Stanford scholar Roland Greene holds up poetry as cultural mirror

Through a survey of the world's poetry, the professor of English and comparative literature finds that globalization and technology are changing the way poetry is viewed and used.

L.A. Cicero Roland Greene portrait

Roland Greene, professor of English and of comparative literature, corresponded with nearly 500 contributors as editor in chief of a reference book on poetry and poetics.

It took Stanford English and comparative literature Professor Roland Greene six years to complete a tour of the world. During the course of his travels – albeit mostly by correspondence – he surveyed the state of poetry in almost every nook and cranny of the globe.

Along the way, Greene discovered some surprising trends about how we learn, our identities and how technology is altering our artistic boundaries.

As editor in chief of the latest edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (PEPP), Greene corresponded with nearly 500 contributors intimately familiar with the poetry of a particular region or nation.

Greene, who oversaw the production of The Encyclopedia, the most respected poetry and poetics reference book, was afforded an unrivaled perspective on how the increasingly porous nature of national borders is impacting both the form and function of poetry.

The growing popularity of electronic publishing and the visibility of portals such as UbuWeb and the Electronic Poetry Center has led to a lot more "curiosity than there used to be about poetry across national linguistic borders," said Greene, who recently was elected second vice president of the Modern Language Association, a position that will lead to the presidency of the organization in 2015.

Poetry readers, Greene said, are increasingly likely to find poets through translation.

One of the most unexpected cross-cultural developments Greene noticed is that readers of poetry are using poetry itself to learn language.

"In effect," he said, "they work back from language in its most concentrated form – poetry – to its more prosaic usages. And they do it this way because this is a concrete instance of Spanish or French that really motivates them."

"You would think that you would start with something fairly transparent rather than poetry," said Greene, yet he repeatedly encountered poetry lovers who are learning Spanish through reading Neruda, or French through reading Baudelaire.

"If you learn to say something poetically or you learn to decipher a poem in a language as a specimen of that language, you're learning that language at a pretty high level," he said. The phenomenon suggests "that second-language teaching might incorporate poetry even more than it does now."

The digital age is also changing the very definition of poetry. The most striking development since the 1993 edition of The Encyclopedia, Greene said, is "the rise of poetry whose medium is not print or performance but the digital realm."

New Encyclopedia entries like "cybertext" and "codework" detail the work of poets who use algorithms, databases or programming languages such as Java, as well as every imaginable form of digital display, to write and display poems.

Many of these works are developed with an eye for dynamic interaction, creating for example, poems that might change according to a reader's input.

While Greene and his editors worked to keep the entries on digital poetry as up-to-date as possible, they were also corresponding by mail with contributors in less developed parts of the world.

"One of our contributors wrote to us and submitted his article only in handwriting – not even with a typewriter," said Greene. "I like to imagine this contributor and the author of, say, 'electronic poetry' encountering each other's work in the PEPP – probably the only place in the world where that could happen."

Documenting the world's 'poetry cultures'

With the addition of nearly 100 new regional entries, including places like Basque Country, Cambodia and Macedonia, Greene said he wanted to more accurately reflect the distinct "poetry cultures" of the non-Western and developing world.

Previous PEPP editions, Greene noted, did not have separate articles for many national poetries. The poetry of 19 countries was previously covered in a single entry on Spanish America, for example.

For those 19 countries, Greene said, "the old entry assumed that because they had Spanish in common, the only poetic tradition that needed attention was Spanish language." But, as Greene explained, many of those countries have distinct indigenous language traditions.

Although it was challenging to find exactly the right person who could write concisely on lesser-known countries like Uruguay, Paraguay and Honduras, each of the 19 nations are now represented in separate entries.

Seventeen new entries were added to replace the previous "poetries of India" article. Bengali was an obvious addendum, but Greene and the editors also include less obvious regions like Gujarat, some of which have poetry traditions that are much longer than that of Western civilizations.

The entries are all interconnected with each other, but Greene said he wanted to try to make a rough distinction so that people "could understand that the relation of poetry to national and political entities of various kinds is varied depending on location and history."

"American poetry," for example was renamed "Poetry of the United States." There are also entries where, according to Greene, "you really are talking about a linguistic tradition that has spread across national borders." So Turkish, for instance, isn't poetry of Turkey. "We call it Turkish poetry," Greene said.

Training the next generation

From experts to student support and resource materials, Stanford proved to be the ideal home base for the international endeavor.

Citing the sizable number of people at Stanford who work on poetics, Greene noted that there are more contributors from Stanford than from any other institution.

For example, he said, "We have somebody like linguist Paul Kiparsky, who is the leading person in the world probably on comparative prosody. So, when I had to figure out who could write on Arabic prosody, Hebrew prosody or African meters, my first call was to Paul to say, 'Who would you recommend for this?' And he would always give me somebody."

Of the eight people on Greene's editorial team, half of them were Stanford affiliates, including two graduate students who have since gone on to assistant professorships.

Greene, who contributed two entries to the 1993 PEPP third edition, made a huge effort to get graduate students involved, not just from Stanford but also from universities across the globe. Graduate students were among the hundreds of scholars who wrote, read and evaluated the entries.

"When it's time to do the next edition, you need to have a whole new generation who had some experience … and can step forward and take the lead," he said.

The Encyclopedia proved to be a worthy training ground for the study of poetry. Greene said that he and the graduate students spent a lot of time figuring out how poetry relates to other disciplines, and how somebody coming from another discipline such as history or dance "would see their discipline reflected in an entry, but would also learn a lot from it."

"I think it really enriched our graduate students' understanding of how what they work on fits into everything else in the humanities," Greene said.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,