incantatory magic of poetry—think of spells and chants, of children’s rhymes and lullabies—has something to do with recurrence, with things coming back to us in time, sometimes in the same way, sometimes differently. Repetition is the primary way of creating a pattern through rhythm. Meaning accrues through repetition. One of the deep fundamentals of poetry is the recurrence of sounds, syllables, words, phrases, lines, and stanzas. Repetition can be one of the most intoxicating features of poetry. It creates expectations, which can be fulfilled or frustrated. It can create a sense of boredom and complacency, but it can also incite enchantment and inspire bliss.
Many of the sound devices of poetry (alliteration, assonance, consonance) depend on recurrence. Metrical patterns are established by recurrences, and so are poetic forms (the canzone, the sestina), some with repetends and refrains. The repeating structure of the catalog is one of the legacies of the Hebrew Bible to later poets, and some of the key devices of free verse (anaphora, parallelism) are structures of repetition. One could be forgiven for thinking that our brains are hardwired for repetition. Peter Sacks writes in The English Elegy (1987), “Repetition creates a sense of continuity, of an unbroken pattern such as one may oppose to the extreme discontinuity of death.”
Repetition can be so insistent that it spills over into obsessiveness, as in the defiant title of Daniel Hoffman’s book Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1972), which borrows its signal rhythm from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells” (1849). Poe uses different kinds of repetition (internal and end rhyme, meter, words, lines) to create a hypnotic effect. He concludes with a man in a belfry dancing, yelling and
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the Pæan of the bells —
Of the bells: —
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells —
To the sobbing of the bells: —
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells: —
To the tolling of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells —
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.
“A mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed often as a game” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). Though the dictionary definition focuses on the riddle as a question and describes it as a game, the riddle is more than a puzzle. It is both an interrogative and an expressive form, possibly the earliest form of oral literature—a formulation of thought, a mode of association, a metaphor.
The comparative work of folklorists suggests that riddle-making is virtually a universal activity, a lyric root, a contest of wit, a process of naming. The earliest riddles on record are preserved on a clay tablet from ancient Babylon. They are inscribed in Sumerian along with Assyrian translations. Here is one that Archer Taylor, the premier scholar of riddles, presents in The Literary Riddle before 1600 (1948):
Who becomes pregnant without conceiving,
who becomes fat without eating? The answer: a raincloud.
The riddle, a short form with a long history, uses the sentence as its frame. It is often employed for educational purposes, but there are cases—whole cultures—where the riddle is more than child’s play. The oldest Sanskrit riddles (ca. 1000 BCE) appear in the riddle hymn of Dirhatamas (Hymn 164) in book 1 of the Rig-Veda (1700–1100 BCE). The Hebrew Bible refers to riddling and riddling contests. Thus the prophet Daniel was “known to have a notable spirit, with knowledge and understanding, and the gift of interpreting dreams, explaining riddles and unbinding spells” (Daniel 5:12). In the first book of Kings (1:10), Queen Sheba travels to the court of King Solomon to test his prodigious wisdom with “hard questions” or riddles. The judge Samson is known for the riddle he proposes to the Philistines at his wedding reception (Judges 14:14):
Out of the eater came something to eat,
Out of the strong came something sweet?
In the desert, Samson had chanced upon a lion’s carcass in which bees had made a hive. With the help of his bride, who tells the riddle to her countrymen, the Philistines answer the riddle with another riddle: “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Samson replies to them with a startling metaphor: “If you had not ploughed my heifer, / you would not have solved my riddle.”
The Greeks were great riddlers. Pindar (ca. 522–443 BCE) was first to use the term riddle in a way that we still recognize. Everyone remembers the riddle at the heart of the narrative in Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus (ca. 430 B.C.E.), which has also been found in various parts of the world: “What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” This is the riddle of the Sphinx, a monster with the head of a woman and the winged body of a lion, who threatened anyone who wanted to enter Thebes. Oedipus solved the riddle with the word “man” and thus proved his cleverness, a quality that would lead to his destruction. Plato refers to riddling in The Republic (ca. 380 BCE) and quotes a variant of Panarces’s riddle: a man who is not a man [a eunuch] threw a stone that was not a stone [a pumice stone] at a bird that was not a bird [a bat] sitting on a twig that was not a twig [a reed]. Heraclitus’s remarks about the universe were so cryptic that Cicero and Diogenes Laertius referred to him as “the Riddler” and “the Obscure.” It was Heraclitus who reported:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice; they said to him, 'What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.'
A riddle is first of all a way of describing one thing in terms of another, as in “Humpty Dumpty,” which describes an egg in terms of a man. In English Riddles from Oral Tradition (1951), Archer Taylor classifies descriptive riddles according to whether the object—“the answer”—is compared to a person, to several persons, to animals, to several animals, to plants, to things, or to a generalized living creature. Aristotle first pointed out in the Rhetoric (335-330 BCE), “Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors: for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor.” He also stated in the Poetics (350 BCE) that “the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations.”
True riddles, as they are sometimes called, are enigmatic questions in descriptive form. They are meant to confuse or test the wits of those who don’t know the answer. The riddle arrests our attention by establishing some paradox or internal contradiction, an opposition or blocking element, which makes it hard to solve. The folk riddle is staged, fundamentally aggressive, antisocial. It is vexing and socially disruptive unlike, say, the proverb, which is reassuring and meant to reinforce social wisdom.
The folklorist Roger Abrahams demonstrates that opposition is the most salient of four techniques by which the image (or Gestalt) of the riddle-question is impaired, making it indecipherable. These techniques consist of:
1. Opposition—Gestalt is impaired because the opponent parts of the presented image do not harmonize.
2. Incomplete detail—not enough information is given for proper Gestalt to be made (i.e., for the parts to fit together).
3. Too much detail—the important traits are buried in the midst of inconsequential detail, thus “scrambling” Gestalt.
4. False Gestalt—details are provided that lead to an ability to discern a referent, and thus call for an answer, but the answer is wrong. The answer is often an embarrassing, obscene reference. This technique is most common in catch riddles.
The techniques of impairment establish the conventions by which riddles are recognized and remembered. Modes of impairment also provide literary strategies. The medieval Hebrew and Arabic poets of Spain, for example, wrote deliberately misleading riddles in verse. There are forty-nine such riddles in the work of the master of Hebrew poetry, Yehuda Halevi (ca. 1075–1141). So, too, the Arabic poet Al-Hariri (1054–1122) filled his masterpiece known as the Maqamat (“Assemblies”) with a wealth of classical lore, including riddles. In Western Europe, the literary riddle begins with the 100 Latin riddles of Symposius (fifth century). The oldest European vernacular riddles are the poetic riddles of the Old English Exeter Book (eighth century). In Enigmas and Riddles in Literature (2006), Eleanor Cook suggests that “riddling illuminates the greatest mysteries through the smallest things.”
Here is a Persian riddle that gives a feeling of sudden liberation, like a Japanese haiku:
A blue napkin full of pears—
A Portuguese and Galician term that suggests a profoundly bittersweet nostalgia. Aubrey F. G. Bell described saudade as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future” (In Portugal, 1912). It is not just a nostalgia for something that was lost; it can also be a yearning for something that might have been. The feeling can be overwhelming, and the Portuguese also speak of the desire to matar as saudades (“kill the saudades”). The word saudade is found in the Cancioneiro de Ajuda (Ajuda Songbook), a a collection of poems written in Galician-Portuguese and dating from the end of the thirteenth century, and in the Cancioneiro da Vaticana (Vaticana Songbook), a compilation of troubadour lyrics in Galician-Portuguese from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. One especially hears saudade in the Portuguese fado and in Brazillian music. Tom Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Saudade,” 1959) was the first bossa nova song. Whereas we tend to consign nostalgia to the all-encompassing dustbin of sentimentality, the Hispanic sensibility has saved it as a poignant and durable feeling relating to the transitoriness of life.
The natural unit of the lyric: a group or sequence of lines arranged in a pattern. A stanzaic pattern is traditionally defined by the meter and rhyme scheme, considered repeatable throughout a work. A stanzaic poem uses white space to create temporal and visual pauses. The word stanza means “room” in Italian— “a station,” “a stopping place”—and each stanza in a poem is like a room in a house, a lyric dwelling place. “The Italian etymology,” Ernst Häublein points out in his study of the stanza, “implies that stanzas are subordinate units within the more comprehensive unity of the whole poem.” Each stanza has an identity, a structural place in the whole. As the line is a single unit of meaning, so the stanza comprises a larger rhythmic and thematic sequence. It is a basic division comparable to the paragraph in prose, but more discontinuous, more insistent as a separate melodic and rhetorical unit. In written poems stanzas are separated by white space, and this division on the printed page gives the poem a particular visual reality. The reader has to cross a space to get from one stanza to another. Stave is another name for stanza, which suggests an early association with song.
A stanza that consists of lines of the same length is called an isometric stanza. A stanza that consists of lines of varying length is called a heterometric stanza.
A stanza of uneven length and irregular pattern—of fluid form—is sometimes called quasi-stanzaic or a verse paragraph.
The monostich is a stanza—a whole poem—consisting of just one line. After that, there is the couplet (two-line stanza), tercet (three-line stanza), quatrain (four-line), quintet (five-line), sestet (six-line), septet (seven-line), and octave (eight-line). There are stanzas named after individual poets, such as the Spenserian stanza (the nine-line pattern Spenser invented for The Faerie Queene, 1590–1596) and the Omar Khyyám quatrain (the four-line stanza the Persian poet employed in the eleventh century for The Rubáiyát). Each stanza has its own distinctive features, its own music, and its own internal history that informs and haunts later usage.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the sublime as “Set or raised aloft, high up.” The word derives from the Latin sublimus, a combination of sub (up to) and limen (lintel, the top piece of a door) and suggests nobility and majesty, the ultimate height, a soaring grandeur, as in a skyscraper or a mountain, or as in a dizzying feeling, a heroic deed, a spiritual attainment, a poetic expression—something that takes us beyond ourselves, something boundless, the transporting blow. “The essential claim of the sublime,” Thomas Weiskel asserts in The Romantic Sublime (1986), “is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human.” The sublime instills a feeling of awe in us, which can be terrifying. The Oxford English Dictionary also describes the effects of the sublime as crushing or engulfing, something that cannot be resisted. The sublime is one of our large metaphors. As Weiskel puts it, “We cannot conceive of a literal sublime.”
In the third century, Longinus inaugurated the literary idea and tradition of the sublime in his treatise Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime). For him, the sublime describes the heights in language and thought. It is accessed through rhetoric, the devices of speech and poetry. It is a style of “loftiness,” something we experience through words. “Sublimity is always an eminence and excellence in language,” he claims. “It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true sublimity. Filled with joy and pride, we come to believe we have created what we have only heard.” The sublime is our “joining” with the great. Longinus raised the rhetorical and psychological issues that haunt the idea of the sublime, ancient and modern. As Mary Arensberg summarizes them in The American Sublime (1986):
Longinus’s treatise was translated into French by Boileau (1674) and passed quickly into English. Alexander Pope claimed that Longinus “is himself the great Sublime he draws” (“An Essay on Criticism,” 1711). Edmund Burke took up the effects of the sublime in language in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), where he argues that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. He adds terror as a crucial component. “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” There are subsequent philosophical investigations of the sublime in Immanuel Kant, who says, “We call that sublime which is absolutely great” (Critique of Judgment, 1790), Arthur Schopenhauer (the first volume of The World as Will and Representation, 1819), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 1835). “In the European Enlightenment,” Harold Bloom explains, the literary idea of the sublime “was strangely transformed into a vision of the terror that could be perceived both in nature and in art, a terror uneasily allied with pleasurable sensations of augmented power, and even of narcissistic freedom, freedom in the shape of that wildness that Freud dubbed ‘the omnipotence of thought,’ the greatest of all narcissistic illusions.”
The Romantic poets were obsessed with sublimity; that is, with the idea of transcendence, with possible crossings between the self and nature, with the boundlessness of the universe. Each had a different idea of transcendence, as when John Keats distinguished the true poetical character, which is selfless, from “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” a sublime suffused with the self. William Wordsworth himself called the elevation of the sublime a “visionary gleam.” The Romantics transformed the sublime into a naturalistic key, internalizing it, which opened a space later entered by Freud, who was preoccupied with powerfully disruptive and uncanny moments.
In America, the sublime has its own genealogy and history, its own recurring questions and immensities. “How does one stand / To behold the sublime?” Wallace Stevens asks in his poem “The American Sublime” (1936). In “Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson takes up Longinus’s idea of the reader’s sublime when he declares that “in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Ever since Walt Whitman (1819–1892), our poets have been magnetized by the power of the American sublime, the engulfing space that Emerson delineates as “I and the Abyss,” the intractable sea that Stevens confronts in “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1936), which contains a direct echo of Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1860). The strip of land at the boundary of the fathomless sea is comparable to the liminal space that Robert Frost repeatedly encounters at the edge of a dark wood, the majestic space where, as Emily Dickinson says memorably, “The Soul should stand in Awe.” The feeling of awe bears traces of a holiness galvanized and deepened by the mysterious presence of death. Irving Howe spoke of “a democratized sublime,” a space for schooling the spirit.
The convulsive phenomenon known as Dadaism was revitalized and transformed into the more durable movement of surrealism in France in the 1920s. The term surréaliste was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 to suggest a dramatic attempt to go beyond the limits of an agreed-upon “reality.” André Breton used the term surrealism (“superrealism,” or “above reality”) in 1924 in the first of three manifestoes. (“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.”) The surrealists were apostles of what Breton called “beloved imagination.” They hungered for the marvelous and believed in the revolutionary power of erotic desire and “mad love,” of dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations. They freed the mind from the shackles of rational logic and explored the subterranean depths, the deeper reality, of the unconscious, the night mind. They cultivated a condition of lucid trance or delirium and experimented with automatic writing or automatism—that is, writing attempted without any conscious control, as under hypnosis. The surrealists courted disorder and believed in the possibilities of chance, of emotion induced by free association and surprising juxtapositions, as when Comte de Lautréamont had called something “beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”
The surrealists were scandalized by the repressiveness of society, and they scandalized society in return. They wanted to change the human condition. A practical, political dimension entered the movement in 1925, linking economic revolution with mental liberation (priority was always given to mental experiments), and a problematic relationship developed with the Communist party, which never quite flowered into a full-scale alliance.
The surrealists’ true goal was inner freedom. Breton states in the second manifesto (1929):
The idea of Surrealism tends simply to the total recuperation of our psychic forces by a means which is no other than a vertiginous descent within ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places, the progressive darkening of all other places, the perpetual rambling in the depths of the forbidden zone.
The major surrealists in poetry: Breton, Louis Aragon, Desnos, Éluard, Philippe Soupault, Benjamin Péret. In the visual arts: Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Giorgio de Chirico, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali. In film: Luis Buñuel. In theater: Antonin Artaud. Breton acknowledged that surrealism was the “prehensile tail” of romanticism. The surrealists recognized their ongoing debts to the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) and Gérard de Nerval (1808–1855), who first used the term supernaturalism, to Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), who considered the poet a magician, to Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), Apollinaire (1880–1918), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).
Surrealism dissolved as a cohesive movement in the late 1930s, but the United States benefited from the wartime presence of some of the leading surrealist figures, such as Breton and Ernst. In a broad sense, surrealism means a love of dreams and fantasies, a taste for strange marvels and black humor, an eagerness to take the vertiginous descent into the self in quest of the secret forces of the psyche, a faith in the value of chance encounters and free play, a belief in the liberating powers of eros, of beloved imagination.
Also called uta or waka. The character for ka means “poem.” Wa means “Japanese.” Therefore, a waka is a Japanese poem. Tan means “short,” and so a tanka is a short poem, thirty-one syllables long. It is unrhymed and has units of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables, which were traditionally printed as one unbroken line. In English translation, the tanka is customarily divided into a five-line form. The tanka is sometimes separated by the three “upper lines” (kami no ku) and the two “lower ones” (shimo no ku). The upper unit is the origin of the haiku. The brevity of the poem and the turn from the upper to the lower lines, which often signals a shift or expansion of subject matter, is one of the reasons the tanka has been compared to the sonnet. There is a range of words, or engo (verbal associations), that traditionally associate or bridge the sections. Like the sonnet, the tanka is also conducive to sequences, such as the hyakushuuta, which consists of one hundred tankas.
The tanka, which comprised the majority of Japanese poetry from the ninth to the nineteenth century, is possibly the central genre of Japanese literature. It has prototypes in communal song, in oral literature dating back to the seventh century, or earlier. The earliest anthology of Japanese poetry, Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), contains more than forty-two hundred poems in the tanka form. The form gradually developed into court poetry and became so popular that it marginalized all other forms. The renga developed out of the tanka as a kind of court amusement or game. The somonka form consists of two tankas. They are relationship poems, exchange songs. In the first stanza, a lover conventionally addresses the beloved. In the second stanza, the beloved replies.
Tankas often appear inside or alongside longer prose or narrative works. Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s foundational prose work The Tale of Genji, which dates to the early eleventh century and is sometimes called the world’s first novel, contains more than four hundred tankas. Many of the great tanka court poets were women, such as Akazome Emon (956–1041), Ono no Komachi (ca. 825–ca. 900), and Izumi Shikibu (ca. 970–1030). Here is one of Princess Nukata’s (ca. 630–690) tankas, “Yearning for the Emperor Tenji,” collected in the Man’yōshū:
While, waiting for you,
My heart is filled with longing,
The autumn wind blows—
As if it were you—
Swaying the bamboo blinds of my door.
Starting in the nineteenth century, poets began to reconsider, reconfigure, and modernize the highly codified tanka form. This is especially evident in the work of the tanka poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886–1912). The New Poetry Society, or Myōjō Poets (Morning Star Poets), and their chief rivals, the Negishi Tanka Society, brought tanka into the twentieth century. This traditional mood poem opened up to the currents of modern social and political life.
A verse form of interlocking three-line stanzas rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, etc. The terza rima form was invented by Dante Alighieri for the Commedia (The Divine Comedy, ca. 1304–1321), using the hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) line common to Italian poetry. In De vulgari eloquentia (“On eloquence in the vernacular,” 1304–1307?), Dante called rhyme concatenatio (“beautiful linkage”), and the triple rhymes beautifully link together the stanzas. Rhyming the first and third lines gives each tercet a sense of temporary closure; rhyming the second line with the first and last lines of the next stanza generates a strong feeling of propulsion. The effect of this chain-rhyme is both open-ended and conclusive, like moving through a series of interpenetrating rooms or going down a set of winding stairs: you are always traveling forward while looking back.
Geoffrey Chaucer introduced terza rima into English in the fourteenth century with his poem “A Complaint to His Lady.” Sir Thomas Wyatt’s three Satires (1536) are the first sustained use of terza rima in our language. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life” (1824) is the finest English poem ever written in the form. The first eight lines capture its spiraling motion:
Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory and of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendor, and the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth —
The smokeless altars of the mountain snows
Flamed above crimson clouds, and at the birth
Of light, the Ocean’s orison arose,
To which the birds tempered their matin lay.
Shelley also uses a terza rima sonnet for the five individual sections that comprise “Ode to the West Wind” (1819). The title poem of Randall Jarrell’s The Lost World (1965) is a virtuoso piece of terza rima in three parts, Marcel Proust in plain American. Robert Pinsky capably uses slant rhymes to create what he calls “a plausible terza rima in a readable English” in his translation of Dante’s Inferno (1994).
In Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec world, one key word for poet was tlamatine, meaning “the one who knows,” or “he who knows something.” Poets were considered “sages of the word,” who meditated on human enigmas and explored the beyond, the realm of the gods. The Aztec poets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, who were perhaps the first known poets of the Americas, had all been instructed in the calmecac, or priestly schools, where, as Miguel León-Portilla puts it, “They had mastered the science of the calendar, the divine wisdom, the books of the annals, the ancient songs, and the discourses.” Their indigenous texts were painted in what are now lost pictoglyphic codices. These were later recited to ethnographer-friars, who in turn transcribed them in Roman letters. The “ancient word” of the Náhuatl texts was preserved in a few sixteenth-century manuscripts. My favorite poet from this period is Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who lived in the second half of the fifteenth century in what is now Puebla. He seems to have been a teohua, or priest, a “White Eagle.” He was a seeker after heights who recognized “friendship is a shower of precious flowers” and “Earth is the region of the fleeting moment.” From a lapidary statement in a poem sometimes called “Let the Earth Remain Forever,” I have an image of him walking and chanting his songs on ancient roads. The Aztec poets had a keen sense of transience and sang often of cahuitl, “that which leaves us.”
The word translation derives from the Latin translatio, which in turn comes from trans- and fero, meaning “to carry across” or “to bring across.” It is the transfer of meaning from one language to another. Strictly speaking, total translation is impossible, since languages differ and each language carries its own complex of linguistic resources, historical and social values. This is especially true in poetry, the maximal of language. It is axiomatic that in a poem there is no exact equivalent for the valences of sound, the intonations and sequences of words, the rhythm of separate lines, the weight of accruing stanzas, the totality of musical effects. That’s why its untranslatability has been one of the defining features of poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the word untranslatableness. Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” An Italian pun captures the idea: traduttore/traditore, translator/traitor.
Yet translation is also a necessity, the only way of bridging the barriers of language. It brings the world to our doorstep. For who among us can read in the original the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric epics, Horace, Dante, and Petrarch, Rumi and the medieval Arabic poets, the poems of Li Po and Tu Fu, William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, Góngora, Bashō, Rabindranath Tagore, Alexander Pushkin? Translation, our humanistic conscience, makes it possible to make these poets part of our lives. George Steiner quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s letter to Thomas Carlyle—“Say what one will of its inadequacy, translation remains one of the most important, worthwhile concerns in the totality of world affairs”—and adds: “Without it we would live in arrogant parishes bordered by silence.” In 1611, the translators of the King James Bible employed biblical cadences, which they had so eloquently translated, to make the case for translation:
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light;
that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that
putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most
holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we
may come by the water, even as Jacob rolle away the
stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the
flocks of Laban were watered. Indeed without translation
into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like
children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket
or something to draw with or as that person mentioned
by Esau, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with
this motion, “Read this, I Pray thee,” he was faith to make
this answer, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” . . .
There is a sliding scale in translating poetry from the strictest literalism to the freest adaptation. The literalists argue that the only faithful translation is an interlinear trot or a prose paraphrase. This is Vladimir Nabokov’s position: “The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” The argument against the strict trot is that it can serve as only an auxiliary to a poem, while losing the poem itself, or at least what is most crucial about it. It is a useful but distant pointer. It never gives us a direct experience.
Another freer mode of translating poetry involves imitation (from the Latin, imitatio), the art of modeling, the act of following a prototypical source, an acknowledgment of precedence. John Dryden characterized the art of imitation as a kinship between authors in his Preface to Fables (1700). Here an imitation takes on the force of a refashioning of a previous poem. Dryden explains: “In the way of imitation, the translator not only varies from the words and sense, but forsakes them as he sees occasion; and, taking only some general hints from the original, runs diversions upon the ground- work.” An imitation is different than a literal rendition. It takes greater license and moves in more ambiguous literary space. It is interpenetrated by its source. The tradition of imitation expands in our time to Robert Lowell’s controversial Imitations (1961) and Stephen Berg’s The Steel Cricket: Versions 1959–1997 (1997). Lowell confessed that he had been reckless with the literal meaning of poems, but labored hard to get the right tone. When an imitation succeeds, it accomplishes something closer to a fusion of two poetic selves. Thus Berg takes the final line from the German poet Ernst Stadler’s 1914 poem “Der Spruch,” or “The Saying,” “Mensch, werde wesentlich!” (“Man, become substantial!”), and renders it: “STOP BEING A GHOST!”
Imitation as Lowell and Berg practice it widens out into a greater departure from the original, an adaptation. Michael Hamburger points out: “Imitation in classical practice was the taking-over and renewal of past conventions and kinds—as the Romans took over and renewed Greek models, generations of later poets took over and renewed the Latin and Greek. What mattered in that was not the individuality of the poets imitated, but the perpetuation of exemplars, conventions, and kinds.” The idea originated with Horace (65–8 BCE), who wrote in his Odes (23–13 BCE, 4.2) that it would be disastrous to imitate the sublime power of Pindar, whose music was like a rushing torrent “that boils and roars and overflows its banks,” rushing down “the mountain-side of song.” He compared Pindar to a great swan conquering the air by long rapturous flights, and compared himself to the humble bee, modestly and painstakingly gathering honey. This helps to account for the difference between the Pindaric ode and the Horatian ode. Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BCE–65 CE) picked up the Horatian image of the bee as a figure for the author. The bee, he suggests in Epistle 84, first samples various texts by earlier writers, and then “so blend[s] those several flavors into one delicious compound” that the final honey “is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.” This freestanding adaptation, a kind of criticism and appreciation, is the mode of modern works such as Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius (1917–1934) and Christopher Logue’s accounts of Homer (War Music, 1997; All Day Permanent Red, 2003; Cold Calls, 2005). The translation of poetry inevitably strives to re-create a totality that can never be fully recovered. But something else emerges. Joseph Brodsky reformulated Frost’s position: “Poetry is what is gained in translation.”
Poems without verbs. On one hand, the verbless poem can create a static quality, a sense of the arrested moment, which is why it has appealed to poets who write haiku and other types of imagist poems. For example, Ezra Pound’s defining imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” consists of fourteen words without a verb. It juxtaposes two images without a comment, suggesting rather than stating the relationship, and in the process freezes a moment in time. Here is the version that first appeared in Poetry (April 1913):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough
On the other hand, the verbless construction can give, as the linguist Otto Jespersen points out in “The Role of the Verb (1911),” “a very definite impression of motion.” That’s why verbless constructions especially appealed to the futurists, such as F. T. Marinetti (1876–1944), who eliminated verbs in order to create a sense of telegraphic communication in a furiously changing world.
Both verbless modes, the static and the dynamic, have been employed in Russian literature, which has an unusually strong tradition of verbless poetry. On the epiphanic side: two of the most well-known lyrics by the Parnassian Afansii Fet are verbless poems, “Storm in the evening sky . . .” (1842) and “Whispers, timid breathing . . .” (1850), which are impressionistic word pictures, stopped moments. On the hyperkinetic side: the Russian imaginists (1918–1925) created a sense of dynamism in verbless poems that consisted of long strings of startling images and metaphors.
A novel in poetry. A hybrid form, the verse novel filters the devices of fiction through the medium of poetry. There are antecedents for the novelization of poetry in long narrative poems, in epics, chronicles, and romances, but the verse novel itself, as a distinct nineteenth-century genre, is different than the long poem that tells a story because it appropriates the discourse and language, the stylistic features of the novel as a protean form. Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1831) established the verse novel as a new type of poem in chapters and a new kind of novel in stanzas. Adam Mickiewicz’s twelve-book verse novel Pan Tadeusz (1834), which re-creates his Lithuanian childhood, stands at the top of nineteenth-century Polish literature. In English literature, the verse novel took different forms in the 1850s and ’60s in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fictional autobiography, Aurora Leigh (1856); in Arthur Clough’s epistolary fiction, Amours de Voyage (1857); in George Meredith’s sequence of sixteen-line sonnets, Modern Love (1962); and in Robert Browning’s series of dramatic monologues, The Ring and the Book (1868–1869). Unlike the Victorians, the modernist poets showed little interest in the verse novel, but contemporary poets have used it to gain for poetry some of the sweep and sensibility of prose fiction. My shortlist of contemporary self-described novels in verse includes Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune (1998), Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1999), Brad Leithauser’s Darlington’s Fall (2002), Alice Notley’s Culture of One (2011), and Philip Schultz’s The Wherewithal (2013).