If poetics customarily deals with generalities, history seems to insist on particulars. In the 21st century, various literary critics have sought to manage these competing imperatives by developing an “historical poetics.” These critics pursue sometimes very different projects, working with diverse methodologies and theoretical frameworks, but they share a desire to think again about the relation between poetics and history. Some critics have pursued an historical poetics by conducting quantitative studies of changes in metrical form, while others have investigated the social uses to which poetry was put in the cultures of the past. Both approaches tend to reject received notions of the aesthetic or literary, with their emphasis on the individual poet and on the poem’s organic unity. Much work in historical poetics has focused instead on problems of genre and reception, seeking the historical significance of poetry in what is common and repeated. Sometimes this work has involved extensive archival research, examining memoirs, grammar books, philological tracts, and other materials in order to discover how poetry was conceived and interpreted at a particular time. These methods allow critics to tell histories of poetry and to reveal a history in poetry. The cultural history of poetic forms thus becomes a history of social thought and practice conducted through poetry. For other critics, however, the historical significance of a poem lies instead in the way it challenges the poetics of its time. This is to emphasize the singular over the common and repeated. In this mode, historical poetics aims both to restore poems to their proper historical moment and to show how poems work across history. The history to be valued in such cases is not a ground or world beyond the poem, but the event of the poem itself.
The most discussed and cited works of Asian American writing in literary studies include mainly novels, memoirs, short fiction, essays, and plays. To use Sau-ling Wong’s terms Necessity and Extravagance, the study of prose narrative has become a Necessity in the establishment of an Asian American literary canon, while poetry appears to occupy the status of the Extravagant—not excluded, but not as important or basic as prose. However, considering Asian American studies through the framework of not just poetry as a genre but also the poetic as a mode leads to some fresh understandings of canonical narratives, as well as criticism and theory. The power of poetry and the poetic do lie in their alignment with Extravagance, especially in their play with rules and expectations of language, convention, and form. Poems by Asian American writers point to the underside of play, the ways in which play can threaten minority subjects. At the same time the poems enact their own forms of play, through literary allusion and figurative language, for example. Asian American poetry and the Asian American poetic harness the energies of recreation and enjoyment to build and repurpose literary and discursive forms that articulate racial, ethnic, and gendered perils and promises.
The term poetics designates both a field of study and the practice of a particular author or group of authors. Aristotle’s Poetics, the most important work of literary theory in the Western tradition, undertakes to describe in systematic fashion the major forms of literature, the components of each, and how these elements contribute to the effects desired. Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that there is a comprehensive structure of knowledge attainable about poetry, which is not the experience of poetry, but poetics. Such a poetics treats literature as an autonomous object of knowledge, whose major genres or forms it seeks to analyze. This is an explicit poetics; but we also speak of the poetics implicit in the work of an individual writer, or of a group of writers, or of the literature of an era, as in The Poetics of Dante’s Paradiso, or even The Poetics of Postmodernism, which focus on the characteristic techniques, compositional habits, and ways of treating subjects in the literary practice under consideration. As the latter title indicates, the term poetics is used even when the literature treated does not include much poetry. Poetics can be distinguished from literary history, in that it focuses on literature as a system of possibilities rather than as a historical sequence or a practice in history, although categories from poetics will be important for any study of the evolution of literature. In literary theory, poetics is set apart for concentrating on intrinsic characteristics of literature as a system, as opposed to treating it as a phenomenon to be explained in social, historical, economic, or psychological terms. Poetics is particularly distinguished from hermeneutics or interpretation, in that it does not attempt to determine the meaning of literary works but asks how they function: What are characteristics of different literary genres and their constituents? How do their various elements work together to produce the effects they do for readers? Many contributions to the theory of literature can be seen as contributions to poetics, insofar as they try to explain the nature of literature and describe some of its major forms, even if they are presented as arguments about the literary practice of a particular period or literary mode. Western poetics begins with Aristotle, whose poetics is based on drama: literature is defined an imitation of action, in which plot is central. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, by contrast, foundational poetics have been drawn from lyric poetry and have focused on affect and expression rather than on representation. In the history of Western poetics mimesis has remained fundamental, despite changes that, from time to time, treat literature as the expression of the experience of the author or the attempt to create certain experiences for the reader.
Lyric poems have often been treated as expressions of pure or immediate feeling. “Amaze,” by Adelaide Crapsey, exemplifies the pervasiveness of thought even in a seemingly innocuous trifle. Philosophers and aestheticians have wrestled with the relationship between thought and feeling in poetry. Notable formulations come from Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, but the most persuasive is from an essay by Herder, “On Knowledge and Sensation in the Human Soul.” The opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Mallarmé’s sonnet “Le Cygne” illustrate how poems struggle to confront feelings, with the smallest words—connectives, deictics, pronouns—bearing the burden of capturing the movement of the mind in thought. The apodictic language of de Manian deconstruction misses the subtleties, as do quasi-mystical theories of the power of imagery and New Critical faith in the formalized rhetoric of “the poem itself.” “Loving in truth” are the opening words of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella; this first sonnet and the entire cycle instantiate poetic discourse as the unending search amid the byways of truth. In a study of Wallace Stevens, Charles Altieri calls the thinking of poetry “aspectual,” and Stevens’s poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico” presents the basic task of poetic cognition through its satire of the magnifico’s failure to think. “Lyric poetry’s exemption from rationalism,” as one new study puts it, is really an exemption from preemptive assertion in the service of exploring and representing the mind’s coursing.
Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller
As expansive as Whitman, as subversive as Dickinson, Muriel Rukeyser pursued a prescient engagement with the limitations, but also the possibilities, of the American imagination. Her poems grapple with the connections between love and revolution, between poetry and political action; between the private life of the individual and the communal life of the species, between the searching for truth(s) in both art and science, and between what Rukeyser called “verifiable fact”—documents, statistics—and “unverifiable fact”—memories, myths, and dreams. She spoke out, in her writing and in her life, against war, sexism and homophobia, xenophobia, racism, (trans)gender and body discrimination, and the suppression of what has been buried or lost in American culture and created a body of work that continues to be a model of independence, insight, and inspiration for poets, scholars, and theorists. Her best known poems include “Poem Out of Childhood”; “Effort at Speech Between Two People”; “Theory of Flight”; “Homage to Literature”; “The Book of the Dead”; “Boy with His Hair Cut Short”; “Ajanta”; “Letter to the Front” with its sonnet,” “To be a Jew in the twentieth century”; “Nine Poems for the unborn child”; Elegies; “Night Feeding”; “Waterlily Fire”; “The Poem as Mask”; “The Outer Banks”; “Akiba”; “Käthe Kollwitz”; “Waking This Morning”; “Despisals”; “Myth”; “Searching/Not Searching”; “Ballad of Orange and Grape”; “Wherever”; “St. Roach”; “Double Ode”; “Islands”; “Then”; and “The Gates”; her best-known prose work is The Life of Poetry.
Asian American poetry flourished in the first two decades of the 21st century. In 2004, the Asian American literary organization Kundiman hosted their inaugural workshop-based retreat at the University of Virginia, connecting poets from the United States and North America across generations. (The retreat continues to be held annually at Fordham University and has included fiction writers, as fellows and faculty, since 2017.) The first year of Kundiman’s retreat coincided with the publication of Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, edited by Victoria Chang, which introduced emerging poets Kazim Ali, Cathy Park Hong, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Srikanth Reddy, and Paisley Rekdal, among others, to a broader audience of readers and critics and, at the same time, urged a reassessment of the contemporary poetry field. Both events signaled an emergent generation’s desire to find community and acknowledgment for their work. Not only were these goals accomplished, but the collectivization of young Asian American poets and critical attention from universities and other cultural institutions also evinced how powerfully the impact of a previous generation of Asian American poets had been felt. That generation arguably began with the publication of Cathy Song’s Yale Younger Poets Prize–winning book Picture Bride in 1982 and grew to include Marilyn Chin, Li-Young Lee, Garrett Hongo, and Agha Shahid Ali, whose work can be found in Norton anthologies of poetry and various other canon-defining projects. The critical and cultural acceptance these poets enjoyed at the end of the 20th century blazed a trail for Asian American poets of the 21st century, who increasingly balance the lyric conventions of emotional expressiveness and imagistic language with audacious political subjectivity. In doing so, Asian American poets of the 21st century have opened up conceptions of lyric, particularly regarding voice, to incorporate questions of identity, immigration and migration, and American cultural experience. Contemporary Asian American poets frequently reimagine the lyric tradition through a distinctly Asian American political imagination.
Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.
The Arabic language has a rich history of literary criticism and theory, starting from the 8th century ce up to the 21st century. This literary criticism and theory engages with a poetic tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. The inquiry into literary quality was motivated by an interest in evaluating poetry, a general concern with eloquent speech, whether in verse or prose, and by the desire to articulate the beauty of the Quran. The transmission of Aristotle’s Poetics into Arabic also spurred interest in the poetic, particularly in Arabic philosophy. The study of eloquence crystallized into a standardized science by the 13th century ce, with branches focusing on (1) the role of syntax in literary beauty (the science of meanings); (2) simile, metaphor, and metonymy (the science of elucidation); and (3) rhetorical figures (the science of rhetorical figures). The aesthetic developed in the early criticism of the 9th and 10th centuries was concerned with articulating the merits of an idealized classical style of pre-Islamic poetry, from which the “modern” poets of the early Abbasid period diverged. This classically oriented aesthetic was dominated by a concern with the truthfulness and naturalness of poetry, typical of the style of the “ancients,” on the one hand, and the limits of unrealistic imagery and affected artificiality, which characterized the more ornate modern Abbasid style, on the other. This binary outlook shifted after the 10th century, however, to an aesthetic of wonder. A theory of aesthetic experience began to develop, therefore, which was based on the ability of poetic language to evoke wonder in the recipient. As a result, wonder-enhancing characteristics such as strangeness, the unexpected, and the rare became essential components of aesthetic judgment. Moreover, the ability of language to make meaning manifest in ways that allow for an experience of discovery and hence wonder, became the foundation of aesthetic inquiry in post-10th century Arabic literary theory.
Prosody refers, most broadly, to versification and pronunciation. Historically, prosody referred to the branch of grammar that contained versification as a subsection, but since the late 19th century literary scholars and poets have interchanged versification and prosody, while linguists use prosody to refer to pronunciation. Since the beginning of the 20th century scholars have also referred to prosody as a “poetics,” or a system of meaning-making, and do not directly engage in analysis of meter but rather use the term prosody to signify any aspect of literary style or figurative language that might contribute to the affective register of verse-form. The philological register of prosody may use versification in order to make a claim about how a verse-form reflects a national, historical, or even ethnic character, a practice that began in earnest during the mid-18th century and persists into the 21st century, though with some critical distance. Because the measure of verse is subjective and historically contingent, debates and discussions about prosody are a constant and tend to repeat. There is no one progress narrative of prosody, writ large, but the progress narrative of poetry within prosodic discourse is one of its main tropes. That is, while there are theories of prosody that posit progression, there is little agreement about the evolution or even naming of prosodic systems. Each history of prosody therefore posits a new theory. Thus, the theory of prosody might always be seen as the proliferation of conflicting theories about prosody, in no way limited to one national language; in fact, theories of prosody from other languages applied to English are much older and more robust than theories of prosody that derive from only English—for instance, measuring English by Latin prosody, or French, or German, and so on. Despite the proliferation of conflicting theories, scholars who work on prosody nevertheless agree broadly that, like the subject of grammar under which prosody was historically a subset, prosody is a set of interrelated features in language that, according to how you measure these features, either appear to adhere to a particular system or do not. Also, scholars agree that, like grammar, prosody as an interpretive system often hovers between the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the conflicts over theories of prosody, adherents to one system attempt to convince adherents to another that theirs is superior, and these debates and conflicts continue unabated in linguistic prosodic criticism. Those who practice literary prosodic criticism in the 21st century tend to adopt a system of verse-measure with little interest in its history, or even with what linguistic prosodic critics might call a sharp disregard for its inaccuracy. Linguistic prosodists—who have made significant advances in the field—are sidelined by the momentum of a literary history that has rendered their ongoing work too specialized for general use. There are also those who believe that prosody—or, rather, specific paralinguistic features of prosody—exists, like grammar, in particular bodies, to be awakened or cultivated by a particular kind of reading or hearing ear or a particular kind of feeling body. Trends in cognitive science have influenced one strain of theorizing about prosody as a form of subconscious knowledge in no way dependent on the cultural formations that may have organized sonic features into recognizable systems. Historical prosodists, those who study the history of thinking about prosodic form but also practice prosodic reading, posit that prosody is culturally contingent and, along with phenomenology, might be better considered as a part of cultural criticism rather than a privileged key to poetic meaning. Finally, where prosodic theory happens is a live question. Whether discourse about prosody (or meta-metrical discourse, as in Gascoigne or the various grammars discussed here) is prosodic theory or whether poets writing in a variety of prosodic forms (whether interpreted by critics or not) posit prosodic theories in their practice is at the heart of what many mischaracterize as a divide between historical prosody and other theories of reading. This divide is artificial, but the fact is that disagreements about what and how prosody means have led to a variety of approaches to the study of prosody in poetry, and despite this disagreement prosody is nevertheless taught in most academic settings as if it has an agreed upon past, present, and future.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.