What have the Romans ever done for us?

The power of poetry despite its marginalisation

What have the Romans ever done for us?

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Fourth Edition

edited by Roland Greene et al.

Princeton University Press (Footprint), $231 hb, 1675 pp, 9780691133348 $101 pb, 9780691154916

It’s not just history that is written by the victors, but the encyclopedias, too. The eighteenth-century encyclopedias, such as Diderot’s Encyclopédie, were the projects of emergent superpowers, evidence of both the Enlightenment dream of universal knowledge and burgeoning colonial impulses. (That the Encyclopedia Britannica was an initiative of the Scottish Enlightenment only supports this idea, Scotland having been part of the British Union since 1707.) In our own time, the relationship between nation and knowledge remains present. Even Wikipedia, for all its open, global nature, is an American venture, with most of its servers in Florida.

As its title discreetly advertises, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is also an American endeavour. It is surely the most important single-volume reference book in English on poetry, but even this excellent work illustrates – despite its laudable attention to the poetries of an astonishing array of languages and nations – something of the tension between utopian ideals and neo-colonial realities that continues to haunt any encyclopedic enterprise.

In ancient times, knowledge and poetry were continuous, and poetry was the language of authority. In that sense, poetry itself is like an old superpower, the Great Britain of literature. No longer enjoying global influence, its name retains a prestige that exceeds its actual power. While contemporary poets and critics sometimes lament poetry’s apparent powerlessness, poetry remains strangely potent in its marginal state. It has a paradoxical ‘hidden ubiquity’: rituals employ it; politicians quote it; public art incorporates it; and cultural formations, from biopics to The Simpsons, mobilise it for various effects. One can even see the link between poetry’s hidden ubiquity and power in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, in which that film’s reactionary dream of returning to a golden age of political and sexual domination is underscored at a suspenseful moment by M intoning the closing lines of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, a poem that thematises politico-sexual power and its loss. Poetry knows about power. It is drawn to it, and power is drawn to poetry in turn.

There is no entry called ‘Power’ in the Encyclopedia, but power is everywhere apparent: the power of language to assist in nation-building; the power of symbolic expression for the politically marginalised and oppressed; the affective power of songs, elegies, and love poems; and the power of poetic forms and genres to develop complex conventions and histories. As the entries on charms, jingles, chants, and incantations illustrate, even marginal forms rely on the putative ‘power’ of words to symbolically reform the world.

The power of words is also seen in the way the encyclopedia’s title draws attention to its Ivy-League provenance. The list of contributors only deepens the encyclopedia’s institutional credentials. Contributors include Derek Attridge, Linda Hutcheon, W.J.T. Mitchell, Charles Bernstein, Peter Middleton, Marjorie Perloff, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Jahan Ramazani (also one of the editors). Almost all the contributors are from American universities. One of these American-based contributors, Kevin Hart, is Australian, and his fine entry on ‘Religion and Poetry’ is a masterpiece of compression, covering global examples from the earliest times to the present in 4000 words. ‘Australia, Poetry of’ is by Paul Kane, an American scholar and poet who lives in both the United States and Australia. Kane’s elegant and authoritative entry improves significantly on that of the previous edition, and his attention to Australian poetry in a global context is extremely welcome.

Kane’s and Hart’s entries – not to mention their biographies – illustrate an important transnational element to the Encyclopedia. This is not only welcome, but also inevitable, since poetry is formed and reformed through the flow of ideas and languages across national boundaries. As much as I admire this extraordinary volume, I can’t help wishing that a little more of that transnational power was apparent in the list of contributors, which could have included the names of more Australian critics, such as Philip Mead, John Kinsella, Kate Lilley, and Ann Vickery. Of course, such a complaint can easily make one look jejune and – given Australia’s relationship with the United States – provincial in the technical sense. But as the Encyclopedia repeatedly shows, the history of world poetry is in many ways the history of provincial poetry.


This is the fourth edition of the Encyclopedia. While the biggest ‘reboot’ was between the second and third editions (‘theory’ appearing between their publications in 1974 and 1993), this latest edition has 250 new entries, a new editorial team, a new look, and – as suggested – further expands the international focus instigated in the third edition. New entries include ‘Poetry Slam’, ‘Electronic Poetry’, ‘Cognitive Poetics’, ‘Codework’, ‘Hip-Hop Poetics’, ‘Poetess’, and ‘Lesbian Poetry’.

As ever, the encyclopedia’s strengths lie in its detailed and useful long entries on basic poetic terms (rhyme, lyric, metaphor), and its hundreds of shorter entries on technical, theoretical, and historical terms and concepts which range from ‘Auxesis’ (the opposite of meiosis) and ‘Cobla’ (the usual word for ‘stanza’ in Occitan) to ‘XUL’ (an Argentine journal) and ‘Zéjel’ (a Spanish poem, the origin of which ‘is the subject of scholarly debate’). As this illustrates, the Encyclopedia is astonishingly broad-ranging. Its entries are clear and economical, and they include short but useful bibliographies.

Not surprisingly, though, given the complexity of such a project, things are not always completely clear. The meaning of ‘heterostrophic’, for instance, is buried under the entry ‘Heterometric’, with no reference to it in the index. This index is a welcome new addition, but it is not perfect. Those with access to the electronic edition will find through a word search that ‘heterostrophic’ appears four times. Similarly, ‘Aubade’ (a lyric poem in which lovers lament the coming dawn that will separate them) does not appear in the index, and unluckily the cross-reference in the main text to ‘Alba’ (the Occitan name for the genre) that was in the third edition is no longer present. Again, a word search of the electronic edition helps.

The new index also brings us back to the issue of power. As it unsurprisingly shows, the most canonical of canonical figures, such as Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Milton, are referred to most often. Turning to the twentieth century, there is an evident bias towards the encyclopedia’s American roots, and to the American postwar academic interest in modernism, seen in the numerous references to T.S. Eliot, New Criticism, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, and I.A. Richards. Women, inevitably, fare very badly when things are looked at this way. The only women’s names that stand out in the index are those of Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, and Elizabeth Bishop, all of whom – perhaps not coincidentally – rejected normative feminine heterosexuality.

This edition fares better when one looks at region, rather than gender. There are 100 new regional entries, with numerous poetry groupings based on language as well as nationhood. So ‘Spanish American Poetry’ now directs the reader to separate entries on Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, and so on. Importantly, these separate national entries reveal indigenous traditions otherwise obscured by the idea of a putatively coherent Hispanophone literature. Similarly, ‘Indian Poetry’ is now two much shorter entries called ‘India, English Poetry of’, and ‘India, Poetry of’, both of which direct readers to seventeen linguistically based entries such as ‘Hindi Poetry’, ‘Bengali Poetry’, and so on. There are limitations here, too. The entry on ‘Arabic Poetry’ is strangely disambiguated at the level of the nation, which seriously simplifies twentieth-century ‘Arabic poetry’. One would be hard pushed to get a sense of Iranian, Iraqi, or Palestinian poetry from this book. Israeli poetry, however, is well covered in the entry on Hebrew poetry.

Such observations suggest that there is no production of knowledge that is not in some way also the reproduction of power. But how do we – as poets, scholars, readers, and teachers – respond to such a complex relationship? Whatever its limitations, the Encyclopedia is an undeniably powerful tool. As American corporations like Apple illustrate, there is no power like the power of utility, the power to engage people with products that may reflect their users’ relative social or economic marginalisation.

We see this condition comically expressed in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the leader of the People’s Front of Judea rhetorically asks his revolutionary comrades ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and they quickly respond with ‘the aqueduct’, ‘sanitation’, ‘the roads’, ‘irrigation’, ‘medicine’, and so on. Empires do, then, have their consolations (assuming one does have access to those roads and that sanitation, of course). When it comes to the American empire, there are plenty of things to deplore: its overseas military bases, its arms industry, its war against terror, its war against drugs, its foreign policy failures. But when we are asked ‘What have the Americans ever done for us?’ we might well answer ‘The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics’.

Published in October 2013 no. 355