This book—one person’s work, a poet’s glossary—has grown, as if naturally, out of my lifelong interest in poetry, my curiosity about its vocabulary, its forms and genres, its histories and traditions, its classical, romantic, and modern movements, its various outlying groups, its small devices and large mysteries—how it works. I hope it will be pleasurable to read and useful to study. It’s intended both for initiated and uninitiated readers, something to keep at hand, a compendium of discoveries that has befriended me. It’s a book of familiar and unfamiliar terms, some archaic, others modern, some with long and complicated histories, others newly minted. The alphabetical format may feel cool, but the hand that made the art was warm, and this book is animated by the practitioners who made poetry their own: the rational and the irrational, the lettered and the unschooled, those who would storm the barricades and tear down the castle, those who would rebuild it, the high priests of art, the irreverent tricksters, the believers and the skeptics, the long-lived purists and the doomed romantics, the holy eccentrics, the critics, the craftsmen, and the seers (singers, chanters, listeners, readers, writers); my quarrelsome friends, an extended family of makers. I’ve tried to figure out what they’ve been up to over the centuries.
This book is as definitive, inclusive, and international as I could make it—the reader will find terms from a wide variety of poetries, oral and written, lyric and epic. I’ve included examples whenever feasible. But it’s also selective—I’ve inevitably followed my own interests and inclinations. This project has something of the madness of a Borgesian encyclopedia, since every culture has its own poetry, usually in its own language. It would be impossible to include all the terms in all the languages. I’ve explained what I can. I’m grounded in our moment, in the history of English and American literature, but I’ve also looked for guidance to Hebrew and Arabic poetry, to Greek and Latin poetry, to the European poetries, east and west, to Irish, Welsh, and Scottish poetry, to Russian and Scandinavian poetry, to Chinese and Japanese poetry, to African, South Asian, and Latin American poetry. I’ve left things out, sometimes inadvertently, I’m sure. I’ve relied on many different sources—literary, historical, folkloric, anthropological, linguistic, and philosophical—and built on the work of others, but the mistakes are my own. I take responsibility for what’s here and what’s not. This is the result of years of engagement.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount in researching this book over the past fifteen years. As I’ve worked, I’ve often found myself transported to different time periods and countries, placing myself here and there, wondering what it would have been like to be a poet in the heady days of eighth-century China, or twelfth-century Provence, or thirteenth-century Florence, or fourteenth-century Andalusia, or fifteenth-century Wales, or seventeenth-century Japan, or early nineteenth-century England, or late nineteenth-century Ireland, or early twentieth-century Russia… I move freely among the bards, scops, and griots, the tribal singers, the poets of courtly love who sang for their mistresses, the court poets who wrote for their supper, the traveling minstrels, the revolutionaries, the flâneurs, the witnesses. I’ve encountered a series of recurring questions and debates about style and language, like the unresolved argument about the merits of the plain and the baroque style, or about the role of poetry in culture and society. There has been an ongoing quarrel, played out in many different countries, between tradition and innovation, the local and the international, the home-grown and the cosmopolitan. What language does one use, what forms does one employ? To whom is the poet responsible, and to what? Poetry, too, takes part in conversations about identity and nationalism. I’ve been surprised in my research by the sheer number of poetic contests throughout history. We may think of poetry as a non-competitive activity, or as a competition with oneself, a struggle between the poet and the poem, but poetry competitions have kept cropping up over the years. The aesthetic debates, seldom good natured, have also been fierce. I’ve tried to understand the intensities, to figure out what’s at stake, and welcomed the contestants into the tent.
The devices work the magic in poetry, and a glossary gives names to those devices. It unpacks them. I believe its purpose is to deepen the reader’s initiation into the mysteries. Here, then, is a repertoire of poetic secrets, a vocabulary, some of it ancient, which proposes a greater pleasure in the text, deeper levels of enchantment.