This week I will be presenting terms from my new book, A Poet’s Glossary, a compendium of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, folklore, rhetorical terms. It is a repertoire of poetic secrets, a vocabulary, some of it ancient, which proposes a greater pleasure in the text, deeper levels of enchantment.
baroque The word baroque probably derives from the Portuguese barroco, a jeweler’s term for a rough and irregular pearl, which was imported from Goa to Portugal in the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, the French started using the word as an adjective meaning “bizarre” or “odd.” The term was first used in the eighteenth-century in a derogatory and pejorative sense to describe the bad taste, the noisy eccentricity and over-abundance, of the art and architecture of the preceding era. The baroque was contrasted with the sober clarities and classicism of the Renaissance. In the nineteenth-century, the term was rehabilitated by the art historian Heinrich Wölflin to describe any art that has become fully elaborated.
The term baroque refers both to an anti-naturalistic style and to a period in art, architecture, music, and literature. The baroque style is eccentric, excessive and extravagant; it is lavish, ornamental, and ornate. The Baroque era in the visual arts refers to a European style of art and architecture that developed in the seventeenth century. In 1934, Erwin Panofsky argued that the Baroque was not the end of the Renaissance, but “the beginning of a fourth era, which may be called ‘Modern’ with a capital M.” The Baroque era in music refers to the period roughly from 1600-1750. In poetry, the term is often used to refer to the elaborate poetic styles of the early seventeenth century, especially Gongorism, which derives from the work of the Spanish poet Luis de Góngora, and Marinism, which derives from the work of the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Marini. The mannerisms of the English Metaphysicals are often considered baroque. The baroque is colorful, decorative, and flamboyant. In A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Jorge Luis Borges defines baroque as “that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody.”
the plain style The plain style originated as an informal rhetorical term to characterize speech or writing that is simple, direct, and unambiguous. Richard Lanham characterizes its three central values as “Clarity, Brevity, and Simplicity.” The plain style, which dates to the Latin Stoics, was associated with a “low style” as opposed to a “high style.” In “The Sixteenth-Century Lyric in England’ (1939), Yvor Winters demonstrated the presence of two styles of poetry in the English Renaissance lyric: one was plain, the other ornate and decorative. Winters used this distinction to suggest an alternative canon of Elizabethan poetry. He excluded the more famous Petrarchan poets, such as Sir Philip Sydney and Edmund Spenser, and proposed elevating anti-Petrarchan poets of a native or plain style, such as George Gascoigne, Barnabe Googe, George Turberville, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Thomas Nashe. He elevated the anti-Petrarchan poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt at the expense of his other Petrarchan poems. According to Winters, the plain-style poem has “a theme usually broad, simple, and obvious, even tending toward the proverbial, but usually a theme of some importance, humanly speaking; a feeling restrained to the minimum required by the subject; a rhetoric restrained to a similar minimum, the poet being interested in his rhetoric as a means of stating his matter as economically as possible, and not, as are the Petrarchans, in the pleasures of rhetoric for its own sake.”
The two different Renaissance types of poetry grew out of two different traditions, one the “popular” or “vulgar” style, the other the eloquent style. The plain style originated in the idiom of common people as opposed to the eloquent style, which developed out of the traditions of the Court, and developed directly out of medieval didactic poetry. Douglas Peterson characterizes its primary characteristics as “direct summary statement tending toward folk aphorism, a predominantly Anglo-Saxon diction, folk proverb and metaphor, a tone of moral severity.” The plain style registered as a poetry that was anti-courtly and classically minded. Ben Jonson’s classicism, his commitment to a lucid, passionate plainness, has been identified as a model plain style. The Puritans developed a plain style, a spiritual ethic, which was simple, spare, and straightforward. It defined their sermons and informed their poems. Winters himself practiced a formal poetry of the plain style, and so did two of his most gifted protégés, Edgar Bowers (1924-2000) and J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985). Winters describes Cunningham’s style in “The Plain Style Reborn” (1967):
The mature style is what we could call the plain style if we met it in the Renaissance. It is free of ornament, almost without sensory detail, and compact. But it is a highly sophisticated version of the plain style, and is very complex without loss of clarity. It comes closer, perhaps, to Ben Jonson and a few of his immediate contemporaries than to anyone else.
Edward Doughtie notes a strong parallel in sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century music to the “plain” and “ornate” styles of English Renaissance poetry. The counterparts of the plain style would be the English and Scottish popular ballads, the metrical and homophonic psalms, and native consort songs. The counterparts of the ornate style would be the Italianate madrigals, which were either pastoral or Petrarchan.
“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.”