A Poet's Glossary

A Poet's Glossary

by Edward Hirsch

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ISBN-13: 9780151011957
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/08/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 736
Sales rank: 324,089
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.40(d)

About the Author

EDWARD HIRSCH is a celebrated poet and peerless advocate for poetry. A MacArthur fellow, he has published nine books of poems and five books of prose. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Rome Prize, a Pablo Neruda Presidential Medal of Honor, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He serves as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and lives in Brooklyn.

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abecedarian An alphabetical acrostic in which each line or stanza begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. The word derives from the names of the first four letters of the alphabet plus the suffix "-arius" (abecedarius). The abecedarian, which generally starts with the first letter of the alphabet and runs to the final letter, is an ancient form often employed for sacred works. Most of the acrostics in the Hebrew Bible are alphabetical, such as Psalm 119, which consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first eight lines all begin with the letter aleph, the next eight lines begin with the letter beth, and so on for 176 verses until the final tav. The completeness of the form, a tour de force, enacts the idea of total devotion to the law of God.

The abecedarian originally had powerful associations with prayer. In 393, Saint Augustine composed an alphabetical psalm against the Donatists, "Psalmus contra partem Donati." Geoffrey Chaucer was probably familiar with some vulgate translations of Psalm 119 into Medieval Latin, and he employed the abecedarian in his twenty-four- stanza poem entitled "An A.B.C." (ca. 1370), a translation of a French prayer ("The Prayer of Our Lady"). Each stanza begins with a letter of the Medieval Latin alphabet, progressing from A to Z. Ronald Knox adapts the biblical precedent in his re-creation from the Hebrew of the "Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah: An alphabet of Patience in Misery" (1950).

The Japanese iroha mojigusari (literally "character chain") is a specialized version of the abecedarian. The first letter of the alphabet kicks off the first line and the second letter of the alphabet concludes it. The third letter starts the second line and the fourth letter finishes it. This continues until all the letters of the alphabet have been used in order.

In 1940, Gertrude Stein set out to write a "book I would have liked as a child," an episodic A to Z poem, which eventually turned into a romp through the alphabet called To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (1957). The abecedarian has been revived in contemporary poetry with experimental force. Paradoxically, the arbitrary structure triggers verbal extravagances. Thus Carolyn Forché follows a rigorous alphabetical order in her long poem "On Earth" (2003). The contents of Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002) are arranged alphabetically, beginning with "All She Wrote" and ending with "Zombie's Hat." The title section of Barbara Hamby's The Alphabet of Desire (2006) contains twenty-six abecedarians. Karl Elder's Gilgamesh at the Bellagio (2007) contains two sequences of fifty-two ten-syllable lines: the first series, "Mead," consists of twenty-six abecedarians, the second series, "Z Ain't Just for Zabecedarium," runs backward through the alphabet twenty-six times.

SEE ALSO acrostic.

ab ovo Latin: "from the egg." The phrase ab ovo means "from the beginning," and refers to a poetic narrative that begins at the earliest possible chronological point. This is a logical way to commence, but it is not always the most dramatic way to tell a story. Horace uses the term in his Ars Poetica (ca. 19–18 B.C.E.) as a way of praising the skillfulness of Homer, the ideal epic poet, who does not begin his tale of the Trojan War with the twin egg from which Helen of Troy was born (Nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ouo), but rather in the very middle of events (in medias res). The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis (Greek: "birth," "origin"), or Bereshit (Hebrew: "In the beginning"), commences ab ovo or, perhaps, even before: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

SEE ALSO in medias res.

abstract, abstraction An abstract is a summary of any piece of written work. In poetry, abstraction refers to the use of concepts or ideas, things that come to us not through the senses but through the mind. Abstraction strips away the context and employs the immaterial properties of language. To employ abstraction is the opposite of embracing concrete particulars. Abstractionswere a central feature of Victorian and symbolist poetry, one reason modern poets reacted against them. "Go in fear of abstractions," Ezra Pound declared in "A Retrospect" (1913): "Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace.' It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete." But a postsymbolist modern poet such as Wallace Stevens, who claimed that "It Must Be Abstract" ("Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction," 1942), found ways to embrace abstraction by employing ideas and thinking in poetry. For Stevens, reality itself was an abstraction with multiple perspectives: "The major abstraction is the idea of man." There is also an abstract quality in the speculative language of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets ("To be conscious is not to be in time," 1943) and the flowing consciousness of such book-length poems as John Ashbery's Flow Chart (1991) and A. R. Ammons's Garbage (1993).

Abstraction means the act of withdrawing. It is an active process, an act of moving away, a form of distancing and removal. This is how Frank O'Hara uses it in "Personism: A Manifesto" (1959), which takes off from an essay by Allen Ginsberg:

Abstraction in poetry ... appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. Abstraction ... involves personal removal by the poet. For instance, the decision involved in the choice between "the nostalgia of the infinite" and "the nostalgia for the infinite" defines an attitude towards degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarmé).

abstract poetry Dame Edith Sitwell coined this term to describe her own poems. Describing her 1922 book, she writes, "The poems in Façade are abstract poems, that is, patterns in sound." They try to use sound in much the same way that abstract painters use color, shape, and design. The aural parallels the visual. Abstract poetry never became a movement, though Lewis Carroll's nonsense poetry and Gertrude Stein's prose poems create some of the same effects. Sitwell praised Stein's "anarchic breaking up and rebuilding of sleepy families of words and phrases."

SEE ALSO nonsense poetry, sound poetry.

acatalectic, see truncation.

accent The vocal stress or emphasis placed on certain syllables in a line of verse. Stress varies from weak to strong. The word derives from the Latin accentus, meaning "song added to speech." Some poetries, such as Anglo-Saxon, count only accents, the number of stresses in a line. Other poetries, such as English, count both accents and syllables. Vocal stress is crucial to how we speak and hear the English language, how we say, scan, and sing poems in our language.

SEE ALSO beat, meter,prosody, scansion.

accentual verse, see meter.

accentual-syllabic verse, see meter.

acephalous Greek: "Headless." An acephalous line is a metrical line missing its first foot and thus "headless." In English poetry, this tends to be an iambic line that drops its first unstressed syllable, which is why it is sometimes called initial truncation. Take the foreshortened third line in the opening stanza of A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" (1896):

The tíme you wón your tówn the ráce We cháired you thróugh the márket-pláce;
SEE ALSO meter,truncation.

Acmeism The word acme in Greek means "utmost," and this short-lived school of modern Russian poetry was one of the early twentieth-century pinnacles. In 1910, a group of young poets, which included Nikolay Gumilev (1886–1921), Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), and Osip Mandel-stam (1891–1938), set out to overturn the dominant mode of symbolism and reform Russian poetry. They sought Apollonian values, such as classical restraint, balance, and lucidity. The Acmeists focused on the texture of things, valued clarity of expression, and emphasized poetry as a craft. Their vision was neoclassical. The Acmeists believed that poetry was a kind of recognition and that poets of all ages echoed each other. Mandelstam characterized Acmeism as "nostalgia for world culture."

SEE ALSO Apollonian/Dionysian, neoclassicism, symbolism.

acrostic From the Greek: "at the tip of the verse." A poem in which the initial letters of each line have a meaning when read vertically. The acrostic reads down as well as across. The form may initially have been used as a mnemonic device in the transmission of sacred texts. The origin and history of the acrostic suggests that words have magical, incantatory, and religious power. In written poetry, the acrostic became a way both of hiding and revealing mysterious information, such as the names of lovers, authors, and titles. The writer engages the reader as the solver of a puzzle, inviting a more intimate bond. Thus Edgar Allan Poe spells out the name of his beloved in "Enigma" (1848), and Ben Jonson prefaces The Alchemist (1610) with an acrostic that spells out the name of his play:

The Argument

T he sickness hot, a master quit, for fear,
The abecedarian is possibly the oldest form of the acrostic. One type of acrostic uses the middle (mesostich) or final (telestich) letter of each line. A double acrostic employs both the first and last letters of the lines. A compound acrostic spells one word down the left-hand margin and another down the right-hand one.

A word square consists of a set of words, all of which have the same number of letters as the total number of words. Written out in a grid, the words can be read both horizontally and vertically. A famous example is this Roman palindrome, which was found as a graffito buried by ash at Herculaneum in 79A.D.:

One permutation of the word square:

The meaning of this was obscure (one meaning may have been "the sower Arepo holds the wheels carefully"), but was interpreted as magical. One religious interpretation: the words were the "mystical names" of the five nails in Christ's cross.

The acrostic has frequently been employed as a clever device in light verse. John Dryden writes in Mac Flecknoe (1682):

Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
SEE ALSO abecedarian, palindrome.

adab The tradition of belles-lettres in Arabic poetry. The term suggests both the style of a cultured person and learning as a fulfilling way of life. The concept of adab dates to the sophisticated urban environment of eighth-century Baghdad. Abu 'Uthman 'Amr bin Bahr al-Jahiz (776–869) was one of its earliest significant proponents. S. A. Bonebakker points out that the term adab was widely used in the Middle Ages in the sense of "philology," "literary scholarship," and "literary culture," which may be the reason that translators in the nineteenth century adopted the plural ?d?b to designate European works of literature. Adab anthologies, collections of poetry and anecdotes, promoted zarf, or refinement. Passages of poetry and prose were selected and arranged to serve as practical, moral, and rhetorical examples. The adab tradition developed both to edify and to entertain. It signals the crucial educational role that poetry played in medieval Arabic-Islamic culture.

SEE ALSO didactic poetry, qasida.

adonic In Greek and Latin poetry, an adonic verse is a five-unit metrical foot that consists of a dactyl and a spondee: / u u | / /. The last line of the Sapphic stanza is an adonic. Ezra Pound concludes his poem "The Return" (1912), which W. B. Yeats admired for "its real organic rhythm," with an accentual-syllabic adonic: "pállid the léash mén."

SEE ALSO meter, Sapphic stanza.

adynaton Greek: "not possible." A figure of speech, a type of hyperbole in which something is magnified to such extreme lengths that it becomes impossible, which is why adynaton was known in Latin as impossibilia. The formal principle of adynata, "stringing together impossibilities," was a way of inverting the order of things, drawing attention to categories, turning the world upside down. The eclipse of the sun on April 6, 648 B.C.E., seems to have given Archilocus the idea that anything was possible now that Zeus had darkened the sun, and thus the beasts of the field could change their food for that of the dolphins (fragment 74). In Virgil's eighth Eclogue (37 B.C.E.), which was a great stimulus to later poetry, a shepherd forsaken by his beloved feels the world is out of joint: "Now may the wolf of his own free will flee the sheep, the oak bear golden apples, owls compete with swans, the shepherd Tityrus be Orpheus." Andrew Marvell begins "The Definition of Love" (1681):

My love is of a birth as rare As 'tis for object strange and high:
SEE ALSO hyperbole,rhetoric.

Aeolic Two of the inventors of lyric poetry, Sappho and Alcaeus (late seventh to early sixth century B.C.E.), wrote in a Greek dialect known as Aeolic. The Greek colonies of Aeolis, a district of Mysia in Asia Minor, were one of the traditional birthplaces of lyric poetry. Aeolic subsequently became the name for a class of meters that brings dactyls and trochees close together to form a choriamb, a pattern of four syllables: long- short-short-long. In English prosody, this became two stressed syllables enclosing two unstressed ones. Horace both responded to the themes of Sappho and Alcaeus and used their meters, thus claiming: "I, passing from humble to mighty, / first found for Aeolic song a home / in Italian melodies" (Odes, book 3, 23–13 B.C.E.).

SEE ALSO Alcaic, choriamb, dactyl, meter, Sapphic stanza, trochee.

Aestheticism Aestheticism was a doctrine that art should be valued for itself alone. It should have no purpose or function beyond the cult of beauty. The aesthetic position provocatively opposed all instrumental or utilitarian views of art. It refused to let literature be subordinated to any other political or philosophical agenda or doctrine. The first self-conscious expression of the idea in modern literature was Théophile Gautier's preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) in which he denies that art can be useful in any way. In poetry, Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) adopted the aesthetic view of experience and insisted on the sovereignty of the artist. In prose, J. K. Huysmans (1848–1907) and Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) aligned themselves with the aesthetic position, which set itself against the chief value of the industrial era: productivity. Thomas Mann said of Aestheticism that it was "the first manifestation of the European mind's rebellion against the whole morality of the bourgeois age."

Gautier's notion of l'art pour l'art ("art for art's sake") became the rallying cry of the Aesthetic doctrine, which took hold in England in the second half of the nineteenth century under the influence first of John Ruskin, who taught a passionate commitment to beauty, and then of Walter Pater. At the end of The Renaissance (1873), Pater proposes the idea of life itself as a work of art whose goal is "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame." He concludes that "to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." The Aesthetic rejection of moralizing reached an apogee in Pater's extravagant disciple Oscar Wilde, who insisted that "all art is perfectly useless." Pater gave the name of the aesthetic poets to a group that included William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and others associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The poets of the 1890s — Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, and the young W. B. Yeats — all wrote under the sign of what Pater called "poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art's sake."


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The Poet's Glossary 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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AhlmanJoy22 More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing read and extremely informative. It has helped me immensely with my own poetic writings by writing in the various forms this book describes. Though it is thick, I believe every poet should read and, even, study it to get a firm grasp on the history of poetry and its place and influence around the world.