Literary Terms Modern Essay

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20th-Century Poetry & Poetics
FIFTH EDITION

GLOSSARY OF POETIC TERMS
The aim of this glossary is not to set in concrete words that are constantly changing and evolving, but rather to help students develop the critical tools and vocabulary with which to understand and talk about poetry. Since poets themselves often disagree about the meaning and importance of terms such as free verse, rhythm, lyric, structure, and the prose poem, and since control of literary discourse is part of each new generation’s struggle for poetic ascendancy, it seems only reasonable and appropriate for the student to view all efforts to define critical terminology in a historical perspective and with a healthy degree of scepticism. This mini-glossary reflects the continuing debate between traditional metrics and free verse, and between differing conceptions of the poet’s craft and role in society. A fuller and more lively debate may often be found in the notes on the poets and in the poetics section. In a number of instances, I have been less concerned to offer hard-andfast definitions than to alert readers to the controversy that surrounds certain critical terms. The following list is by no means complete, but is intended to aid and provoke, to stimulate discussion and debate and send the curious reader on to more comprehensive sources. I have made use of and recommend highly A Glossary of Literary Terms (1957), by M.H. Abrams; the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1974), edited by Alex Preminger, Frank, J. Warnke, and O.B. Hardison, Jr; and The Poet’s Dictionary: A Handbook of Prosody and Poetic Devices (1989), by William Packard. G.G.

accent The emphasis, or stress, placed on a syllable, reflecting pitch, duration, and the pressures of grammar and syntax. While all syllables are accented or stressed in speech and in poetry, we tend to describe the less dominant as unstressed or unaccented syllables. In metrical verse, accented and unaccented (stressed and unstressed) syllables are easily identified. Robert Burns’s famous line “My lóve is líke a réd, red róse” might be described as an iambic tetrameter line, with four feet each consisting of one unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. However, it can be argued that such a reading trivializes and effectively undercuts the emotional power of the poetic utterance, and that the sense of the line dictates a slightly different reading, which locates three strong stresses or accents in the second half of the line: “My lóve is líke a réd, réd róse”. See also FEET and METER.

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20 -Century Poetry & Poetics

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alexandrine A twelve-syllable line, usually consisting of six iambic feet. alliteration A common poetic device that involves the repetition of the same sound or sounds in words or lines in close proximity. Alliteration was most pronounced in Anglo-Saxon poems such as “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”, which Earle Birney imitates in his satire of Toronto, “Anglo-Saxon Street”: Dawndrizzle ended dampness steams from Blotching brick and blank plasterwaste Faded house patterns hoary and finicky unfold stuttering stick like a phonograph While such intense piling up of consonants was once a common mnemonic device (an aid to memory), changing literary fashions have, to a large extent, rendered such self-conscious exhibitions too blunt and obvious for the contemporary ear, except when used for comic purposes. Exceptions include rap poetry and spoken word, both of which make extensive use of alliteration and rhyme. Nevertheless, the repetition, or rhyming, of vowels, consonants, and consonant clusters (nt, th, st, etcetera) remains a still a central component in constructing the soundscape of the poem, just as the repetition and variation of image and idea enrich the intellectual and sensory fabric. The most talented practitioners will be listening backwards and forwards as they compose, picking up and repeating both images and sounds that give the poem a rich and...
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