I'm blanking on the term for when a verse mimics that which it describes - for example, a poem talking about a confusing encounter would become confusing itself - each time I search for it I keep coming up with onomatopoeia and it's starting to frustrate me.

  • The form echoes, reflects, mirrors, parallels, mimics, etc. the subject. There isn't a special "lit crit" term for it. Jan 20, 2012 at 17:46
  • Yep, I'm pretty sure it exists. It might be a dramatic term, but I think I first encountered in it a Renaissance Poetry class.
    – holly
    Jan 20, 2012 at 17:48
  • Somewhat related, in that it's approximately the opposite: english.stackexchange.com/questions/53591/….
    – ruakh
    Jan 20, 2012 at 17:51
  • The word is onomatopoeia, so what's wrong with it? Jan 20, 2012 at 23:17

7 Answers 7


You might be looking for mimesis (adjective: mimetic). Here's the Wikipedia entry.

  • I've always understood mimesis to be an exceptionally obscure ancient Greek philosophical term, sometimes drafted into LitCrit as a more erudite alternative to things we might otherwise just call allegory or analogy. I never heard anyone say, for example, that Hemmingway's simple style of phrasing is mimetic of the uncomplicated people and situations he usually writes about. Or that Joyce's Finnegans Wake is mimetic of the complicated stuff actually going on there (which I never understood anyway). Jan 20, 2012 at 19:18
  • 1
    I asked my Professor and he said that the term he uses is "mimetic syntax". I found a journal article about it called "Mimetic Syntax: Metaphor from Word Order, Especially in Ovid" by Donald Lateiner (1990). My Professor also said that he first read about it in John Richardson's notes on Paradise Lost. He also told me that there has been some criticism of this term and that it is sometimes referred to as "enactment fallacy" or "incarnational fallacy" (supposedly coined by Terry Eagleton). Thanks everyone!
    – holly
    Jan 25, 2012 at 20:45
  • The "enactment fallacy" you refer to is an academic buzzword used to disparage something without really addressing it on its merits. Whatever an academician may tell you, some words do resonate with the senses in ways other words that mean the same things do not. "The slap of a spade on wet sod" conjures up a distinctly different feeling from "the sound of a shovel on a moist lawn." The former phrase gives us curt words, abruptly halted — a mimicry of the action they describe.
    – Robusto
    Jan 25, 2012 at 21:12
  • I completely agree!
    – holly
    Jan 26, 2012 at 16:39

The word you are likely to encounter in a Renaissance poetry class is the scholarly term technopaegnia,¹ ancient Greek for “games of skill”.² It encompasses all kinds of interplay between the words of a poem and its structure, including (but not limited to) picture poems, acrostics, and other such puzzles.³[PDF] Technopaegnia is not originally an English word, but is “surely an everyday term in literary theory”.

The four references noted above are highly interesting in their own lights, and I recommend them to anyone who has a few minutes.

Acknowledgement: Texas poet Michael Helsem, one of my go-to poetry experts, kindly suggested the word.


If it were for a single word, one would call it autological, which the OED calls ‘Of a word, esp. an adjective: having or representing the property it denotes. Opposed to heterological adj.’ It gives three citations for this sense:

  • 1926 ⁠ ⁠  F.P. Ramsey in Proc. London Math. Soc. 25 358 ⁠ ⁠ 
    Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short’, autological; others heterological.
  • 1947 ⁠ ⁠  H. Reichenbach Elem. Symbolic Logic (1948) vi. 220⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  Let us comprise as autological all properties whose names have the property they denote.
  • 1952 ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  R.L. Wilder Introd. Found. Math. iii. 75 ⁠ ⁠ 
    Is the adjective ‘heterological’ either autological or heterological?

For example curt, pentasyllabic, and sesquipedalian all count as autological because they are self-descriptive. I don’t know that there is a particular word that’s exclusive to poetry, but this double-dactyl by Roger L. Robison surely counts:

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ Long-short-short, long-short-short

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ Dactyls in dimeter,

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ Verse form with choriambs

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ (Masculine rhyme):

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ 

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ One sentence (two stanzas)

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ Hexasyllabically

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ Challenges poets who

⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠  ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ ⁠ Don’t have the time.


In music criticism, the concepts of 'word painting' and 'eye music' are well-esablished. This is when the subject of a passage of music is literally reflected in the way the music is constructed. A trivial example is when an operatic character descends into hell, and the music will take a distinctive downward trend.

However, it can get much more interesting if the shape of the musical notation itself reflects some aspect of the subject matter. For example, the theme of Elgar's Enigma Variations is sometimes said (without much evidence I suspect) to be a visual copy of the shape of a stretch of the Malvern Hills that Elgar loved. However, many more examples date back to the Renaissance and Medieval periods, where elaborate musical puns and rebuses (rebi?) were employed - perhaps to liven up some dull workaday music...

Perhaps this idea has occasionally been borrowed by literary folk?


Shape poetry, or concrete poetry, attempts to convey the imagery of the poem through the way that the words are arranged on the page.

I would suggest mimetic poetry, but Googling the term only brings up references to Plato and Aristotle, and their assertions that "poetry is mimetic in that it creates a representation of objects and events in the world, unlike philosophy, for example, which presents ideas."

  • Ah, right! I don't recall hearing the term concrete poetry, but even if you'd never heard it before, shape poetry would probably call to mind many of ee cummings poems. Jan 20, 2012 at 19:34

Could you be thinking of emblematic verse? The most famous (and the only one I can think of right now) being Lewis Carroll's The Mouse's Tale?




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