A major addition to the literature of poetry, Edward Hirsch’s sparkling new work is a compilation of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, rhetorical terms, and folklore—a book that all readers, writers, teachers, and students of poetry will return to over and over.

Hirsch has delved deeply into the poetic traditions of the world, returning with an inclusive, international compendium. Moving gracefully from the bards of ancient Greece to the revolutionaries of Latin America, from small formal elements to large mysteries, he provides thoughtful definitions for the most important poetic vocabulary, imbuing his work with a lifetime of scholarship and the warmth of a man devoted to his art.

Knowing how a poem works is essential to unlocking its meaning. Hirsch’s entries will deepen readers’ relationships with their favorite poems and open greater levels of understanding in each new poem they encounter. Shot through with the enthusiasm, authority, and sheer delight that made How to Read a Poem so beloved, A Poet’s Glossary is a new classic.

Pages: 736 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-0151011957


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.


Edward Hirsch: American Poets Abroad

Recorded at the 2013 Poets Forums as part of the Chancellors Discussions—a series of intimate talks in which some of the most renowned poets of our time examine issues central to poetry today. In this video, Edward Hirsch speaks on the discussion topic: American Poets Abroad.

Big Think Interview With Edward Hirsch


A glossary is useful, welcome, sometimes fun, but rarely, if ever, a catalyst for astonishment. Leave it to revered poet, poetry apostle, and glossator extraordinaire Hirsch (The Living Fire, 2010) to turn this humble resource into a vibrant, polyglot, world-circling, century-spanning, mind-expanding work of profound scholarship and literary art. Hirsch demonstrated his glossarial gift in his best-selling How to Read a Poem (1999), launching the passionate and sustained immersion in world poetry’s vocabulary, genres, and theory brought to fruition here. Lush with poem excerpts and poet profiles, the longer entries on such subjects as the epic and free verse possess the contextual richness and narrative drive of master lectures, while the more concise definitions are models of clarification. The result is a uniquely vital, cogent, conversational, and inclusive inquiry into the craft, philosophical concerns, and emotional intensity that gave rise to oral and written traditions, diverse movements, and many “small devices and large mysteries.” Hirsch defines any term in English you can think of and many more, along with ghinnawa, a form of Bedouin folk poetry; the Sanskrit term rasa, denoting the “soul of poetry”; and shan-shui, China’s rivers-and-mountain verse. A thrilling “repertoire of poetic secrets,” this radiant compendium is shaped by Hirsch’s abiding gratitude for the demands and power, illumination, and solace of poetry, “a human fundamental.”
— Donna Seaman, Booklist (Starred Review)

Offering definitions, a discussion of poetic techniques, and an unalloyed spiritual quality to his work…This compilation of stimulating information and of beautiful writing by a master of expression is for all who love language, not just poets.
Library Journal (Starred Review)

To page through A Poet’s Glossary is to be blissfully bewildered… [It is] a thoughtful, accessible volume that is, as Horace would have it, sweet and useful. In an age of anonymous, collaborative online dictionaries, it is heartening to read one poet’s dictionary, distinctively alive to the deep histories and vital words that make poetry what it is.
— Joseph Campana, Houston Chronicle


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