Here’s a brief glossary—now slightly revised—that I put on my syllabus for the beginning course in reading and writing poetry, this quarter. I don’t pretend that my definitions are the last word. Far from it—these are matters that for a few thousand of years, and especially the last fifty or a hundred, have been looked at in sometimes different and even combative ways. And since to some extent they are really about cognition through language, and cognition that becomes language, they can be more complex in daily life and in poetry than we can say.
I don’t like voluminous glossaries of terms that beginning students don’t yet need to know. So I like to focus on the things that seem to me most important in getting a better sense of what poetry does with language, thought, feeling, and form. (Yes, long ago I read Susanne Langer’s Feeling and Form , which was one of the most useful books about art that I ever did read, and especially helped me think about poetry from the inside.)
C O R E G L O S S A R Y for “Reading and Writing Poetry”
(You can find on-line dictionaries of poetic terms; this is a list of particular ones used in this course. The occasional quotations are from the poets on our reading list.)
Breaking the idiom: changing a word, or the syntax, the focus, or any other element of a set phrase, even a cliché, so that the idiom is both present and reconfigured, so that you create a fresh “turn” of language. (Sterling Plumpp pushes two idioms together to create simultaneous awareness of them and sudden shifts in their meaning.)
Defamiliarization: the poetic device of making what is familiar seem strange and thus more vividly apprehended–people, places, things, events, language itself—by describing or presenting it from a different angle (perceptual, linguistic, perceptual, emotional…).
Etymology: the origins of a word in earlier words, and the historical changes in its meaning. (Used poetically in Robert Duncan, “At the Loom.”)
Foregrounding: emphasizing some linguistic, poetic and other textual elements rather than others. (“Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie / Open unto the fields and the sky”—Wordsworth, foregrounding his variation of the speed of the iambic pentameter line, from slow to fast. Ezra Pound alludes to and foregrounds an archaic pattern of verse rhythm and phonetic figures (in this case, alliteration) in the first portion of Canto I, as well as archaic word order [syntactic figures]. Williams foregrounds simple, concrete descriptive language to emphasize perception itself as a poetic goal. In “Women,” Louise Bogan foregrounds—among other things—complexity and elusiveness of metaphor.)
Free verse: Lines in which the iambic rhythms of English are consistently disrupted, and in which line endings may either follow syntactic units or break them gently or abruptly.
Grammatical figure: the use of the same word-root in two different words in close proximity. (“Or on my frailties why are frailer spies”—Shakespeare.)
Hyponym: a word that is more specific, more particular, more limited in meaning, and (in English) often visually more vivid, than another word that may be a synonym of a more general nature. Thus, “tulip” is a hyponym of “flower,” “marble” is a hyponym of “stone,” “dinghy” is a hyponym of “boat.” Etymologically, “hypo” = “under,” so we can visualize a pyramid of synonyms in which the most general and abstract are at the top, and the most specific and particular are below.
Iambic rhythm: the intrinsic rhythm of English–a pattern of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. (“Let us | have faith | that right | makes might,| and in | that faith, | let us, |to the end, dare | to do | our du- | ty as | we un- |derstand it” –Lincoln, Cooper Union Speech. To scan this—which is completely artificial of me, but I think it is instructive: the first foot and the seventh are reversed in accent, which is a breaking of the iambic pattern that metrical poets have found pleasing in certain positions in the line; and what I have marked as the eighth foot, a double foot, is also a pattern found within the ordinary iambic rhythms of English—two unaccented syllables followed by two accented ones.) See “speech stress,” below. Iambic rhythm is used in a steadily patterned way in metrical verse, of course, with fine artistic deliberateness when it is done well. Rhythmic figures that originated in metrical verse can also be used in free verse.
Indo-European: the language family to which English belongs—a family that includes languages both dead and alive across a geographical range from western Ireland to northern India. Proto-Indo-European is the lost language from which all the languages in this family have descended over thousands of years.
Metaphor: a trope that joins together two dissimilar things. Thus it is about seeing one thing as another thing, or expressing a meaning by means of an image, or both. In the latter case, the meaning is often called the “tenor” and the image is called the “vehicle” (which is appropriate, since the etymology of “metaphor” is from an ancient Greek word meaning “to carry”). Sometimes the tenor is completely implicit and the metaphor appears at first to be only an image. (“Who so list to hunt I know where is an hind”—Thomas Wyatt; the pieces of the green bottle in “Between Walls” by Williams; “They are the Lords and owners of their faces”—Shakespeare.) Metaphor is used with tremendous frequency in daily speech and everyday language in print, most often in the form of a “dead metaphor”—that is, one which we don’t visualize at all when we use it, so the “vehicle” is not even recognized as such; therefore the meaning can wander, over time, very far from what would seem to be the literal meaning. For example, “broadcast” once meant to sow grain by hand with a sweeping throwing motion as the sower walked in a methodical pattern across a newly ploughed field; “blew me away” presumably originally meant something about an explosion or high winds; the “world wide web” is neither for fishing nor for catching flies; and a metaphor is not a living being, so it cannot really be “dead,” nor can a “dead language”; yet a dead metaphor may still has meaning, often a very useful one. It lacks vividness, however, and leads to unintentionally silly statements. Simile is a form of metaphor in which the word “like,” or “as,” or “the way…” may be used.
Metonym: a trope that substitutes one thing for another to which it is related. (“It was very 1960s,” “the White House says…,” “Detroit is busted now,” “you’ve got nice shades,” “she has a great name now,” “the White Sox did their talking with their bats,” (The nature of metaphor and of metonym is not easy to pin down [metaphor]; they can be multi-layered [metaphor] or overlap [metaphor] so that we can’t be certain what we are hearing [metonym], much less how to map it [metaphor? Metonym?].) (“Skin of poor life”– Genevieve Taggard.)
Object: anything in which we have invested feeling—a person, a thing, a place, an event, a sound, an anniversary date, a building, a pond, a car, a pair of earrings…
Pentameter: a poetic line in five metrical feet (almost always iambic ones, with certain substitutions for the sake of the pleasure of artistically accomplished rhythmic variety).
Phonetic figure: the repetition of a sound (a phoneme)—the two phonemes have to be close enough together for the repetition to be noticed. The sound may be a vowel or consonant, or more than one; it may occur anywhere in a word, or be formed by the end of one word and the beginning of another; or show up in variations including partial but noticeable correspondence, and even the reversal or rearrangement of certain phonemes, so long as these changes can be perceived. Thus the repeated sound consists of several phonemes, they need not correspond exactly (“my sisters…mysterious,” “heard… auburn-haired,” “blue… blow,” “twice… pride,” “makes snakes hiss,” etc., and “steps… slept… pest, etc). They may be in different rhythmic positions (“portico… sport,” “grass… Parnassus”). (Robert Hayden’s famous “Those Winter Sundays” is packed with phonetic figures.)
Rhythmical figure: a small-scale rhythmical configuration, usually based on a repetition of speech stresses, that is noticeable as an artistic choice, whether in metrical or free verse.
Speech stress: the natural stress with which an emphasized syllable is pronounced—as in the preceding phrase, in which the most noticeable speech stresses are on “nat-,” “stress,” “em-,” “syl-,” and “-nounced.” There are weaker stresses, too, though, on “which,” “-sized” and “-ble.” While meter has only two degrees of accent, it is helpful to think of English as having 4 degrees of stress—most stressed; somewhat stressed; nearly unstressed; unstressed. The unstressed syllables in the phrase above are “the,” the second syllable of “natural,” “with,” “an,” the second syllable of “emphasized,” the second syllable of “syllable,” and “is.” The nearly unstressed syllables might be the last syllable of “natural,” and “pro-.” Assessing the relative degrees of stress is not a science, nor does it need to be; it’s approximate, and it helps enormously in understanding how meter works, because it allows us to see how speech stress plays against metrical pattern, the way notes in a musical score, or improvised performance in a jazz set, play against the rhythmic pattern that governs a piece. Hearing speech stresses and learning to scan meter is simply a matter of ear training—like learning to recognize intervals and rhythms in music.
Syntactical figure: either a (comprehensible) disruption of expected syntax or a repetition of a syntactical element (these are two rather different things) that foregrounds the intensity of expression or the specificity of the words; at the same time, a syntactical figure is a mark of artistic choice and a way of making language more perceptible as language. (Repetitions of words in Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103º”; repeated structure of lines in Kenneth Fearing, “Green Light”.)
Trope: a poetic device (such as metaphor or metonymy) that “turns” the language toward more compressed meaning or that foregrounds an aspect of language to make it more perceptible (thus defamiliarizing it) or meaningful or both.