Edward Hirsch’s “A Poet’s Glossary” is an instant classic that belongs on the bookshelf of every serious poet and literature student. This exhaustive resource surveys the landscape of poetry — its forms, devices and schools — and traces the development of the art form through the centuries and around the world.
If that sounds dry, think again. “A Poet’s Glossary” is a natural outgrowth of Hirsch’s national bestseller, “How to Read a Poem” (1999). That earlier book delighted readers by helping them explore the connection between language and feeling, and showing why poetry matters. Hirsch’s own mastery as a poet and critic made the text vibrant and inviting.
In this new book, Hirsch demonstrates why the tools of poetry — from the familiar to the obscure — matter. He explains each term in clear, direct prose, often moving from a general definition to a layered explanation of how each term has evolved over time.
Take, for example, the opening entry, abecedarian, which begins, “An alphabetical acrostic in which each line or stanza begins with a successive letter of the alphabet.” Many readers have seen this ancient form but may not know that it was often employed for sacred texts. Hirsch explains this connection and highlights a psalm in the Bible as well as poems by St. Augustine and Chaucer within just a few lines. In less skilled hands, the result could have felt like a page in an anatomy textbook, where an organ is reduced to its function. Instead, Hirsch breathes new life into the abecedarian by pointing out its relationship to prayer and how poets as varied as Gertrude Stein and Harryette Mullen have stretched — and been stretched by — the form.
Readers who move sequentially through the “Glossary” will notice the unexpected richness of the poet’s toolbox, which includes epitaph and epithet, euphemism and euphony, haikai and haiku. Hirsch explains them all with the ease of a tour guide who has spent a lifetime learning the territory.
Hirsch also highlights connections between various schools or patterns of thought, as when he describes the melancholy Graveyard Poets, “sometimes derided as the school of the drowned-in-tears.” Their perspective foreshadowed Gothic literature, and although they were never a formal school, “their dark sensibilities, their feeling for the uncanny, and their spooky naturalism helped to create the climate for romantic poetry.”
The more you read in this insightful book, the more you’ll feel a part of a communal journey that has continued for thousands of years — from epicto hip hop, from blank verse to hypertext, from classicism to modernism, and more. Dip in here and there and gain a growing appreciation for poetry, that “inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language” that is a “human fundamental, like music.”
A POET’S GLOSSARY
By Edward Hirsch
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 730 pp. $30