No More Rules

Stephanie Burt · The new ‘PEPP’

If you are a graduate student working on poetry, or a critic writing about an unfamiliar period or tradition, you will probably find yourself opening the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for a few decades now the best point of departure for such questions as: what was Lettrism? Who are the major Flemish poets? What are the origins of rhyme? The first PEPP appeared in 1965; two of its three editors died in the 1980s, midway through the lengthy task of turning the second edition into the third.

The fourth PEPP, published in August, is not only the first in twenty years, but the first with an all new editorial team: Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman and three associate editors rode herd on 1100 articles, some wholly unchanged, many lightly rewritten, and 250 entirely new. (I rewrote ‘refrain’.) It’s a big brick of a volume, almost the size of a child's head, and it may be the last edition of PEPP to take shape as a physical printed book.

The new PEPP adds entries about things that didn’t exist in 1993, and it does better by things that got short shrift from professors of literature back then. There’s much more on ‘the poetry of the indigenous Americas’; there are ‘digital poetry’, ‘poetry slams’ and ‘American Sign Language poetry’, though no ‘deaf poetry’ (not even a cross-reference), and nothing for British Sign Language poetry. But all such projects, even the most comprehensive, omit something; all, no matter how thoroughly combed and groomed, incorporate some mistakes, just as all reveal their institutional and national origins (in this case, American research universities) no matter how hard they work to span the globe.

This one works hard. I read through all the entries under L, Q and R, comparing them to the 1993 versions. Some have barely shifted; most have morphed, a little or a lot, in ways that track changes in literary studies since 1993 – more history, more attention to a larger stack of ethnic and national traditions, more discussion of how big terms (such as ‘Romanticism’) themselves have histories. ‘Lai’ and ‘laisse’ are intact; ‘Lake School’ refashioned and shorter; ‘lament’ redone and longer, with more attention to gender, and to musical settings. ‘Language poetry’ is longer, and more helpful.

As for ‘Latvian poetry’ and ‘Lithuanian poetry’, the post-Soviet years have apparently seen them heading in opposite directions: there’s optimism in the work of the ‘heavy metal group Skyforger’ and ‘the popular Latvian band Brainstorm’, but the latest Lithuanians are said to ‘share… rebellious despair and psychological distress’. ‘Love poem’ makes more sense in its new and shorter rewrite, though I miss the information, there in 1993, that the earliest Japanese love poems involved ‘some violation of the incest taboo’. (Only some?) ‘Lullaby’, a new entry, points out that lullabies’ ‘language is often contractual: the song may contain promises of gifts and pleasure if the listener consents to sleep, or threats and warnings... if the listener does not.’ ‘Lyric’, rewritten by Virginia Jackson, helps show how the whole PEPP has evolved: ‘the 19th-century definition of the lyric was deeply confused,’ Romantic-era writers did not see ‘one kind of poem... as the lyric’, and the term, if not the experience to which it points, changed drastically over time. (Jackson's other writings suggest, more contentiously, that the experience changed a lot too.)

Under Q, there’s more from outside Europe – an expanded ‘qasida’ (by F.D. Lewis) and a new entry for ‘qita’, a ‘monorhymed form... much shorter than the qasida’. ‘Queer poetry’ is not to be confused with ‘gay poetry’ or ‘lesbian poetry’ (three entries, two by Eric Keenaghan): ‘queer poetry’ is a ‘multivalent term whose meanings have all been articulated in the very recent past’, but it gets four columns anyway, almost all its examples American.

‘Rubai’, long and detailed, about the Persian form, supplements the old entry (still there) for the European but Persian-derived ‘Omar Khayyam quatrain’. ‘Romani poetry’ replaces ‘Gypsy poetry’ and the rewritten entry finds Roma writers in Western Europe as well as in post-Soviet states (though no David Morley). ‘Recitation’ is new, compact and provocative: what happens to poets when their culture starts to memorise printed poems, en masse, in school or for fun? What happens to poets when those activities stop? ‘Relative stress principle’, on the other hand, belongs to the old constellation of linguistics-and-prosody entries, pointing back to Otto Jespersen: it's still here, but as for ‘rules’, they're gone.

I read through the new PEPP looking for signs of change, and I found some, in the expected directions: away from prescriptive theory, towards non-Western writing, towards a sense that almost everything about poetry (to quote Elizabeth Bishop) ‘is historical, flowing, and flown’. More often, though, I found the continuities; not just with the 1993 edition, but with the whole idea that we have and can use a capacious literary past, that poetry as such has a longue durée, connecting ‘hip-hop poetics’ (another new entry) to Homer, and both to Hindi, George Herbert and H.D.


  • 20 November 2012 at 7:25pm
    alex says:
    Does the encyclopedia interpret 'poetics' in the sense of techniques specific to poetry, or is there an attempt to cover poetics in general (understood as wider rules of literary discourse)?

  • 22 November 2012 at 7:23am
    rwhalley says:
    What's Deaf Poetry? Or do you mean Def Poetry? Trouble with a non-Phat proofreader?

  • 12 May 2013 at 3:02pm
    GS Subramanian says:
    Is the no-more-rules the response to the ever-widening field of literary criticism which gives short shrift to canonical forms of criticism and the acknowledgment of other cultures' contributions to poetics?