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10 Terms You Need to Know to Understand Poetry

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Poetry is meant to inspire readers and listeners, to connect them more deeply to themselves even as it links them more fully to others. But many people feel put off by the terms of poetry, its odd vocabulary, its notorious difficulty. They may like or even love individual poems--they often seek them for ritual occasions, like weddings and funerals--but they nonetheless feel that poetry itself isn't for them. They've been dispirited by their memories of school. I've always believed, however, that poetry goes well beyond the classroom and speaks to a wide variety of people in all kinds of circumstances. It delivers us to ourselves and helps us to live our lives. The terms of poetry--some simple, some complicated, some ancient, some new--should bring us closer to what we're hearing, enlarging our experience of it, enabling us to describe what we're reading, to feel and think with greater precision.

I've spent more than a decade putting together A Poet's Glossary, a book of familiar and unfamiliar terms, a compendium of discoveries that has befriended me. The devices work the magic in poetry, and a glossary gives names to those devices. It unpacks them. It is meant to be useful, enjoyable, enlightening, something to keep at hand. Its ultimate purpose is to deepen the reader's initiation into the mysteries.

Here then are 10 key terms that can enlarge your understanding of poetry:

rhythm: The word rhythm comes from the Greek word rhythmos, "measured motion," which in turn 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. It takes us into ourselves; it takes 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. Rhythm creates a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and change. It is repetition with a difference.

line: A unit of meaning, a measure of attention. The line is a way of framing poetry. All verse is measured by lines. The poetic line immediately announces its difference from everyday speech and prose. An autonomous line makes sense on its own, even if it is a fragment. It is end-stopped and completes a thought. The first line in Keats's "Endymion" is end-stopped: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." By contrast, an enjambed line carries the meaning over from one line to the next, as in the next four lines of Keats's poem: "Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness, but still will keep / A bower quiet for us, and a sleep / Full of sweet dreams..." 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.

iambic pentameter: A five-stress, roughly 10 syllable line. This fundamental line, established by Chaucer (1340?-1400) for English poetry, was energized when English attained a condition of relative stability in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It might be the traditional formal line closest to the form of our speech and thus has been especially favored by dramatists ever since Christopher Marlowe, whose play Tamburlaine (1587) inaugurated the greatest Elizabethan drama, and William Shakespeare, who used it with astonishing virtuosity and freedom. John Milton showed how supple and dignified the pentameter line could be in Paradise Lost (1667): "Of man's first disobedience, and the fall / Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden, till one greater Man / Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, / Sing, Heav'nly Muse..."

stanza:The natural unit of the lyric: a group or sequence of lines arranged in a pattern. A stanzaic pattern is traditionally defined by the meter and rhyme scheme, considered repeatable throughout a work. A stanzaic poem uses white space to create temporal and visual pauses. The word stanza means "room" in Italian -- "a station," "a stopping place" -- and each stanza in a poem is like a room in a house, a lyric dwelling place. Each stanza has an identity, a structural place in the whole. As the line is a single unit of meaning, so the stanza comprises a larger rhythmic and thematic sequence. It is a basic division comparable to the paragraph in prose, but more discontinuous, more insistent as a separate melodic and rhetorical unit. In written poems stanzas are separated by white space, and this division on the printed page gives the poem a particular visual reality.

metaphor: A figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another -- as when Walt Whitman characterizes the grass as "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." The term metaphor derives from the Greek metaphora, which means "carrying from one place to another," and a metaphor transfers the connotations of one thing (or idea) to another. It says A equals B ("Life is a dream"). It is a transfer of energies, a mode of energetic relation, of interpenetration, a matter of identity and difference, a collision, or collusion, in the identification of unlike things. Metaphor operates by condensation and compression. It works by a process of interaction and draws attention to the categories of language by crossing them. Readers actively participate in making meaning through metaphor, in thinking through the conjoining -- the relation -- of unlike things.

simile: The explicit comparison of one thing to another, using the word as or like -- as when Robert Burns writes: "My love is like a red, red rose / That's newly sprung in June: / My love is like the melodie / That's sweetly play'd in tune." The essence of simile is likeness and unlikeness, urging a comparison of two different things. A good simile depends on a kind of heterogeneity between the elements being compared. Similes are comparable to metaphors, but the difference between them is not merely grammatical. It is a difference in significance. Metaphor asserts an identity, but simile is a form of analogical thinking. The simile asserts a likeness between unlike things, but also draws attention to their differences. When Shakespeare asks, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (Sonnet 18, 1609), he is drawing attention to the artificial process of figuration.

sonnet:The fourteen-line rhyming poem was invented in southern Italy around 1235 or so. The word sonnet derives from the Italian sonetto, meaning "a little sound" or "a little song," but the stateliness of the form belies the modesty of the word's derivation. Something about the spaciousness and brevity of the form seems to suit the contours of rhetorical argument, especially when the subject is erotic love. The two main types of sonnet form in English are the English, or Shakespearean sonnet (so-called because Shakespeare was its greatest practitioner), which consists of three quatrains and a couplet usually rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg, and the Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet (so-called because Petrarch was its greatest practitioner), which consists of an octave (eight lines rhyming abbaabba) and a sestet (six lines rhyming cdecde). The volta, or "turn," refers to the rhetorical division and shift between the opening eight lines and the concluding six.

epigram: From the Greek epigramma, "to write upon." An epigram is a short, witty poem or pointed saying. In Hellenistic Greece (third century B.C.E.), 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. The Greek Anthology is filled with more than fifteen hundred epigrams of all sorts, including pungent lyrics on the pleasures of wine, women, boys, and song. The epigram has no particular form, though it often employs a rhymed couplet or quatrain, which can stand alone or serve as part of a longer work. Here is Alexander Pope's "Epigram from the French" (1732): "Sir, I admit your general rule, / That every poet is a fool: / But you yourself may serve to show it, / That every fool is not a poet."

rhyme: The OED defines rhyme as "Agreement in the terminal sounds of two or more words or metrical lines, such that (in English prosody) the last stressed vowel and any sounds following it are the same, while the sound or sounds preceding it are different." Rhyme foregrounds the sounds of words as words. It is mnemonic: "Red sky at night, sailor's delight. / Red sky in morning, sailor's warning." Rhyme involves the inner correspondence of end sounds in words or in lines of verse. W. N. Ewer writes in "The Chosen People" (1924): "How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews." This exemplifies exact rhyme, since the initial sounds are different, but all succeeding sounds are identical. It is called near rhyme when the final consonants are identical but the preceding vowels or consonants differ, as when W. B. Yeats rhymes houses and faces at the opening of "Easter, 1916."

poem: A made thing, a verbal construct, an event in language. In ancient Greek, the word poiesis means "making." The medieval and Renaissance poets used the word makers, as in "courtly makers," as a precise equivalent for poets, hence William Dunbar's "Lament for the Makers" (1508). The word poem came into English in the sixteenth century and has been with us ever since to denote a form of fabrication, a verbal composition, a humanly created thing of art.