Literary Terms Flashcards Preview

GRE Subject Exam > Literary Terms > Flashcards

Flashcards in Literary Terms Deck (125):


Greek "recognition": the moment of protagonist's recognition in a narrative, which is also often the moment of moral understanding



Greek "carrying back": figure of speech. The repetition of words or groups of words at the beginning of consecutive sentences, clauses, or phrases.

Blake: "In every voice, in every ban . . ."


Animal fable

A genre. Short narrative of speaking animals, followed by moralizing comment, written in a low style and gathered into a collection.

Robert Henryson, "The Cock and the Fox"



Greek "placing against": A figure of thought. The juxtaposition of opposed terms in clauses or sentences that are next to or near each other.

Milton, PL: "They but now who seemed / In bigness to surpass Earth's giant sons / Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room / Throng numberless"



A term of syntax. The repetition of elements serving an identical grammatical function in one sentence. The effect of this repetition is to arrest the flow of the sentence, but in doing so to add extra semantic nuance to repeated elements. This is an especially important feature of Old English poetic style. See, for example, Caedmon's Hymn, where the phrases "heaven-kingdom's Guardian," "the Measurer's might," "his mind-plans," and "the work of the Glory-Father" each serve an identical syntactic function as the direct objects of "praise."


Ballad stanza

A verse form. Usually a quatrain in alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines, rhyming abcb.

"Sir Patrick Spens"; Eliot, "Sweeney among the Nightingales"; Larkin, "This Be the Verse."



A verse form. A form consisting usually of three stanzas followed by a four-line envoi (French: "send off"). The last line of the first stanza establishes a refrain, which is repeated, or subtly varied, as the last line of each stanza. The form was derived from French medieval poetry; English poets, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries especially, used it with varying stanza forms.

Chaucer, "Complaint to His Purse"


Beast epic

A genre. A continuous, unmoralized narrative, in prose or verse, relating the victories of the wholly unscrupulous but brilliant strategist Rynard the Fox over all adversaries.

Chaucer arouses, only to deflate, expectations of the genre in The Nun's Priest's Tale.



Strictly, a heraldic shield; in rhetorical usage, a topos whereby the individual elements of a beloved's face and body are singled out for hyperbolic admiration.

Spenser, Epithalamiom, ll. 167 - 84. Shakespeare's "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun" is an inversion of this topos.



(French and Italian "mocking"): a work that adopts the conventions of a genre with the aim less of comically mocking the genre than of satirically mocking the society so represented.

Pope's Rape of the Lock, for instance, does not mock classical epic so much as contemporary mores.



(Greek "overturning"): the decisive turn in tragedy by which the plot is resolved and, usually, the protagonist dies.



(Greek "pointing"): relevant to point of view. Every work has, implicitly or explicitly, a "here" and a "now" from which it is narrated. Words that refer to or imply this point from which the voice of the work is projected (such as "here," "there," "this," "that," "now," "then") are examples of deixis, or "deictics." This technique is especially important in drama, where it is used to create a sense of the events happening as the spectator witnesses them.



(Greek "narration"): a term that simply means "narration," but is used in literary criticism


Dramatic irony

A feature of narrative and drama, whereby the audience knows that the outcome of an action will be the opposite of that intended by a character.


Dramatic monologue

(Greek "single speaking"): a genre. A poem in which the voice of a historical or fictional character speaks, unmediated by any narrator, to an implied though silent audience.

See Tennyson's "Ulysses," Browning, "The Bishop ORders His Tomb," Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"



(Greek "an insertion"): a figure of thought. A picture allegorically expressing a moral, or a verbal picture open to such interpretation.

Donne, "A Hymn to Christ": "In what torn ship soever I embark, / That ship shall be my emblem of thy ark"



A genre. Heroic poetry. An extended narrative poem celebrating martial heroes, invoking divine inspiration, beginning in medias res, written in a high style (including the deployment of epic similes) and divided into long narrative sequences. Homer's Illiad and Virgil's Aeneid were the prime models for English writers of epic verse. With its precise repertoire of stylistic resources, epic lent itself easily to parodic and burlesque forms, known as the mock epic (Rape of the Lock).

Thus Milton, Paradise Lost; Wordsworth, The Prelude; and Walcott, Omeros.



A genre. A short, pithy poem wittily expressed, often with wounding intent.

See Walter Savage Landor’s “Dirce,” Ben Jonson’s “On Gut,” or much of the work of J.V. Cunningham:

This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

See Jonson, Epigrams.



(Greek "inscription"): a genre. Any formal statement inscribed on stone; also the brief formulation of a book's title page, or a quotation at the beginning of a poem, introducing the work's themes in the most compressed form possible.

Grace Schulman’s “American Solitude” opens with a quote from an essay by Marianne Moore. Lines from Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” preface Alfred Corn’s “Sugar Cane.”



(plural "epyllia") (Greek: "little epic"): a genre. A relatively short poem in the meter of epic poetry.

Marlowe, Hero and Leander.



(French "little story," plural fabliaux): a genre. A short, funny, often bawdy narrative in low style imitated and developed from French models most subtly by Chaucer.

The Miller's Prologue and Tale



(French "stuffing"): a genre. A play designed to provoke laughter through often humiliating antics of stock characters.

Congreve's The Way of the World draws on this tradition.


Figures of thought

Language can also be patterned conceptually, even outside the rules that normally govern it. Literary language in particular exploits this licensed linguistic irregularity. Synonyms for figures of thought are "trope" (Greek "twisting," referring to the irregularity of use) and "conceit" (Latin "concept," referring to the fact that these figures are perceptible only to the mind). Be careful not to confuse trope with topos.


Free indirect style

Relevant to point of view, a narratorial voice that manages, without explicit reference, to imply, and often implicitly to comment on, the voice of a character in the narrative itself.

Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past," where the voice, although strictly that of the adult narrator, manages to convey the child's manner of perception: "--I begin: the first memory. This was of red and purple flowers on a black background--my mother's dress."


Genre and mode

The style, structure, and, often, length of a work, when coupled with a certain subject matter raise expectations that a literary work conforms to a certain genre (French "kind"). Good writers might upset these expectations, but they remain aware of the expectations and thwart them purposefully. Works in different genres may nevertheless participate in the same mode, a broader category designating the fundamental perspectives governing various genres of writing. For mode, see tragic, comic, satiric, and didactic modes. Genres are fluid, sometimes very fluid (e.g. the novel); the word "usually" should be added to almost every account of the characteristics of a given genre.



(Greek "discourse"): a genre. A sermon, to be preached in church. Writers of literary fiction sometimes exploit the homily, or sermon, as in Chaucer, The Pardoner's Tale.

Book of Homilies



(Greek "same sound"): a figure of speech. A word that sounds identical to another word but has a different meaning.

"bear" / "bare"



(Greek "overstepping"): a term of syntax. The rearrangement, or inversion, of the expected word order in a sentence or clause. Poets can suspend the expected syntax over many lines, as in the first sentence of Canterbury Tales and of Paradise Lost.

Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,": "If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise"



(adj.; Greek "over measured"): a term of meter; the word describes a breaking of the expected metrical pattern by at least one extra syllable.


Hypotaxis, or subordination

(respectively Greek and Latin "ordering under"): a term of syntax. The subordination, by the use of subordinate clauses, of different elements of a sentence to a single main verb. The contrary principle to parataxis.

Milton, PL: "As when a ship by skillful steersman wrought / Night river's mouth or foreland, where the wind / Veers oft, as oft so steers, and shifts her sail; So varied he"



The practice whereby writers strive ideally to reproduce and yet renew the conventions of an older form, often derived from classical civilization. Such a practice will be praised in periods of classicism (e.g., the eighteenth century) and repudiated in periods dominated by a model of inspiration (e.g., Romanticism).



(Greek “dissimulation”): a figure of thought. The result of inconsistency between a statement and a context that undermines the statement. “It’s a beautiful day” is unironic if the day is actually beautiful, ironic if the weather is bad. The effect is often amusing; the need to be ironic is sometimes produced by censorship of one kind or another. Strictly, irony is a subset of allegory: whereas allegory says one thing and means another, irony says one thing and means its opposite.

Swift, "Modest Proposal"



A genre. A short narrative, often characterized by images of great intensity; a French term, and a form practiced by Marie de France.



(Latin "requiring to be read"): a genre. A narrative of a celebrated, possibly historical, but mortal protagonist. To be distinguished from myth. Thus the "Arthurian legend" but the "myth of Proserpine."


Lexical set

Words that habitually recur together

Red, white, blue; January, February, March



(from Greek "smooth"): a figure of thought. Strictly, understatement by denying the contrary.

More, Utopia: "differences of no slight import"
Swift, "A Tale of a Tub": "last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse"
Stevie Smith, "Sunt Leones": "And if the Christians felt a little blue-- / Well people being eaten often do."



(from Greek "lyre"): Initially meaning a song, "lyric" refers to a short poetic form, without restriction of meter, in which the expression of personal emotion, often by a voice in the first person, is given primacy over narrative sequence.

"The Wife's Lament"
Yeats, "The Wild Swans at Coole"



A genre. Costly entertainments of the Stuart court, involving dance, song, speech, and elaborate stage effects, in which courtiers themselves participated.



(Greek "change of name"): one of the most significant figures of thought. Using a word to denote another concept or other concepts, by virtue of habitual association. Thus "The Press," designating news media. Fictional names often work by associations of this kind (I suppose Dickens would be an example, w Gradgrind et al). Closely related to synecdoche.



(French for "cast into the abyss"): Some works of art represent themselves in themselves; if they do so effectively, the represented artifact also represents itself, and so ad infinitum.

Hocleve's Complaint. A depressed man reading about a depressed man. This sequence threatens to become a mise-en-abyme.



(Latin "taking possession"): a figure of thought. Denying that one will discuss a subject while actually discussing it.

Chaucer, Nun's Priest's Tale
Or in rhetoric: "I don't even want to discuss the allegations of my opponent's drunkenness"



(Greek "song"): a genre. A lyric poem in elevated, or high style, often addressed to a natural force, a person, or an abstract quality. The Pindaric ode in English is made up of stanzas of unequal length, while the Horation ode has stanzas of equal length. For examples of both types, see, respectively, Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" and Marvell, "An Horation Ode" or Keats, "Ode on Melancholy"


Ottava rima

A verse form. An eight-line stanza form, rhyming abababcc, using iambic pentameter. Derived from the Italian poet Boccaccio, an eight-line stanza was used by fifteenth-century English poets for inset passages (e.g., Christ's speech from the Cross in Lydgate's Testament. The form in this rhyme scheme was used in English poetry for long narrative by, for example, Byron in Don Juan.

Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"



A genre. Demonstrative, or epideictic (Greek "showing"), rhetoric was a branch of classical rhetoric. Its own two main branches were the rhetoric of praise on the one hand and of vituperation on the other. Panegyric, or eulogy (Greek "sweet speaking"), or encomium (plural encomia), is the term used to describe the speeches or writings of praise.


Parataxis, or coordination

(Respectively Greek and Latin "ordering beside"): a term of syntax. The coordination, by the use of coordinating conjunctions, of different main clauses in a single sentence. The opposite principle to hypotaxis.

Malory, "Morte D'Arthur": "So Sire Lancelot departed and took his sword under his arm, and so he walked in his mantel, that noble knight, and put himself in great jeapordy."


Pathetic fallacy

The attribution of sentiment to natural phenomena, as if they were in sympathy with human feelings. For critique of the practice, see Ruskin (who coined the term), "Of the Pathetic Fallacy."

Milton, Lycidas: "With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head, / And every flower that sad embroidery wears"



Verbal expressions have many different functions. They can, for example, be descriptive, or constative (if they make an argument), or performative, for example. A performative utterance is one that makes something happen in the world by virtue of its utterance. "I hereby sentence you to ten years in prison," if uttered in the appropriate circumstances, itself performs an action; it makes something happen in the world.



(Greek "turning about"): the sudden reversal of fortune (in both directions) in a dramatic work.



(Greek “declaring around”) or circumlocution (Latin) : a figure of thought. The use of many words to express what could be expressed in few or one.

See Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 39. 1-4



(Latin “sound through”): originally the mask word in the Roman theater to magnify an actor’s voice, but in modern rhetorical usage, implies the identity assumed by the speaker. This identity's voice is coherent and their person needn't have any relation to the person of the actual author of a text.

Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"


Personification, or prosopopoeia

(Greek "person making"): a figure of thought. The attribution of human qualities to nonhuman forces or objects.

King Lear: "Blow winds and crack your cheeks, rage! Blow!"


Point of view

All of the many kinds of writing involve a point of view from which a text is, or seems to be, generated. The presence of such a point of view may be powerful and explicit, as in many novels, or deliberately invisible, as in much drama. In some genres, such as the novel, the narrator does not necessarily tell the story from a position we can predict; that is, the needs of a particular story, not the conventions of the genre, determine the narrator's position. In other genres, the narrator's position is fixed by convention; in certain kinds of love poetry, for example, the narrating voice is always that of a suffering lover. Not only does the point o view significantly inform the style of a work, but it also informs the structure of a work.



Usually a single line repeated as the last line of consecutive stanzas, sometimes with subtly different wording and ideally with subtly different meaning as the poem progresses.

Wyatt, "Blame not my lute"


Elliptical poetry

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.


Abecedarian poetry

Related to acrostic, a poem in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the alphabet. See Jessica Greenbaum, “A Poem for S.” Tom Disch’s “Abecedary” adapts the principles of an abecedarian poem, while Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror/The Terror of Future” sequence also uses the alphabet as an organizing principle. Poets who have used the abecedarian across whole collections include Mary Jo Bang, in The Bride of E, and Harryette Mullen, in Sleeping with the Dictionary.


Accentual verse

Verse whose meter is determined by the number of stressed (accented) syllables—regardless of the total number of syllables—in each line. Many Old English poems, including Beowulf, are accentual; see Ezra Pound’s modern translation of “The Seafarer.” More recently, Richard Wilbur employed this same Anglo-Saxon meter in his poem “Junk.” Traditional nursery rhymes, such as “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,” are often accentual.


Accentual-syllabic verse

Verse whose meter is determined by the number and alternation of its stressed and unstressed syllables, organized into feet. From line to line, the number of stresses (accents) may vary, but the total number of syllables within each line is fixed. The majority of English poems from the Renaissance to the 19th century are written according to this metrical system.



An early 20th-century Russian school of poetry that rejected the vagueness and emotionality of Symbolism in favor of Imagist clarity and texture. Its proponents included Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.


Acrostic poetry

A poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, name, or phrase when read vertically. See Lewis Carroll’s “A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky.”



A four-line stanza invented by the Classical Greek poet Alcaeus that employs a specific syllabic count per line and a predominantly dactylic meter. Alfred, Lord Tennyson imitated its form in his poem “Milton.”



In English, a 12-syllable iambic line adapted from French heroic verse. The last line of each stanza in Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark” is an alexandrine.



A metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable. The words “underfoot” and “overcome” are anapestic. Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is written in anapestic meter.


Augustan Age

The first half of the 18th century, during which English poets such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift emulated Virgil, Ovid, and Horace—the great Latin poets of the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE to 14 CE). Like the classical poets who inspired them, the English Augustan writers engaged the political and philosophical ideas of their day through urbane, often satirical verse.


Beat poets

A national group of poets who emerged from San Francisco’s literary counterculture in the 1950s. Its ranks included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. Poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth influenced the development of the “Beat” aesthetic, which rejected academic formalism and the materialism and conformity of the American middle class. Beat poetry is largely free verse, often surrealistic, and influenced by the cadences of jazz, as well by Zen and Native American spirituality.


Black Arts Movement

A cultural movement conceived of and promoted by Amiri Baraka in the mid-1960s. Its constellation of writers, performers, and artists included Nikki Giovanni, Jay Wright, Larry Neal, and Sonia Sanchez. “We want a black poem. And / a Black World. / Let the world be a Black Poem,” writes Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) in his poem “Black Art,” which served as a de facto manifesto for the movement. Its practitioners were energized by a desire to confront white power structures and assert an African American cultural identity. Its aims were community-minded as well as artistic; during its heyday, hundreds of Afrocentric repertory theater companies, public art projects, and publishing ventures were organized throughout the United States.


Black Mountain poets

A group of progressive poets who, in the 1940s and 1950s, were associated with the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. These poets, including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, promoted a nontraditional poetics described by Olson in 1950 as “projective verse.” Olson advocated an improvisational, open-form approach to poetic composition, driven by the natural patterns of breath and utterance.



A stop or pause in a metrical line, often marked by punctuation or by a grammatical boundary, such as a phrase or clause. A medial caesura splits the line in equal parts, as is common in Old English poetry (see Beowulf). Medial caesurae (plural of caesura) can be found throughout contemporary poet Derek Walcott’s “The Bounty.” When the pause occurs toward the beginning or end of the line, it is termed, respectively, initial or terminal. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Mother and Poet” contains both initial (“Dead! One of them shot by sea in the east”) and terminal caesurae (“No voice says ‘My mother’ again to me. What?”)



Literally “song” in Italian, the canzone is a lyric poem originating in medieval Italy and France and usually consisting of hendecasyllabic lines with end-rhyme. The canzone influenced the development of the sonnet.



A hymn or poem often sung by a group, with an individual taking the changing stanzas and the group taking the burden or refrain. See Robert Southwell’s “The Burning Babe”. Many traditional Christmas songs are carols, such as “I Saw Three Ships” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”


Carpe Diem poetry

In Latin, “Seize the day.” The fleeting nature of life and the need to embrace its pleasures constitute a frequent theme of love poems; examples include Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”



Repetition of any group of verse elements (including rhyme and grammatical structure) in reverse order, such as the rhyme scheme ABBA. Examples can be found in Biblical scripture (“But many that are first / Shall be last, / And many that are last / Shall be first”; Matthew 19:30). See also John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”).



Greek and Latin metrical foot consisting of two stressed syllables enclosing two unstressed; a trochee followed by an iamb. It is rarely used as a metrical scheme in English poetry, though Algernon Charles Swinburne imitated this classical meter in “Choriambics.”


Cockney School of poets

A dismissive name for London-based Romantic poets such as John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The term was first used in a scathing review in Blackwood’s Magazine in October 1817, in which the anonymous reviewer mocked the poets’ lack of pedigree and sophistication.



From the French coller, meaning to paste or glue. In visual arts, a technique that involves juxtaposing photographs, cuttings, newspapers, or other media on a surface. Widely seen as a hallmark of Modernist art, collage was first developed in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso and other Cubists. Avant-garde groups such as the Dadaists and Surrealists also used the form to create new visual and language-based work. Tristan Tzara famously advocated a “cut-up” method of composition, involving cutting out words from a newspaper and drawing them randomly from a hat to create a poem. Collage in language-based work can now mean any composition that includes words, phrases, or sections of outside source material in juxtaposition. An early example is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which includes newspaper clippings, music lyrics, nursery rhymes, and overheard speech. Ezra Pound’s Cantos also use the technique extensively. For more examples of language-based collage see Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets.


Common measure

A quatrain that rhymes ABAB and alternates four-stress and three-stress iambic lines. It is the meter of the hymn and the ballad. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems are written in common measure, including [It was not death, for I stood up]. See also Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner” and Elinor Wylie’s “A Crowded Trolley Car.” See also Poulter’s measure and fourteener.



A poem of lament, often directed at an ill-fated love, as in Henry Howard’s “Complaint of the Absence of Her Love Being upon the Sea,” or Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella XXXI.” A complaint may also be a satiric attack on social injustice and immorality; in “The Lie,” Sir Walter Ralegh bitterly rails against institutional hypocrisy and human vanity (“Tell men of high condition, / That manage the estate, / Their purpose is ambition, / Their practice only hate.”).



From the Latin term for “concept,” a poetic conceit is an often unconventional, logically complex, or surprising metaphor whose delights are more intellectual than sensual. Petrarchan (after the Italian poet Petrarch) conceits figure heavily in sonnets, and contrast more conventional sensual imagery to describe the experience of love. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XCVII: How like a Winter hath my Absence been,” for example, “What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!” laments the lover, though his separation takes place in the fertile days of summer and fall.

Less conventional, more esoteric associations characterize the metaphysical conceit. John Donne and other so-called metaphysical poets used conceits to fuse the sensory and the abstract, trading on the element of surprise and unlikeness to hold the reader’s attention. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” for instance, John Donne envisions two entwined lovers as the points of a compass. (For more on Donne’s conceits, see Stephen Burt’s Poem Guide on John Donne's “The Sun Rising.”)


Conceptual (writing)

An umbrella term for writing that ranges from the constraint-based practices of OuLiPo to Concrete poetry’s visual poetics. Nonreferential and interested in the materiality of language, conceptual poetry often relies on some organizing principle or information that is external to the text and can cross genres into visual or theoretical modes. Generally interested in blurring genres, conceptual poetry takes advantage of innovations in technology to question received notions of what it means to be “poetic” or to express a “self” in poetry. The ideas and practices of conceptual poetry are associated with a variety of writers including Kenneth Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin, Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, and Vanessa Place. Poetry magazine published a special section devoted to conceptual poetry in its July/August 2009 issue, guest-edited by Kenneth Goldsmith.


Concrete poetry

Verse that emphasizes nonlinguistic elements in its meaning, such as a typeface that creates a visual image of the topic. Examples include George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and “The Altar” and George Starbuck’s “Poem in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree”.


Confessional poetry

Vividly self-revelatory verse associated with a number of American poets writing in the 1950s and 1960s, including Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. The term was first used by M.L. Rosenthal in a 1959 review of Life Studies, the collection in which Robert Lowell revealed his struggles with mental illness and a troubled marriage. Read an interview with Snodgrass in which he addresses his work and the work of others associated with confessionalism.



A resemblance in sound between two words, or an initial rhyme (see also Alliteration). Consonance can also refer to shared consonants, whether in sequence (“bed” and “bad”) or reversed (“bud” and “dab”).



Greek and Latin metrical foot consisting of a short syllable enclosed by two long syllables. Its use in English poetry is rare, though instances can be found in proverbs and idiomatic expressions such as “After a while, crocodile.”


Cultural criticism / cultural studies

Developing in the 18th and 19th centuries among writers such as Jonathan Swift, John Ruskin and, especially, Matthew Arnold, cultural criticism as it is practiced today has significantly complicated older notions of culture, tradition and value. While Arnold believed in culture as a force of harmony and social change, cultural critics of the 20th century sought to extend and problematize such definitions. Theorists like Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, and those connected with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England—as well as French intellectuals such Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault—described culture not as a finished product but as a process that joined knowledge to interest and power. Cultural critics critique the traditional canon and focus their attention on a variety of texts and discourses, tracing the interactions of both through an eclectic mix of interpretive strategies that include elements of economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and new historicism. In critiquing the traditional canon, cultural critics avoid privileging one cultural product over another and often examine texts that are largely seen as marginal and unimportant in traditional criticism, such as those connected to various forms of pop culture. Essentially cross-disciplinary, cultural criticism and cultural studies have become important tools in theorizing the emergence and importance of postcolonial and multicultural literatures.



A metrical foot consisting of an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables; the words “poetry” and “basketball” are both dactylic. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is written in dactylic meter. (See also double dactyl.)



A movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire. The founders of this movement struck upon this essentially nonsense word to embody a simultaneously playful and nihilistic spirit alive among European visual artists and writers during and immediately after World War I. They salvaged a sense of freedom from the cultural and moral instability that followed the war, and embraced both “everything and nothing” in their desire to “sweep, sweep clean,” as Tristan Tzara wrote in his Dadaist Manifesto in 1920. In visual arts, this enterprise took the form of collage and juxtaposition of unrelated objects, as in the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp. T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s allusive, often syntactically and imagistically fractured poems of this era reflect a Dadaist influence. Dadaism gave rise to surrealism.


Deep Image (term)

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.


Didactic poetry

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
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers



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...



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.


Double dactyl

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:

Higgledy piggledy,
Bacon, lord Chancellor.
Negligent, fell for the
Paltrier vice.

Bribery toppled him,
Finished him, testing some
Poultry on ice.
(by Ian Lancashire)



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.


Elizabethan Age (under lit terms)

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.



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
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green


Envoi (or envoy)

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.”


Epic simile

A detailed, often complex poetic comparison (see simile) that unfolds over the course of several lines. It is also known as a Homeric simile, because the Greek poet Homer is thought to have originated the device in the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the following passage from Book I of Paradise Lost, John Milton compares Lucifer’s massive army to scattered autumn leaves:

His legions—angel forms, who lay entranc’d
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High over-arch’d embow’r; or scatter’d sedge
Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion arm’d
Hath vex’d the Red-Sea coast, whose waves o’erthrew
Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating carkases
And broken chariot-wheels: so thick bestrown,
Abject and lost, lay these, covering the flood,
Under amazement of their hideous change.


Epistle (lit term)

A letter in verse, usually addressed to a person close to the writer. Its themes may be moral and philosophical, or intimate and sentimental. Alexander Pope favored the form; see his “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” in which the poet addresses a physician in his social circle. The epistle peaked in popularity in the 18th century, though Lord Byron and Robert Browning composed several in the next century; see Byron’s “Epistle to Augusta.” Less formal, more conversational versions of the epistle can be found in contemporary lyric poetry; see Hayden Carruth’s “The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill” or “Dear Mr. Fanelli” by Charles Bernstein.



A short poem intended for (or imagined as) an inscription on a tombstone and often serving as a brief elegy. See Robert Herrick’s “Upon a Child That Died” and “Upon Ben Jonson”; Ben Jonson’s “Epitaph on Elizabeth, L. H.”; and “Epitaph for a Romantic Woman” by Louise Bogan.



A lyric poem in praise of Hymen (the Greek god of marriage), an epithalamion often blesses a wedding and in modern times is often read at the wedding ceremony or reception. See Edmund Spenser’s “Epithalamion.” Browse more epithalamions.



In linguistics, folkloristics and anthropology, a method of analyzing linguistic structures in oral literature. The term was coined in 1968 by Jerome Rothenberg, whose anthology Technicians of the Sacred is considered a definitive text of the movement. In poetry, ethnopoetics refers to non-Western, non-canonical poetries, often those coming from ancient and autochthonous cultures. In the early 20th century, Modernist and avant-garde poets such as Antonin Artaud and Tristan Tzara used “primitive” or oral traditions in their work; by midcentury, a curiosity regarding world literature had coalesced into a movement led by Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock, who together edited the journal Alcheringa from 1970 to 1980. Contemporary poets with an interest in ethnopoetics include Gary Snyder, Kathleen Stewart, and William Bright.


Feminist theory

An extension of feminism’s critique of male power and ideology, feminist theory combines elements of other theoretical models such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction to interrogate the role of gender in the writing, interpretation, and dissemination of literary texts. Originally concerned with the politics of women’s authorship and representations of women in literature, feminist theory has recently begun to examine ideas of gender and sexuality across a wide range of disciplines including film studies, geography, and even economics. Feminist theory emerged from the struggle for women’s rights, beginning in the 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft’s publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Important feminist theorists of the 20th century include Betty Friedan, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Elaine Showalter, Carol Gilligan, and Adrienne Rich.


Figure of speech

An expressive, nonliteral use of language. Figures of speech include tropes (such as hyperbole, irony, metaphor, and simile) and schemes (anything involving the ordering and organizing of words—anaphora, antithesis, and chiasmus, for example). Browse all terms related to figures of speech.


Fixed and unfixed forms

Poems that have a set number of lines, rhymes, and/or metrical arrangements per line. Browse all terms related to forms, including alcaics, alexandrine, aubade, ballad, ballade, carol, concrete poetry, double dactyl, dramatic monologue, eclogue, elegy, epic, epistle, epithalamion, free verse, haiku, heroic couplet, limerick, madrigal, mock epic, ode, ottava rima, pastoral, quatrain, renga, rondeau, rondel, sestina, sonnet, Spenserian stanza, tanka, tercet, terza rima, and villanelle.



Originally a prank on the scam contest sponsored by the organization, the experimental poetry movement flarf has slowly assumed a serious position as a new kind of Internet-based poetic practice. Known for its reliance on Google as a means of generating odd juxtapositions, surfaces, and grammatical inaccuracies, flarf also celebrates deliberately bad or “incorrect” poetry by forcing clichés, swear words, onomatopoeia, and other linguistic aberrations into poetic shape. Original flarf member Gary Sullivan describes flarf as “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’” Flarf poets collaborate on poems, revising and sometimes plagiarizing them in semipublic spaces such as blogs or webzines. Original members of the “Flarfist Collective” include Sullivan, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, and Nada Gordon. Poetry magazine published a special section devoted to flarf in its July/August 2009 issue, guest-edited by Kenneth Goldsmith.


Formalist (Russian)

A brief but influential 20th-century critical method that originated in St. Petersburg through the group OPOYAZ, and in Moscow via the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Important Formalists included Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky. Formalism viewed literature as a distinct and separate entity, unconnected to historical or social causes or effects. It analyzed literature according to devices unique to literary works and focused on the “literariness” of a text: words were not simply stand-ins for objects but objects themselves. Formalists advanced the concept of ostranenie, or defamiliarization, arguing that literature, by calling attention to itself as such, estranged the reader from ordinary experience and made the familiar seem new. Formalism’s tendency to collapse form and content is somewhat similar to New Criticism’s approach, though its main influence was on structuralism.


Found poem (lit term)

A prose text or texts reshaped by a poet into quasi-metrical lines. Fragments of found poetry may appear within an original poem as well. Portions of Ezra Pound’s Cantos are found poetry, culled from historical letters and government documents. Charles Olson created his poem “There Was a Youth whose Name Was Thomas Granger” using a report from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation.



A metrical line of 14 syllables (usually seven iambic feet). A relatively long line, it can be found in narrative poetry from the Middle Ages through the 16th century. Fourteener couplets broken into quatrains are known as common measure or ballad meter. See also Poulter’s measure.



A group of Southern poets associated with the Fugitive, a literary magazine produced in the early 1920s. Its prominent ranks included Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. In general, their poetry was formal, featuring traditional prosody and concrete imagery frequently drawn from the rural Southern experience. These poet-critics’ principles gave rise to the method of close reading and textual analysis known as New Criticism. Browse more Fugitive poets.



An avant-garde aesthetic movement that arose in Italy and Russia in the early 20th century. Its proponents—predominantly painters and other visual artists—called for a rejection of past forms of expression, and the embrace of industry and new technology. Speed and violence were the favored vehicles of sensation, rather than lyricism, symbolism, and “high” culture. F. T. Marinetti, in his futurist Manifesto (1909), advocated “words in freedom”—a language unbound by common syntax and order that, along with striking variations in typography, could quickly convey intense emotions. Marinetti and other Italian futurists allied themselves with militaristic nationalism, which alienated their cause internationally following World War II. Russian futurist poets such as Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky profoundly influenced the development of Russian formalism, while in England the futurist movement was expressed as Vorticism by Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis in their magazine BLAST. Listen to “Futurism and the New Manifesto” here. See also Mina Loy’s “Aphorisms on Futurism”.


Gender studies

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of gender, sexual categories, and identity. As a discipline, gender studies borrows from other theoretical models like psychoanalysis—particularly that of Jacques Lacan—deconstruction, and feminist theory in an attempt to examine the social and cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity as they relate to class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Like gender studies, queer theory also questions normative definitions of gender and sexuality. As approaches to literary texts, gender studies and queer theory tend to emphasize the power of representation and linguistic indeterminacy.



A poetic movement in England during the reign of George V (1910–1936), promoted in the anthology series Georgian Poetry. Its ranks included Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, A.E. Housman, and D.H. Lawrence. The aesthetic principles of Georgianism included a respect for formalism as well as bucolic and romantic subject matter. The devastation of World War I, along with the rise of modernism, signaled the retreat of Georgianism as an influential school of poetry.



(Pronounciation: “guzzle”) Originally an Arabic verse form dealing with loss and romantic love, medieval Persian poets embraced the ghazal, eventually making it their own. Consisting of syntactically and grammatically complete couplets, the form also has an intricate rhyme scheme. Each couplet ends on the same word or phrase (the radif), and is preceded by the couplet’s rhyming word (the qafia, which appears twice in the first couplet). The last couplet includes a proper name, often of the poet’s. In the Persian tradition, each couplet was of the same meter and length, and the subject matter included both erotic longing and religious belief or mysticism. English-language poets who have composed in the form include Adrienne Rich, John Hollander, and Agha Shahid Ali; see Ali’s “Tonight” and Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal.”


Gnomic verse

Poems laced with proverbs, aphorisms, or maxims. The term was first applied to Greek poets in the 6th century BCE and was practiced in medieval Germany and England. See excerpts from the Exeter Book. Robert Creeley explored the genre in his contemporary “Gnomic Verses.”


Harlem Renaissance

A period of musical, literary, and cultural proliferation that began in New York’s African-American community during the 1920s and early 1930s. Its writing luminaries include Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Arna Bontemps. See Hughes’s article “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Black Poet as Canon-Maker”.



A Classical Greek and Latin metrical line consisting of 11 syllables: typically a spondee or trochee, a choriamb, and two iambs, the second of which has an additional syllable at the end. The classical Latin poet Catullus favored the line. It is seldom used in English, although Algernon Charles Swinburne worked with the meter in “Hendecasyllabics”:

In the month of the long decline of roses
I, beholding the summer dead before me,
Set my face to the sea and journeyed silent,
Gazing eagerly where above the sea-mark
Flame as fierce as the fervid eyes of lions
Half divided the eyelids of the sunset . . .



A meter made up of seven feet and usually 14 syllables total (see Fourteener). George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s the Iliad is written in heptameter, as is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” See also Poulter’s measure.



A metrical line of six feet, most often dactylic, and found in Classical Latin or Greek poetry, including Homer’s Iliad. In English, an iambic hexameter line is also known as an alexandrine. Only a few poets have written in dactylic hexameter, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the long poem Evangeline:

Now had the season returned, when the nights grow colder and longer,
And the retreating sun the sign of the Scorpion enters.
Birds of passage sailed through the leaden air, from the ice-bound,
Desolate northern bays to the shores of tropical islands.



A poem praising God or the divine, often sung. In English, the most popular hymns were written between the 17th and 19th centuries. See Isaac Watts’s “Our God, Our Help,” Charles Wesley’s “My God! I Know, I Feel Thee Mine,” and “Thou Hidden Love of God” by John Wesley.



A figure of speech composed of a striking exaggeration. For example, see James Tate’s lines “She scorched you with her radiance” or “He was more wronged than Job.” Hyperbole usually carries the force of strong emotion, as in Andrew Marvell’s description of a forlorn lover:

The sea him lent those bitter tears
Which at his eyes he always wears;
And from the winds the sighs he bore,
Which through his surging breast do roar.
No day he saw but that which breaks
Through frighted clouds in forkèd streaks,
While round the rattling thunder hurled,
As at the funeral of the world.



Elements of a poem that invoke any of the five senses to create a set of mental images. Specifically, using vivid or figurative language to represent ideas, objects, or actions. Poems that use rich imagery include T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” and Mary Oliver’s “At Black River.”



An early 20th-century poetic movement that relied on the resonance of concrete images drawn in precise, colloquial language rather than traditional poetic diction and meter. T.E. Hulme, H.D., and William Carlos Williams were practitioners of the imagist principles as laid out by Ezra Pound in the March 1913 issue of Poetry (see “A Retrospect” and “A Few Don'ts”). Amy Lowell built a strain of imagism that used some of Pound's principles and rejected others in her Preface to the 1915 anthology, Some Imagist Poets. Browse more imagist poets.



An address to a deity or muse that often takes the form of a request for help in composing the poem at hand. Invocations can occur at the beginning of the poem or start of a new canto; they are considered conventions of the epic form and are a type of apostrophe. See the opening of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Alexander Pope mocked the convention in the first canto of “The Rape of the Lock.” A contemporary example is Denise Levertov’s poem “Invocation.”



A figurative compound word that takes the place of an ordinary noun. It is found frequently in Old Germanic, Norse, and English poetry, including The Seafarer, in which the ocean is called a “whale-path.” (See Ezra Pound’s translation)