Reviews / March 2013 (Issue 20)

Scholarly Gems: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics

by Michael O'Sullivan


Roland Greene (Editor in Chief), Stephen Cushman (General Editor), Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani & Paul Rouzer (Associate Editors), The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition, Princeton University Press, 2012. 1639 pgs.

There is a limit to what a review such as this is able to do, given that this is a 1639-page encyclopedia of over a million words and over 1,000 entries. For this piece, I have focused on key changes, additions and developments the editors highlight in this new edition of their Encyclopedia. I offer as well responses to entries relevant to my own fields of research as a scholar of literature.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics was first published in 1965. The editors of the fourth edition describe the Encyclopedia as "the common property of the worldwide community of poetry scholars," a work whose scope "has always been worldwide, concerning (as the original editors put it) the history, theory, technique, and criticism of poetry from earliest times to the present." The editors have included 250 entirely new entries in this latest edition, including "poetry slam," "digital poetry," "poetry as information" and "poetry as knowledge," as well as entries on schools such as "the Black Mountain School" and "confessional poetry." They also challenge what they call the "tacit assumption" that "general poetic terms may only be treated through English-language examples" and offer "substantial new investments" in Asian poetry and poetics. They divide their entries into five different groupings: "terms and concepts; genres and forms; periods, schools and movements; the poetries of nations, regions, and languages; and poetry in relation to other cultural forms, disciplines, and social practices such as linguistics, religion, and science." Entries are often written by literary celebrities such as Louis Menand, Charles Altieri and Barbara Hernstein Smith, and this new edition also includes an index for the first time.

Entries on topics for which English lecturers are always seeking concise definitions, such as "intentional fallacy," "affective fallacy" and the "objective correlative" are clear while also being willing to question received interpretations. Louis Menand's entry on the object correlative gives the history of the term's appearance in T. S. Eliot's work but recognises that "Eliot's formulation verges on tautology." The affective fallacy is described as "any approach to lit. that comments upon the emotional, imaginative, or physiological effects of a poem on one or more readers."

Vast, sprawling terms such as "poem," "rhyme" and "imagination" are also tackled. A poem is a "composition, often in lines, that draws on some or all of the following common features: rhythm, meter, figuration, (incl. rhetorical schemes and tropes), and artifice (incl. diction and syntax)." The entry on poem gives a formal explanation, defines different theories of poetry beginning with Abrams's fourfold system (mimetic, expressive, pragmatic, and objective) before moving on to broadly period-based theories (such as Romantic and Post-Romantic theories) and then describes various "notions about the poem" such as assimilationist, integrationist, artifactualist and irreducibilist.

The entry on rhyme is one of the longest entries and it is wonderfully precise and informative. It begins by revealing that there are basically "two chief views" on the origin and development of rhyme. Rhyme is either regarded as originating in one culture (Chinese, Sanskrit or Iranian) and then spreading or as a "natural ling. structure that can arise in any lang." The entry then gives concise histories of the origins of rhyme in different cultures: Chinese, Arabic and Persian and Western European. The second section of the entry is devoted to "Rhyme in Western Poetries, Particularly in English." In this tradition, rhyme is described as "the linkage in poetry of two syllables at line end […] that have identical stressed vowels and subsequent phonemes but differ in initial consonant(s) if any are present-syllables that, in short, begin differently and end alike." The entry ends with a section on the various terminologies for rhyme in the "several Western langs."

The editors stress that they have sought to "reduce the size and scope of many of the larger entries on national poetries" in order to move to a "multivocal account of many of the signal events in world poetry" that also delineates a "literary history in bold strokes." With this in mind, I turn to the entry on the national poetry with which I am most familiar, Irish poetry, or what is now entitled "The Poetry of Ireland" in this new edition. The notion of a national poetry is always fraught with difficulties and Irish poetry is no exception. However, the entry on Irish poetry is an exemplary encyclopedic piece of scholarship, richly informative and well-researched while also being a model of concision and cultural sensitivity.

"Poetry Slam" is a new entry in the fourth edition. It is defined as a "contest in which poets compete against each with judges (chosen at random from the audience) assigning a score to each performance on a scale of one to ten to determine the winner." For the last poetry slam this reviewer attended, the judges were well-known poets who had been chosen well in advance. It raises the question of how rigid the rules are for slams. The poetry slam is defined as a "site for the ritual enactment of communitas" even though the slam movement has also been targeted for its "trendiness and gimmickry." It is described as negotiating both the "cultural identities of minority citizens" and "energies and strategies of late market capitalism."

As a university lecturer teaching literatures in English in Hong Kong, the newly expanded entries on Asian Poetry are also welcome. The editors explain that there are "substantial new investments" in "the popular poetry of China, Chinese poetic drama, [and] the influential tenth-century Japanese collection known as KokinshÅ«." The many entries in this new edition on Chinese poetry include: "Modern Poetry of China," "Poetry of China," "Popular Poetry of China," "Chinese Poetic Drama," "Chinese Poetics," "Chinese Poetry in English Translation" and "Chinese Poetry in Japan." As a non-specialist reader in this field, I can only make out from the entries that the difference between "Poetry of China" and "Popular Poetry of China" appears to be that the popular variety is described as "shuochang wenxue" or "literature for telling and singing." The editors note that "Poetry of China" refers to "traditional Chinese poetry" that "consists of forms of writing that employ rhyme and usually a metric defined by a set number of syllables for each line." Once again, as a non-specialist, I am left wondering how the popular variety differs from this traditional form if it also employs rhyme and rhythms, as we are told it does—"Verse narratives are most often composed in lines of seven-syllable verse […] These lines have a basic rhythm of 3-4-3 or of 3-3-4." Perhaps a little cross-referencing between these entries might come to the aid of the non-specialist here.

"Poetry as Information" is another new entry. Information is defined a la John Guillory as "any given (datum) of our cognitive experience that can be materially encoded for the purpose of transmission or storage." The sense here seems to hinge on our understanding of "materially encoded." The entry differentiates between the information a poem might transmit and what it calls "reportage" or "statistics." The qualitative approach to the poetry of information, we are told, regards information as a "discourse or idiolect among others available to the poem." This drift to regarding discourse as information and less as practice is of course to be observed in many disciplines. The entry notes in response that in an "'information society' in which information is monetized, politicized, and weaponized, [that] recent U.S. poetry has increasingly embraced its role as a channel for conveying and a ground for critical reflection on the politics and economics around data of all sorts."

Overall, this reviewer finds the Encyclopedia itself to be a rich repository of living, intertextual information and scholarly gems that seamlessly bridges the different traditions, period codes, national histories and formal techniques that have built up around our collective interest in, and commitment to, how the body has swayed to the music of language.

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