From Glosa to Eulogy

Ray Stubblebine / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In an unforeseen but fitting tribute to Yogi Berra, who died yesterday, the print edition of The Atlantic that arrived on newsstands yesterday features the poem “Yogi Glosa,” penned by our poetry editor David Barber.  What’s a glosa? I had no idea either. David explains:

What’s in a name? Or a title? The late great Yogi needs no introduction, but what in tarnation is a glosa?

As Yogi’s waggish manager Casey Stengel liked to say, you could look it up. The root word is “gloss,” from the Latin glossa, which originally referred to marginal notations explaining unfamilar or foreign words in a Classical text. Hence, a collection of glosses came to be known as a glossary.

In medieval Europe, the compulsion to gloss gave rise to a musical and poetic form, the Spanish glosa. For composers, a glosa was essentially a set of variations on a musical theme or refrain. For poets, a glosa was all that and more: a devilishly intricate pattern of verses built on repetitions of a borrowed phrase or quotation, a commentary or annotation on another poet’s handiwork, a tribute to an acknowledged master or a pretext to advertise your wares by one-upping the original.

Its popularity grew with its versatility.

As the poet Edward Hirsch writes in A Poet’s Glossary: “The Spanish glosa, which was frequently used in poetic contests, was especially popular among European writers from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.”

As this historical gloss suggests, it’s been a long time since the glosa (or glose, as it is sometimes spelled) had its heyday. It’s survived in English mostly as an arcane verse form that places a premium on deftness and allusive ingenuity and more often than not demands a certain quiz-kid know-how from its gentle reader. Many of the compulsory strictures have mutated to the point where almost anything goes, and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines it like this: “Loosely, the glosa is any poem expanding on a theme presented in the opening stanza and usually repeating one or more lines of that stanza.” In other words, you don’t really need to say all the things you say.

Full disclosure: I did not set out at first to write a glosa so much as an homage to one of the surpassing accidental wordsmiths of our day. What better way to tip one’s cap to a perennial All-Star of vernacular Yankee wit and wisdom than than to borrow, steal, and play changes on his quips and koans that can’t possibly be improved on? The rest, as they say, is gloss.

Read David’s poem here. A reader reflects:

After I die, if I open my eyes and find myself in a bleacher seat shelling peanuts, and I spot Yogi strapping on his shin guards, climbing out of the dugout and settling into his crouch behind the plate, I’ll know I've made it to Heaven.