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Poetry Encyclopedia Has Something for Everybody

From “abecedarius” to Zulu poetry, the fourth edition of the “Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics,” weighing in at almost 6 pounds in paperback, is replete with more than 1,000 entries. A compendium of all things poetic, it is also available as an e-book.

The new edition – which comes out nearly 20 years after the previous one – has several new and expanded features, said general editor Stephen Cushman, an English professor in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Cushman was part of the 21st-century editorial team that included editor-in-chief Roland Greene, professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University, and associate editors Jahan Ramazani, also a U.Va. English professor; Clare Cavanagh, professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Northwestern University; and Paul F. Rouzer, associate professor of Asian languages and literatures at the University of Minnesota.

The encyclopedia is available online now. The official publication date is Oct. 5, coinciding with the birthday of 18th-century writer Denis Diderot, who published an encyclopedia of arts and sciences.

Called an essential reference for libraries, students, literary scholars and general readers – not to mention poets – the “Princeton Encyclopedia” covers the history, theories, techniques and criticism of poetry from its earliest days. First published in 1965, it was revised in 1974 and 1993. The fourth edition contains the work of 700 contributors, past and present. U.Va. is represented by scholars from classics to religious studies, as well as by English department faculty.

The editorial team added more comprehensive and in-depth coverage of international poetry, including articles on the poetries of more than 110 nations, regions and languages, particularly in non-Western and developing areas.

Contributing to the encyclopedia’s global reach, Ramazani included “pieces on international poetries ranging from Canada, the Caribbean and Ireland to Ethiopia, Somalia and South Africa to the Middle East, India and Australia,” he said. “In line with these interests, I wrote a piece for the encyclopedia for the first time on postcolonial poetics.”

Among more than 250 new entries are essays and descriptions about recent terms, movements and related topics that are either new or previously under-studied, Cushman said. The book is also fully indexed for the first time.

Cushman said he was proud to include entries on topics never represented before, Asian-American poetry, the Black Mountain School, lesbian and gay poetry, technology and poetry, and queer poetry.

American Sign Language provides another example. After seeing the Flying Words Project at U.Va. two years ago, Cushman solicited Christopher Krentz, who directs U.Va.’s American Sign Language program, to write an entry on American Sign Language poetry.

The book not only includes “poetry reading,” but also the more recent phenomenon of the “poetry slam,” a judged contest where poets compete by reciting their poems in public.

Electronic poetry, also called digital, new-media or hypertext poetry, is another new phenomenon included in the volume. Whereas computer poetry a dozen years ago would refer to the random collection of words produced by a computer program, these new terms refer to the human use of the computer and networks to compose works that couldn’t exist on a traditional piece of paper, including multimedia or interactive features.

The digital age definitely transformed the arduous task of corresponding worldwide with editors, contributors and the publisher, Cushman said.

When the previous edition was published just two decades ago, there was no regular use of electronic mail; editors and contributors communicated by “snail mail.” The editors cut down the time it took to put the new tome together from nine to six years, much of the efficiency due to the use of electronic communications.

Other U.Va. contributors – faculty, past and current, plus alumni – include Peter Baker, Gordon Braden, Jennifer Chang, James Cocola, Greg Colomb, Johanna Drucker, Alastair Fowler, Elizabeth Fowler, Nick Frankel, Amanda French, Michael Gerli, Brian Glavey, Kevin Hart, Greg Hays, Gustav Heldt, Omaar Hena, Tyler Hoffman, Bruce Holsinger, Walt Hunter, Walter Jost, Clare Kinney, Matt Kirschenbaum, Peter Kline, David Kovacs, Chris Krentz, Michael Manson, Kevin McFadden, Jerry McGann, John Miller, Ash Nichols, Jim Nohrnberg, Eric Rettberg, Hallie Smith Richmond, David Lee Rubin, Lisa Russ Spaar, Rob Stilling, Chip Tucker, Dan Veraldil and Bill Wenthe.

“For someone who’s always eager to learn more about poetry, it was a great opportunity to deepen and broaden my knowledge,” Ramazani said. “I enjoyed having the chance to help a tremendous array of poetry scholars distill their areas of expertise in language that would be engaging to poetry lovers everywhere.”

In the beginning, the editors read every single entry of the third edition to decide what to keep, to get rid of, to revise or to rewrite from scratch, before deciding what to add and soliciting contributors.

Cushman also had some ideas about writing new entries about ancient aspects of poetry that had dropped out of the encyclopedia. As a teacher of the history and theory of poetic form, he thought “boustrophedon” should be reinserted, for example. The term comes from the Greek in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. and describes writing that is meant to be read in opposite directions from line to line – from left to right and then right to left and so on. “The term alludes to the alternating direction of the furrows in a ploughed field,” the entry says.

The encyclopedia aims to reflect recent changes in literary and cultural studies, going in a forward direction, while preserving the best of the previous volumes – going back, back and forth, like a boustrophedon poem.

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