I can't recall exactly the moment I first got the notion of writing poetry, but it was probably "on assignment" during Barbara Lindsay's Sixth Grade Class in Napa, California, in 1958. The class was given an assignment to write a poem, on any subject. I decided to write a poem about California--and the poem consisted of an enumeration of things that made the state unique, and attractive. It rhymed, and the teacher was so impressed with it, she was convinced that I must have stolen the poem somewhere, since, never having showed any particular aptitude for writing anything previously, I couldn't have conjured the work up on my own. I was offended that my effort was suspect--and her suspicion took most of the joy out of what I deserved for the accomplishment.
The next time I tried writing a poem was in the Eighth Grade. I can't remember the teacher's name, but she was an old spinster, gentle and sweet, who wanted everyone to do well. Most teachers I had during those years took pleasure in denigrating students' efforts, as if they were moral arbiters authorized to mete out punishment for every perceived failure. Anyway, the assignment again was to write a poem on any subject, and to try to use rhyme and rhythm in a creative way. I had shown skill in diagramming sentences, so my successful effort was less suspect in this instance. I wrote something about (the then very new) Cape Canaveral Air Force launching station, and I even managed to work in some metaphorical religious imagery. The teach was very impressed with this, and wanted to be sure I'd actually written it myself, and not stolen it from a juvenile news magazine, such as Boys' Life. I'm not sure she believed that I had, but showed no overt suspicion. I began to think I might possess a knack for writing poems.
Finally, in the Tenth Grade, our English teacher Mr. Mancillas assigned the writing of a poem, in lieu of the weekly essay. There were groans all around. But I secretly was scheming to impress him with my effort. I'd been reading E.E. Cummings and Wilfred Owen and Archibald MacLeish. I knew--as no one else in my class there did--how fun and mischievous a witty poem could be. I'd been reading war novels, too--particularly Dos Passos's Three Soldiers and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and had developed an early inspired anti-war sentiment. From Dos Passos's "newsreel" style--which he used in his big trilogy entitled U.S.A.--I came up with a fragmented style, putting lines from different contexts together to create tension between levels of statement. The resulting anti-war poem was the best in the class, except for one by a girl about Summer--the edges of the land "curling up like burnt paper"--but mine was much more emotional and radical and filled with posturing. The kids in class looked at me with an odd sense of awe. How had I cooked this up? What kinds of feelings and ideas were swirling around in my head!
I relate all this pointless early account by way of introduction to the subject of rhyme in poetry, since I believe that it is at these early stages in adolescent development--perhaps even in early childhood--that our ideas about how poems work, and are made--are formed. Because I had not been exposed to any novel kinds of writing, which would in those times have been thought shockingly "experimental," the only requirements I understood then were that the words at the end of the line should rhyme. The rhyme needn't be perfect, but should be at least approximate. Why anyone would believe that this process would yield pleasure or understanding was never addressed. Rhyme--the satisfying little door-chime at the end of each line--was what made poems poems, like little Rube Goldberg contraptions, whose only purpose was to "work" correctly. Poets would "think up" syntactic constructions to match the necessary pairing of sounds, and the resulting accommodation would seem clever, and ingenious. Each poem could be thought of as a kind of Rubix Cube (though it hadn't been invented yet, of course) or puzzle; poems were like solutions to puzzles, puzzles based on the template of classical form(s). The mechanical metaphor has always struck me as apt, since the predictable measures of counted syllables, usually in iambic progression, had a certain futile sufficiency, like a stationary bicycle--its only function, to consume energy.
Yesterday, I happened upon an old "rhyming" dictionary--
Wood at his typewriter
Clement Wood was a colorful figure in American publishing for 30 years, turning out fiction, non-fiction, ghost-writing, newspaper articles and reviews, all kinds of hack-writing, in addition to serious poetry. Trained originally as a lawyer (at Yale), and appointed as a magistrate while still in his early twenties, he was dismissed, and left Alabama forever for New York, where his career as a writer began. A socialist, and a free-thinker, he supported himself by teaching in private schools, and writing at a feverish pace (80,000 words a month!). He turned out dozens of titles for the Haldeman-Julius Company's Little Blue Books series, and eventually had an instructorship in Poetry at New York University (1939-40). There seemed to be almost no subject that he wouldn't tackle, even elicit sex and racial issues. Wood was an enthusiastic promoter of how-to, and his Poet's Handbook , and the aforementioned Rhyming Dictionary became popular books, which people still use, I assume, today.
The naive practical side of the popular advice approach to art and literature was very common in America before WWII. Many people thought that writing poetry, or painting in oils, could be taught in the same way that plastering, or crocheting, or building a staircase could be. All you needed was a few simple rules, a set of guidelines and a diagram or two, and you could do it yourself. This American know-how method of performance instruction thrived during the same period that newspapers, magazines and books were coming into their golden age. The democratization of culture seemed to support the idea that genius wasn't just the province of the privileged few, and that everyone could aspire to higher plateaus of personal accomplishment, just by a little concentrated application. In that primitive media-challenged environment, isolatos and bored housewives and curious, inquiring lower-middle class citizens would dream of breaking into print, assiduously sending in monthly lessons to writing schools and correspondence courses, and poring over their crude efforts in lonely apartments and farm kitchens and boarding houses across the land. Few of these hopefuls ever managed to rise above the quotidian mediocrity of small town ambitions. For every Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser, there were tens of thousands of thwarted scribblers in the sticks, smarting from rejection-slips.
Amidst all this populist literary revivalism, there were aspiring poets, too. The towering figures of the Victorian Age--Tennyson, Browning and Arnold--glowered down over the 20th Century, whilst modest--and modestly ambitious--versifiers like Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and John Crowe Ransom preserved the fragile velleities of polite rhyme. For those too unsophisticated to understand--or too isolated from--what might be happening along the advance guard of experimentation and risk, all literature remained a mostly unattainable condition, a precinct beyond touching and knowing. For such as these, the Clement Woods and Louis Untermeyers and the Lewis Turcos of the world have provided a technical guidance to the outward lineaments of poetic formulae and structures. Their knowledge is encyclopedic, their facility impressive, and their diligent devotion to sensible and rational advice is admirable.
Alas, no good poem was ever written out of a versification manual, and no dictionary, thesaurus, or "rhyming dictionary" ever provided a shortcut to the ultimate enigma of the blank page. Which brings me to the point of this discussion. I should say, however, that though the issues I'll be discussing here are complex--matters addressed by linguistics and philology--I intend to talk about them in pedestrian language, else we'd descend into technicalities and abstruse jargon.
For the last 40 years, on and off, I've been trying to figure out why it is that rhyme continues to occupy such a crucial position in the appreciation and analytics of poetry. Robert Frost famously remarked that writing "free verse" (or vers libre) was like "playing tennis without a net." Like many of Frost's enigmatic remarks, this one is charming and witty, but also evasive and cunning. Writing poetry is not a game, like tennis, and rhymes aren't barriers which we must work around in order to "win." But the underlying, and somewhat dispiriting implication of Frost's remark, is that poetry which doesn't rhyme isn't really poetry at all, but a kind of cheating, or a half-hearted imitation. The ultimate implication of Frost's statement is that it doesn't matter whether a poem expresses or realizes an important element of perception or thought--what's important is whether or not it satisfies the requirement of the formal definition of poetry. This definition, with a few minor deviations, has remained fixed and specific for at least two centuries in English verse. By now, reactionary arguments over the propriety of rhyme over the freedom of other kinds of formal organization must seem very old-fashioned. Yet nearly the whole of the Western Canon of English literature hangs in the balance of any discussion about the value of rhymed versus unrhymed poetry.
In almost no analysis of verse is one likely to find any consideration of the essential meaning and effect and purpose of rhyme itself. Most readers--and most critics--seem to assume that the value of rhyme--its beauty, desirability, functional use--is self-evident. All languages organize into systems of sounds of consonants and vowels; and the similarities of sound congruence and variance can be measured and codified into systems, which are either written or simply remembered by speakers. In Western poetry, the length of the spoken phrase, and the sentence, have been appropriated to the width (duration) of the column of written (or set) of individual words, either as a continuous stream (or line) as prose, or as individual lines measured by syllables or breath. End-rhyme, which focuses on the finality of the measured line, seems to have developed as an emphatic musical effect, employing the euphonic congruence of similar sounds occurring at fixed (strict) intervals. The power of this effect, as remarked down through history, is a testament to its direct musical appeal. Repetition and recurrence are the common formal characteristics of nearly all music.
Sound--or notes, in music--also organizes itself into relationships, though individual musical tones don't occur as referential pointers to specific meanings, as words do. An individual tone doesn't refer to a specific object or sense, but stands naked; whereas an individual word's origin is purely gratuitous (or "accidental") with respect to its assigned referent. Thus words of similar sound may exist within a subset of possible sound recurrences, but there is no inherent connection or common meaning across this subset which unites them--other than the accident of their common sound. Why poetry should have developed as the appropriation of these subsets of abstract sound recurrence is the larger question I'm asking here.
Word, bird, turd, absurd, interred, averred, third, surd. English is rich both in numbers of words, and in the fund of euphonic syllabic congruences of this kind. Wood's Rhyming Dictionary is the systematic application of the codification of these subsets of syllabic recurrences in English. It's intended as a shorthand reference for the student or practitioner of rhymed verse composition. From a technical standpoint, the scansion and rhyme-scheme of a poem might hold the same kind of interest as diagramming a long sentence by Henry James. I mean the sort of disinterested regard for the "mathematics" of literature, which is rather like the obsession over statistics which some devoted baseball fans experience--like those studies of the frequency of certain modifiers occurring in late 17th Century verse [Josephine Miles]. A poem is a "small machine made of words" which clicks and whirs and vibrates with the familiar chatter of speech-sounds, arranged to achieve a certain effect. Poetic speech, prior to the 20th Century, was never designed to mimic familiar conversational language; ordinary, "low" standards of communication, were beneath the occasion of artful utterance. The ascendancy of modes of "free verse" coincided roughly with the rise of interest in ordinary ("natural") speech patterns in poetry--probably no coincidence, when you think about it. Of course, free verse doesn't mean a complete absence of rhyme, nor an abandonment of the formal properties of strict rhythmic sequence, which may be "hidden" inside prose settings, or concealed within irregular lineation. What free verse permits, is the departure from strict formalae, in the interests of a sense and an order of another kind; and it is just this other sense and order that I have always felt is in direct contradiction with the mathematical formulae of strict formal arrangements in poetry. Successful traditional, rhymed poetry may be said to be successful to the degree that it appropriates literal or persuasive sense and order to fixed, defined formal structure(s) without seeming too artificial and/or awkward.
A poem may be convincing without being formally perfect. And, conversely, a poem may be formally exact without conveying anything of import. The happiest instances of the congruence between a persuasive utterance, and formal perfection may be regarded as works of literary genius--where the inspiration and the rhetoric unite in a marriage that suggests a certain inevitability. That is how Shakespeare is often seen. The mastery of the verse forms is breathtaking.
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the side
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
--the first 24 lines (of 46), Andrew Marvell
What the purity of Marvell's construction suggests is that there is no more natural word-choice than that employed in the couplets, no more economical means than which to realize the sense of the poem's argument. The tetrameter, sing-song-y and trite, emphasizes the hard rhymes in such a way as to create an ironic framework for the light sarcasm of the assertions. Marvell's use of rhyme is both determined and satirical. Can we read such poetry today, without feeling levels of irony that separate us both from his sense of verse, as well as whatever immediate sensibility may have inspired the poem in the first place? The idea of classicism almost completely takes over the mood of the lines, with their clichéd references and knowing (over-confident) tone. But my point here is to suggest that the rhymes used, and what their use suggests in turn, bears a wholly gratuitous relationship to the meaning of the emotion that underlies the phrases. In Marvell, English poetry attains a craftsmanly polish that mimics the "inevitability" of precise definition. And yet this elegantly appropriated surface is only the function of over-emphatic sound-links. One could, for instance, mark the witty sardonic "refuse / Jews"--how the puckering of the lips ("oooze") squeezes derision out of the drawn-out syllables. But there is no literal meaning which links these two words--refuse, and Jews--because the literal referents are gratuitous with respect to their root meanings. Discovering and exploiting such accidents in the language has traditionally been praised as an aspect of deep wit and ingenuity.
Certainly, the ability to "hear" such syllabic echoes in the language is a skill, but of what use and significance? It may be used in the service of light verse, or juvenile nursery rhymes. In fact, one of the earliest instances of rote training is making children listen to, and memorize trite rhymed poems. How did it happen that, for instance, in Pope's time, the heroic couplet should have commanded so wide and deep an approbation? How could a mind as supple and delicate as Pope's find no more impressive a form than paired rhymed couplets, pedagogical, epigraphic and proverbial? The de-coupling of knowledge and "wisdom" from classical form, which began in the Renaissance, has finally progressed to the point today that pure science has developed its own languages, and even in the humanities, all of the formal literary warhorses have been discredited in a flurry of "cultural relativism" and "multi-cultural diversity."
After World War I, popular light rhymed verse was common in newspapers. The quality of most of this dreck would challenge credulity today, but people ate it up. Franklin Pierce Adams's column, The Conning Tower [on a succession of New York dallies 1914-1941] published contributions by readers, including Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, E.B. White and James Thurber. For samples of FPA's own verses, check out this site. He was also a member of the Algonqulin Round Table.
Franklin Pierce Adams
The popular conception of poetry as a "rhyme"-game, dominated by archly pretentious tonalities--foppish humor, mawkish "melodrama," grandiloquent doggerel--throughout the first half of the 20th Century, guaranteed that serious attempts at innovation (Eliot's Waste Land, Pound's Propertius, Moore's "Marriage," Stevens's and Williams's lyrics) would be regarded with nervous giggling by a public brainwashed by the likes of Clement Wood. Thus the state of America's verse tradition--which largely ignored her effective masters (Whitman, Dickinson)--in favor of clever minor "rhymsters"--that crew which Pound so roundly scorned to Harriet Monroe in his scolding missives from London.
One of the confounding aspects of American culture has been its general lack of literary sophistication. Our effective literary life exists largely as an adjunct of our institutions of higher learning, while the general public has its own measure of taste (Rumi, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Nikki Giovanni, et al). American literature emulated its European antecedents for two centuries, before breaking away after World War I. Hardly anyone today would argue against America's domination of the artistic avant garde. And yet the divide that characterized that break from the past, proposed in terms of the competing approaches to form (see my post on A Controversy of Poets) seems as pertinent today as it did fifty years ago, despite a nearly complete capitulation in the official organs of taste and propriety to the central icons of Modernism.
Perhaps the point I'm trying to make here is that rhyme--as an overriding characteristic, the crucial element, of our common definition of "poetry" in the general culture--has acquired a certain pre-ordained favor in our country, by virtue of our reluctance to acknowledge the value of more complex, and less predictable, kinds of writing, and by our dependence upon teaching literature to the young as a kind of simple-minded toy. Once upon a time, a man made a rhyme, and that is the way, my dearly beloved, the world of poems began.
As a structural characteristic of "musical"/lyrical writing, the use of rhyme might be seen within the larger context of the variation of kinds of linguistic form possible. The impulse to observe, to describe, to discuss, to convince, to meditate, to complain, to celebrate or simply to tinker with(in) writing does not in any way imply a resort to euphonic echoing. Our determined reliance upon traditional rhyme as the very realization of the poetic act would seem quaintly narrow-minded and even provincial, were it not universally accepted.
One might argue that the "popular" poetry of our day no longer resembles the hackneyed third-rate caricatural pomposities of the era of Franklin Pierce Adams and Clement Wood. And it's true that the folks I mentioned earlier--Rumi, Mary Oliver--do not rely on rhyme, for the most part. Free verse may be said to have prevailed, at least for the time being, among the hoi-polloi. Here is Wood, propounding in his long essay "The Foundations of Versification" (p.985) at the end of his Rhyming Dictionary:
Sound-Repetition as Ornament. Rhyme.
The Function of Rhyme
The essence of verse is its use of rhythm-repetition. Repetition is pleasing to the human ear; and very soon repetition of the other element of words--their sounds--began to be used, as an ornament of verse. This started, of course, with the repetition of complete words and groups of words. Then rhyme was invented, early in the Christian era, probably by priests of the Alexandrian church, to render their teachings more palatable. It spread through Italy and France to England, where it arrived just before 1400; and is now deeply embedded in the language.
These presumptions about the meaning and purpose of rhyme have continued to hold sway in our culture. "Repetition is pleasing to the human ear." "Ornament of verse." "Now deeply embedded in the language." Though, in other contexts, such comments would certainly be held valid, as a blanket description of poetry, they are woefully inadequate today. For a linguistic practice to be "deeply embedded" does not suggest that it is therefore ruling. Descriptions and analyses of language will reveal weaknesses in all of its manifestations. Why, then, would we describe a quaint trick like rhyme as a deeply pleasing ornament, one which, indeed, is the central characteristic of a whole body of literature?
* Clement Wood. b. Tuscaloosa, Alabama [1888-1950].
Addendum to Post (7/29/11)
I am always amused at how nonplussed people can get when you presume to criticize traditional poetic structures. Anon "Tom" writes the following today in my comment box:
"Faville objects to the glorification of rhyme, which he thinks is nothing but a parlor trick. I have news for Curt. A poem is nothing but a parlor trick., and, as far as we know, life, which is made of dust, but exists as we see it, is a parlor trick, too. Life, the Big Parlor Trick, can deliver more joy or suffering, but with the Little Parlor Trick, what matters is: is the Parlor Trick amusing, or boring? And whatever is not a trick, has no theological or aesthetic interest whatsoever.
Faville is certainly justified in wanting his 'meaning' straight, without jingle-jangle. But he is confusing the parlor trick with the parlor. Aspects of the parlor are important, sure: Isn't that paint starting to peel? Does the parlor need dusting? When is the pizza man coming? Should we use more lights in the parlor? Is there enough diet coke in the mini-fridge? There's all sorts of things to consider.
Rhyme is merely emphasis, but of course emphasis is a whole world when it comes to music, and expression. There is no 'meaning' in a certain word rhyming with another, but neither is there 'meaning' in a Beethoven symphony, which again, is a mere accident of sound. But why does a Beethoven symphony have more interest---as well as more 'meaning'---for us than any prose passage of Curtis Faville's?
Well, it's nothing but a trick, of course."
First, I don't object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?
Life, despite what Tom says, isn't a parlor trick. Matter and animate protein aren't parlor tricks. Not bad jokes. Not simplistic games of chance. Reducing poetry to a branch of clairvoyance, or sleight-of-hand, is a belittlement of literature. I don't see serious literature as needing to furnish meaning "straight" either. Au contraire.
The parlor used to be a room in the house where private and public met, a kind of limbo space in which visitors could be admitted, without relinquishing the privacy of the family living spaces. The parlor was where manners and propriety were observed, and things were kept trite and harmless. Parlor games were diversions--cards, checkers, etc.--which had no ulterior consequence(s). To be amused or mildly diverted.
Rhyme may be used to create "emphasis" but that isn't its only purpose. (Unfortunately, that's often how it's often employed.) As I tried to make clear, words are not notes, and trying to think of poetry as a kind of musical expression is an error, because the two media are different in their effects and underlying bases. Which is partly why the meaning of rhyme is purely gratuitous. Beethoven's symphonies aren't "meaningless" as Tom asserts. There is nothing accidental about musical composition. But it is a mistake to think that meaning in music can be constructed in the same way that it is in verbal composition. The two are analogous, but not parallel.
Comparisons may be invidious, especially when used in an obviously sarcastic way. It is very flattering to have my "prose" compared to a Beethoven symphony, but I'm afraid this is merely a silly misapplication. In no way is a blog essay intended to stand as an aesthetic performance--either as poetry, music, or casual journalism. Tom knows this.
Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.