THE JOY OF REFERENCE
I love reference books. It barely matters what they’re about. I love the Oxford English Dictionary as much as all the fine illustrated Peterson’s Field Guides to stars, birds, butterflies, birds’ nests and more. Considering I‘ve only vague notions of what to do with a semicolon or what the vagaries of the genitive might be it’s not surprising how many language reference books I have piled on the shelves and here at my desk. They make me feel clever by proximity and ownership. Two navy-cloth-bound volumes are specially significant: H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable have been elbow companions of mine for many years. Their flyleaves are part clues to their importance: in Fowler, my stepfather’s small, neat writing, modestly inked in the top right corner “J. Misiewicz, 1957”; and in Brewer, my father’s extravagant felt-pen script, centred and dominating the half title, “David Sisman, 1962.” They’re both bookends to learning, know-how and poles of fathering. I can read both these books like detective novels, although sadly the information doesn’t stick in quite the same way.
Order over chaos
What these books have in common is order and command over chaos: alphabetical listing is very satisfying to the librarian in me. The knowledge—here at my fingertips!—that everything has a name and a classification is both a thrill and makes the world seem a bit safer. It’s not just content, of course: the quiet typography of a dictionary or encyclopedia is a haven from our picture-strewn, font-fighting world. Here indent, bold and italic are used for emphasis—and that’s all. The authority is in the austerity.
Naturally, any list of conventional reference books must now include reference sites: on my bookmark bar I’ve got a line-up of reference, such as Currency Converter, which I use daily to convert Indian rupees into U.S. dollars for my business; Infoplease is invaluable when I’m cooking, especially if, like me, you have cookbooks from all over, some with metric weights and measures, others in pounds and ounces. And I use Thesaurus.com all the time to find the right, exact, precise, on-the-button word. I suppose Google is outpacing all these specialized reference resources, but you can never chance upon anything quite in the same way and chance is as important to the user of reference books as is the precision of looking up some definition or meaning. (I must include the McMaster-Carr catalogue here. Even though it’s a trade publication, it’s also a staggering online reference book for handymen (the printed version is nearly four inches thick), with pages and pages of dispassionate drawings of screws and washers. It is, well, compelling.)
An encyclopedic approach to poetry
So when I came upon the new edition of The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics, originally published in 1965, which is just under three inches thick and weighs six pounds, you can imagine my happiness. The Encyclopedia‘s fourth edition has some 250 new entries and expands on more than a thousand of the existing articles, with coverage of international poetry, avant-garde movements and phenomena from cognitive poetics to slams to digital poetry. The editors have tried to include substantial contributions from Latin America, East and South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe: “a large number of general entries are written by scholars of poetry in other than English–a Hispanist on pastoral, a scholar of the French Renaissance on epideixis, a Persianist on panegyric.” The Encyclopaedia doesn’t contain entries on specific poets or poems, but discusses both in the context of broader topics. I thought the best way to convey an idea of its reach would be to reproduce some sample entries, chosen at random from each of the letters of the alphabet from A to J, which I’ve tried to illustrate to enhance Princeton’s definitions.
The impossibility device: the rhetorical figure for magnifying an event by comparison with something impossible, such as “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles,” a line from Al Jolson’s 1921 song, “My Mammy.”
(from Greek: “in the manner of an ox turning”) A text in which alternate lines or columns are designed to be read in opposite directions is said to be written boustrophedon. The term alludes to the alternating direction of the furrows in a ploughed field…. Boustrophedon is a graphic format, not a literary form.
(from Latin: verb, caedere, “to cut off”) Refers to the place in a line of verse where the metrical flow is temporarily “cut off.” When this “cut” occurs at the beginning of a line, it is called an “initial caesura”; when it occurs in the middle of the line, it is called a “medial caesura”; and when it occurs at the end of the line it is called a “terminal caesura.”
From Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Criticism”:
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
The caesura in the second line allows the reader to pause before balancing the traditional contraries of wit and nature, thought and speech.”
Rough, poorly constructed verse, characterized by either extreme metrical irregularity or easy rhyme and monotonous rhythm, cheap sentiment, and triviality.
From John Skelton’s poem “Colyn Cloute,” circa 1568
For though my rhyme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rusty and moth-eaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith.
Detailed description of an image, primarily visual; in specialized form, limited to description of the work of visual art.
From Book 18, lines 478–608, of Homer’s The Iliad: the poet suspends the progress of the war to describe the shield of Achilles, fashioned by the god Hephaestus, which includes the history of its own making, a tormented saga of unremitting strife, havoc and death. W.H. Auden wrote his poem “Shield of Achilles” as a response to this ekphrasis.
First of all he forged a shield that was huge and heavy,
elaborating it about, and threw around it a shining
triple rim that glittered, and the shield strap was cast of silver.
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.
He made the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea’s water,
and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness,
and on it all the constellations that festoon the heavens,
the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orion
and the Bear, whom men give also the name of the Wagon,
who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion
and she alone is never plunged in the wash of the Ocean.
A school of poetry started by the Brooklyn poet Gary Sullivan in 2001, who with the help of a few friends attempted to write poetry so execrable it would be rejected by an online vanity press. Much of the work was appropriated from others, although the encyclopedia says Flarfists often sculpt and reframe at will. Apparently Flarf has now entered the language to denote any form of web-based “verbal collage,” as in, e.g., “This is some flarfy drivel I wrote when I was drunk.” It can also be used as a verb; e.g., “She flarfed the senator’s speech by replacing all the nouns with ‘asshat.'”
(from Greek: glossa, “tongue”) Interpretations of glossolalia can be grouped into three arenas: theology, psychology and linguistics.
Theology: glossolalia is the conversation with God occurring outside natural, intelligible language.
Psychology: glossolalia is a disassociated mental state (although in anthropology it is regarded it more as a trance).
Linguistics: glossolalia is the fabrication or façade of a language bereft of structural rules or referential functions. Such non-language or glossolalia speech codes have been used by modern poets.
(from Greek: “one through two”) The literary critic Frank Kermode describes hendiadys as “a way of making a single idea strange by splitting an expression in two.” A hendiadys is two substantives (occasionally two adjectives or two verbs) joined by a conjunction to express a single but complicated idea, with one element logically subordinate to the other, such as “sound and fury,” from Macbeth, or “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” from Hamlet. Shakespeare uses hendiadys almost compulsively.
In medias res
(from Latin: “into the middle of things”) This is a device used to plunge a poem, drama or work of fiction into the middle of a series of events from the beginning. Homer’s Odyssey begins with a shipwreck coming after some 10 years of Odysseus’s wandering the Mediterranean. This way of telling a story is much used in modern moviemaking, where flashbacks and complex enfolding of narrative time are common. A good example of the use of in medias res is in William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury, where the narrator, Benjy Compson, presents non-chronological events in a seamless stream of consciousness, which Faulkner originally intended to be written in different colors to indicate chronological breaks.
(from French: jongleur, “minstrel”) This term applies to performers of various kinds, including acrobats, actors and entertainers in general, as well as musicians and reciters of verse. A jongleur was often employed by a troubadour, who might commission several jongleurs with different songs. In the 12th and 13th centuries, mention of jongleurs declines, suggesting that oral diffusion was being gradually replaced by written transmission.