10 Essential Terms for Poets (and Everyone Else)
From Aubade to Oriki to Tanka and More!
A dawn song expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak. The earliest European examples date from the end of the 12th century. The Provençal, Spanish, and German equivalents are alba, albada, and Tagelied. Some scholars believe the aubade, which has no fixed metrical form, grew out of the cry of the medieval watchman, who announced from his tower the passing of night and return of day. Ezra Pound renders the Provençal “Alba Innominata” as “Ah God! Ah God! That dawn should come so soon!” In The Spirit of Romance (1910), he points out that romance literature dawned with a Provençal “Alba” from around the 10th century:
Dawn appeareth upon the sea, from behind the hill, The watch
passeth, it shineth clear amid the shadows.
The dawn song is found in nearly all early poetries; its poignancy crosses cultures.
The aubade recalls the joy of two lovers joined together in original darkness. It remembers the ecstasy of union. But it also describes a parting at dawn. With that parting comes the dawning of individual consciousness; the separated, day-lit mind bears the grief or burden of longing for what has been lost. The characteristic aubade flows from the darkness of the hour before dawn to the brightness of the hour afterward. It moves from silence to speech, from the rapture of communion to the burden of isolation, and the poem itself becomes a conscious recognition of our separateness.
From the Greek word 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 (3rd century BCE), 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 (10th century) is filled with more than 1,500 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 17th- and 18th-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, such as book 1, epigram 32 (85-86 BCE): “Sabinus, I don’t like you. You know why? / Sabinus, I don’t like you. That is why.”
Geoffrey Hartman points to two diverging traditions of the epigram. These were classified by J.C. Scaliger as mel and fel (Poetices libri septem, 1561), which have been interpreted as sweet and sour, sugar and salt, naive 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 J.V. Cunningham.
SEE ALSO conceit, epitaph, proverb, sonnet, wit.
In-breathing, indwelling. Inspiration is connected to enthusiasm, which derives from the Greek word enthousiasmos, or “inspiration,” which in turn derives from enthousiazein, which means “to be inspired by a god.” Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” (1819) makes clear that he considered poetic composition both an uncontrollable force beyond the dispensation of the poet’s conscious intellect (“Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry’”) and an internal phenomenon of the deeper mind: “for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.”
There is a long lineage for the idea that, as Cicero put it, “I have heard that—as they say Democritus and Plato have left on record—no man can be a good poet who is not on fire with passion and inspired by something like frenzy” (On the Orator, 55 BCE). There is a point in creation when voluntary effort merges with something involuntary and some unknown force takes over. “Henceforward, in using the word Poetry,” Robert Graves writes in On English Poetry (1922), “I mean both the controlled and the uncontrollable parts of the art taken together, because each is helpless without the other.”
There are two views of inspiration—that it comes as a force from beyond the poet; that it comes as a power from within the poet—but these views keep intertwining. In The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), E.R. Dodds suggests that Democritus was the first writer to hold that the finest poems were composed “with inspiration and a holy breath.” Dodds points to the belief that minstrels derive their creative power from a supreme source: “It was a god who implanted all sorts of lays in my mind” (The Odyssey, ca. 8th century BCE). So too Pindar begged the Muse to grant him “an abundant flow of song welling from my own thought” (“Nemean III,” 475 BCE). These poets characterize inspiration as a power from without that is a source within.
Poets have invoked something that can’t be controlled. This is the touch of madness that Plato made so much of, the freedom that terrified him. Here is Socrates (ca. 470-399 BCE) in the dialogue Phaedrus (ca. 370 BCE):
There is a third form of possession or madness, of which the Muses are the source. This seizes a tender, virgin soul and stimulates it to rapt passionate expression, especially in lyric poetry, glorifying the countless mighty deeds of ancient times for the instruction of posterity. But if any man comes to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to nought by the poetry of madness, and behold, their place is nowhere to be found.
Dodds notes that for Plato, “the Muse is actually inside the poet.” The Neo-Platonic Shelley spoke of “the visitations of the divinity in man.”
No one entirely understands the relationship between trance and craft in making poetry. On one side, we have the idea of poetry as something entirely inspired by an outside force. Hesiod claimed that he heard the Muses singing on Mount Helicon, and they gave him a poet’s staff and told him what to sing. English poetry begins with just such a vision, since it commences with the holy trance of a 7th-century figure called Caedmon, an illiterate herdsman, who now stands at the top of the English literary tradition as the initial Anglo-Saxon or Old English poet of record, the first to compose Christian poetry in his own language. So too in tribal societies, poets are considered the instruments of a power, an external source, which speaks through them.
Longinus added a crucial dimension to the idea of inspiration by considering the way the sublime affects not the speaker but the listener. Poetry also instills a sense of inspiration in the listener or reader. Paul Valéry goes so far as to claim that this is the function or purpose of a poet’s work. Thus he writes, in “Poetry and Abstract Thought” (1954), “A poet’s function—do not be startled by this remark—is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others. The poet is recognized—or at least everyone recognizes his own poet—by the simple fact that he causes his reader to become ‘inspired.’”
SEE ALSO the sublime.
A unit of meaning, a measure of attention, 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. Paul Claudel called the fundamental line “an idea isolated by blank space.” I would call it “words isolated by blank space.”
“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, an incomplete sentence. It is end-stopped and completes a thought. An enjambed 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 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. “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. 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. 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.
SEE ALSO blank verse, end-stopped line, enjambment, free verse, imagism, monostich, verse.
The short poem has been practiced for at least 4,500 years. It is one of the necessary forms of human speech, one of the ways we invent and know ourselves. It is as ancient as recorded literature. It precedes prose in all languages, all civilizations, and it will last as long as human beings take pleasure in playing with words, in combining the sounds of words in unexpected and illuminating ways, in using words to convey deep feeling and perhaps something even deeper than feeling. The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the aboriginal nature of being itself.
The Greeks defined the lyric as a poem to be chanted or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre (lyra), the instrument of Apollo and Orpheus, and thus a symbol of poetic and musical inspiration. The Greek lyric has its origins, like Egyptian and Hebrew poetry, in religious feeling and practice. The first songs were most likely written to accompany occasions of celebration and mourning. Prayer, praise, and lamentation are three of the oldest impulses in poetry. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) distinguished three generic categories of poetry: epic, drama, and lyric. This categorization evolved into the traditional division of literature into three generic types or classes, based on who is supposedly speaking in a literary work:
epic or narrative: the narrator speaks in the first person, then lets the characters speak for themselves.
drama: the characters do all the talking.
lyric: a first-person speaker utters the words.
The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance (“All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy,” John Stuart Mill writes) but has always been counterposed to the epic. Whereas the speaker of the epic serves as the deputy of a public voice, a singer of tales narrating the larger tale of the tribe, the lyric offers us a solitary singer or speaker singing or speaking on his or her own behalf. Ever since Sappho (late 7th-century BCE), the lyric poem has created a space for personal feeling. It has introduced a subjectivity and explored our capacity for human inwardness. The intimacy of lyric—and the lyric poem is the most intimate and personally volatile form of literary discourse—stands against the grandeur of epic. It asserts the value and primacy of the solitary voice, the individual feeling.
The definition of the lyric as a poem to be sung held until the Renaissance, when poets began to write their poems for readers rather than composing them for musical presentation. The words and the music separated. Thereafter, lyric poetry retained an associational relationship to music. Its cadences and sound patterns, its tonal variations and rhythms all show its melodic origins (hence Yeats’s title Words for Music Perhaps). But writing offers a different space for poetry. It inscribes it in print and thus allows it to be read and reread. Writing fixes the evanescence of sound and holds it against death. It also gives the poem a fixed visual as well as auditory life. With the advent of a text, the performer and the audience are physically separated. Hence John Stuart Mill’s idea that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard,” and Northrop Frye’s notion that the lyric is “a literary genre characterized by the assumed concealment of the audience from the poet.” Thereafter, the lyric becomes a different kind of intimate communiqué, a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers. It delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy and participation. Perhaps the asocial nature of the deepest feeling, the “too muchness” of human emotion, is what creates the space for the lyric, which is a way of beating time, of experiencing duration, of verging on infinity.
SEE ALSO dramatic monologue, epic, poetry.
6. negative capability
John Keats coined this term in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas (December 21, 1817):
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 notion 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 shape-shifting.
The oral praise poetry of the indigenous Yoruba communities of West 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 person, animal, plant, place, or god. These praise names are handed down from the past and invented by relatives or neighbors 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 worshipers. As 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 Yoruba culture, a person’s name relates to his or her spiritual essence and each individual has a series of praise names. The use of one’s praise name is part of daily life as well as traditional performance. Oríkì Esu are the narrative praise poems or panegyrics to the divine trickster of Yoruba mythology.
SEE ALSO epic, epithet, oral poetry, panegyric, praise poems.
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 that “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 14th century and begat poesy (as in Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy,” ca. 1582) and posy, a motto in verse. Poetrie (from the Latin poetria) entered 14th-century English vocabulary and evolved into poetry. The Greek word poiesis means “making.” A poem is a construction.
Poets (and others) have made many attempts over the centuries to account for this necessary instrument of our humanity:
In his treatise on vernacular poetry, De vulgari eloquentia, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) 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 Tommaso Ceva (1649-1737) stated, “Poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”
Samuel Taylor 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.”
William 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 when he wrote that poetry is “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) joyfully called poetry “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.”
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 it “a revelation of words by means of the words.”
Leo 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.” The response of Marianne Moore (1887-1972), years later: “nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books.’” She called poems “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) decided that “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,” André Breton (1896-1966) as a “room of marvels.”
Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) said that poetry is simply “getting something right in language.”
Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) described poetry as “accelerated thinking”; Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) called it “language in orbit.”
Poetry seems at core a verbal transaction. In oral form, it establishes a relationship between a speaker and a listener; in written form, 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.”
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?”
From the Greek word rhythmos, meaning “measured motion,” which derives from a Greek verb meaning “to flow.” Rhythm is sound in motion. It is related to the pulse, the heartbeat, the way we breathe. It rises and falls, taking us into ourselves, taking us out of ourselves. Rhythm is the combination in English of stressed and unstressed syllables that creates a feeling of fixity and flux, of surprise and inevitability. It creates a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and change. It is repetition with a difference. Renewal is “the pivot of lyricism,” as Marina Tsvetaeva puts it, comparing the lyrical element to the waves of the sea: “The wave always returns, and always returns as a different wave,” she writes in her essay “Poets with History and Poets Without History” (1934):
The same water—a different wave.
What matters is that it is a wave.
What matters is that the wave will return.
What matters is that it will always return different.
What matters most of all: however different the returning wave, it will always return as a wave of the sea.
What is a wave? Composition and muscle. The same goes for lyric poetry.
I would say with Robert Graves that there is a rhythm of emotion in poetry that conditions the musical rhythm, the patterned energy, the mental bracing and relaxing that come to us through our sensuous impressions. Rhythm is poetry’s way of charging the depths, hitting the fathomless.
Les Murray points out that “there is a trance-like pleasure bordering on epileptic seizure to be had from certain regular rhythms” (“Poems and the Mystery of Embodiment,” 1988). So too “rhythm is not measure, or something that is outside us,” Octavio Paz writes in The Bow and the Lyre (1956), “but we ourselves are the ones who flow in the rhythm and rush headlong toward ‘something.’” That “something” is a place where we are always arriving, an immanent revelation. In “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900), W.B. Yeats declares unequivocally that the “purpose of rhythm is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation.”
SEE ALSO meter.
Also called uta or waka. The Japanese character for ka means “poem.” Wa means “Japanese.” Thus a waka is a Japanese poem. Tan means “short” and so a tanka is a short poem, 31 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. It is sometimes separated by the three “upper lines” (kami no ku) and the two “lower ones” (shimo no ku). The upper unit is the source of the haiku. The brevity of the poem, and the turn from the upper to the lower lines, which often signals a shift in or expansion of subject matter, are two features that make the tanka comparable to the sonnet. A range of words, or engo (“verbal associations”), 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 comprised the majority of Japanese poetry from the ninth to the 19th century; it is possibly the central genre of Japanese literature. It has prototypes in communal song, in oral literature dating back to at least the 7th century. The earliest anthology of Japanese poetry, Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), contains more than 4,200 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 Tale of Genji, which dates to the early 11th century and is sometimes called the world’s first novel, contains more than 400 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). Starting in the 19th century, poets began to reconfigure and modernize the highly codified tanka form. This is 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 20th century. This traditional mood poem opened up to the currents of social and political life.
SEE ALSO haiku, monostich, renga.
Excerpted from THE ESSENTIAL POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2017 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.