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From A Poet's Glossary: Verbless Poetry

Written by

Edward Hirsch
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Year

2014

Type

Poetic Term or Form
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In April 2014 A Poet’s Glossary by Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch was published. As Hirsch writes in the preface, “This book—one person’s work, a poet’s glossary—has grown, as if naturally, out of my lifelong interest in poetry, my curiosity about its vocabulary, its forms and genres, its histories and traditions, its classical, romantic, and modern movements, its various outlying groups, its small devices and large mysteries—how it works.” Each week we will feature a term and its definition from Hirsch’s new book. 


verbless poetry: Poems without verbs. On one hand, the verbless poem can create a static quality, a sense of the arrested moment, which is why it has appealed to poets who write haiku and other types of imagist poems. For example, Ezra Pound’s defining imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” consists of fourteen words without a verb. It juxtaposes two images without a comment, suggesting rather than stating the relationship, and in the process freezes a moment in time. Here is the version that first appeared in Poetry (April 1913):

     The apparition  of these faces in     the crowd :
     Petals  on a wet, black bough

On the other hand, the verbless construction can give, as the linguist Otto Jespersen points out in “The Role of the Verb (1911),” “a very definite impression of motion.” That’s why verbless constructions especially appealed to the futurists, such as F. T. Marinetti (1876–1944), who eliminated verbs in order to create a sense of telegraphic communication in a furiously changing world.

Both verbless modes, the static and the dynamic, have been employed in Russian literature, which has an unusually strong tradition of verbless poetry. On the epiphanic side: two of the most well-known lyrics by the Parnassian Afansii Fet are verbless poems, “Storm in the evening sky . . .” (1842) and “Whispers, timid breathing . . .” (1850), which are impressionistic word pictures, stopped moments. On the hyperkinetic side: the Russian imaginists (1918–1925) created a sense of dynamism in verbless poems that consisted of long strings of startling images and metaphors.


Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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