Glossary of Poetic Terms
- A poststructuralist theory mainly based on the writings of the French intellectual Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction posits that meaning, as accessed through language, is indeterminate because language itself is indeterminate. It is a system of signifiers that can never fully “mean”: a word can refer to an object but can never be that object. Derrida developed deconstruction as a response to certain strains of Western philosophy; in the United States, deconstruction was the focus of a group of literary theorists at Yale, including Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman. Used as a method of literary critique, deconstruction refocuses attention on a work as open-ended, endlessly available to interpretation, and far beyond the reach of authorial intention. Deconstruction traces how language generates meaning both within a text and across texts, while insisting that such meaning can only ever be provisional.
A term originally coined by poets Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Kelly to describe stylized, resonant poetry that operated according to the Symbolist theory of correspondences, which posited a connection between the physical and spiritual realms. Rothenberg and Kelly were inspired by Federico García Lorca’s “deep song.” The idea was later redeveloped by the poet Robert Bly, and deep image became associated with a group of midcentury American poets including Galway Kinnell and James Wright. The new group of deep-image poets was often narrative, focusing on allowing concrete images and experiences to generate poetic meaning.
Poetry that instructs, either in terms of morals or by providing knowledge of philosophy, religion, arts, science, or skills. Although some poets believe that all poetry is inherently instructional, didactic poetry separately refers to poems that contain a clear moral or message or purpose to convey to its readers. John Milton's epic Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man are famous examples. See also William Blake’s “A Divine Image,” Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
A line of verse composed of two feet. “Some go local / Some go express / Some can’t wait / To answer Yes,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in her poem “Yes,” in which the dimeter line predominates. Kay Ryan’s “Blandeur” contains this series of mostly dimeter lines:
Even out Earth’s
the Grand Canyon.
to arable land,
A brief hymn or song of lamentation and grief; it was typically composed to be performed at a funeral. In lyric poetry, a dirge tends to be shorter and less meditative than an elegy. See Christina Rossetti’s “A Dirge” and Sir Philip Sidney’s “Ring Out Your Bells.”
A disruption of harmonic sounds or rhythms. Like cacophony, it refers to a harsh collection of sounds; dissonance is usually intentional, however, and depends more on the organization of sound for a jarring effect, rather than on the unpleasantness of individual words. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s use of fixed stresses and variable unstressed syllables, combined with frequent assonance, consonance, and monosyllabic words, has a dissonant effect. See these lines from “Carrion Comfort”:
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” does not lack a musical quality, but its rapid repetition of sounds and varied sentence lengths create dissonance through tension and instability:
This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
Incy is short for incubus.
A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.
Bad verse traditionally characterized by clichés, clumsiness, and irregular meter. It is often unintentionally humorous. The “giftedly bad” William McGonagall was an accomplished doggerelist, as demonstrated in “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:
It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
A form of light verse invented and promoted by Paul Pascal, Anthony Hecht, and John Hollander. The double dactyl consists of two quatrains, each with three double-dactyl lines followed by a shorter dactyl-spondee pair. The two spondees rhyme. Additionally, the first line must be a nonsense phrase, the second line a proper or place name, and one other line, usually the sixth, a single double-dactylic word that has never been used before in any other double dactyl. For example:
Bacon, lord Chancellor.
Negligent, fell for the
Bribery toppled him,
Finished him, testing some
Poultry on ice.
(by Ian Lancashire)
A poem in which an imagined speaker addresses a silent listener, usually not the reader. Examples include Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Ai’s “Killing Floor.” A lyric may also be addressed to someone, but it is short and songlike and may appear to address either the reader or the poet. Browse more dramatic monologue poems.
A brief, dramatic pastoral poem, set in an idyllic rural place but discussing urban, legal, political, or social issues. Bucolics and idylls, like eclogues, are pastoral poems, but in nondramatic form. See Edmund Spenser’s “Shepheardes Calendar: April,” Andrew Marvell’s “Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn,” and John Crowe Ransom’s “Eclogue.”
- Similar to ethnopoetics in its emphasis on drawing connections between human activity—specifically the making of poems—and the environment that produces it, ecopoetics rose out of the late 20th-century awareness of ecology and concerns over environmental disaster. A multidisciplinary approach that includes thinking and writing on poetics, science, and theory as well as emphasizing innovative approaches common to conceptual poetry, ecopoetics is not quite nature poetry. The influential journal Ecopoetics, edited by Jonathan Skinner, publishes writing that explores “creative-critical edges between making and writing” and features poets such as Jack Collom, Juliana Spahr, and Forrest Gander.
“Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. A notable example is “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the poet John Keats speculates on the identity of the lovers who appear to dance and play music, simultaneously frozen in time and in perpetual motion:
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new. . . .
See W. S. DiPiero’s poem guide on Robert Browning for more on ekphrasis. Browse more ekphrastic poems.
In traditional English poetry, it is often a melancholy poem that laments its subject’s death but ends in consolation. Examples include John Milton’s “Lycidas”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”; and Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” More recently, Peter Sacks has elegized his father in “Natal Command,” and Mary Jo Bang has written “You Were You Are Elegy” and other poems for her son. In the 18th century the “elegiac stanza” emerged, though its use has not been exclusive to elegies. It is a quatrain with the rhyme scheme ABAB written in iambic pentameter. Browse more elegies.
- The omission of unstressed syllables (e.g., “ere” for “ever,” “tother” for “the other”), usually to fit a metrical scheme. “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,” goes the first line of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, in which “amorous” is elided to “am’rous” to establish the pentameter (five-foot) line.
The period coinciding with the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), considered to be the literary height of the English Renaissance. Poets and dramatists drew inspiration from Italian forms and genres such as the love sonnet, the pastoral, and the allegorical epic. Musicality, verbal sophistication, and romantic exuberance dominated the era’s verse. Defining works include Edmund Spenser’s The Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene, the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Raleigh’s lyrics. Drama especially flourished during this time; see the comedies and tragedies of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe.
In poetry, the omission of words whose absence does not impede the reader’s ability to understand the expression. For example, Shakespeare makes frequent use of the phrase “I will away” in his plays, with the missing verb understood to be “go.” T.S. Eliot employs ellipsis in the following passage from “Preludes”:
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
The possessive “your” is left out in the second and third lines, but it can be assumed that the woman addressed by the speaker is clasping the soles of her own feet with her own hands.
- A term coined in 1998 by poet and critic Stephen Burt in a review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes. In the piece, which first appeared in the Boston Review, Burt describes elliptical poets as those who “try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” Burt’s description of elliptical poetry emphasized its quick shifts in diction and referent, and use of occluded or partially obscured back-story. A special issue of American Letters and Commentary was devoted to elliptical poetry, sparking debates over contemporary trends and schools in American poetry. Burt pointed to several poets whose work commonly exhibits these features, including Mark Levine, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Liam Rector.
A metrical line ending at a grammatical boundary or break—such as a dash or closing parenthesis—or with punctuation such as a colon, a semicolon, or a period. A line is considered end-stopped, too, if it contains a complete phrase. Many of Alexander Pope’s couplets are end-stopped, as in this passage from “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”:
Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.
The opposite of an end-stopped line is an enjambed line.
The running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped. William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” is one sentence broken into 10 enjambed lines:
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
The brief stanza that ends French poetic forms such as the ballade or sestina. It usually serves as a summation or a dedication to a particular person. See Hilaire Belloc’s satirical “Ballade of Modest Confession.”