The traitor in our midst. What is in the eye of the beholder? Shall we call it beauty, or some amalgam of traits all can agree upon? Thomas Graves this week launches a formal response to my previous three-part post on the failure of rhyme, as a method of verse composition, to inspire genius, since the end of the last century. What would happen, you ask, had Modernism as we know it, never occurred? If Ezra and T.S. and Wallace and Marianne and Hilda and J.J. and Gerty and the denizen of Oxford, Mississippi never been born?
Would we, today, still be writing polite, ginger, balanced rhyming quatrains? Could the developments in physics, astronomy, genetics, psychology, philosophy, aesthetics, archeology, philology, medicine, anthropology, linguistics have happened, without exerting some secondary influence upon the vagaries of prosody? The explosion of knowledge and information which has occurred since then would suggest an equivalent convulsion in the arts, and that's precisely what has happened.
Tradition is generally something which we transmit from generation to generation as training. Once upon a time, there was no such thing as rhyme, just as there was no such thing as poetry. The history of "poetry" is the history of inventions, the accretion of stylistic presentations, codified into numerical, visual and aural convention(s). Each successive progression of poetic practice was accomplished through a deliberate (or accidental) augmentation of the original conception (form). Academies, by their nature, base their curricula upon the accomplishments and residuum of the past. The accumulation of knowledge in the arts is, by way of its examples, the record of artifacts tuned to a certain resonance. It may be that there is no literal "progress" in the arts, but the progression we see as the chronology of man's efforts through time lends some credence to the notion that hierarchies of value and syntheses of meaning should be attained. T.S. Eliot once said that we can "change the past," that is, we can alter our sense of the meaning--even the actual events--of the past, simply by changing our attitude about what it means, and--through archeology, for instance--verify or de-mystify certain assumptions we may have previously held. History, in the time of early Greek civilization, was the most "persuasive" interpretation of events in the past; truth, or what actually may have taken place, was not a value to them. Often, the illusions we have about the past are based on half-truths, or partisan "interpretations" of events or artifacts. In other words, how something actually came to be, or was fashioned, may be different than what/how we prefer to believe.
For at least the last fifteen centuries, in the English speaking countries, at least on the evidence of what survived the ravages of time, culture accepted the idea that rhyme was a necessary component of poetry, that rhythmic lines that didn't rhyme, lacked some crucial quality--were not, in fact, what we might "call" "poetry." The story of how this happened is shrouded in obscurity, but we do know that important poems were written, under the assumption of this concept, as far back as the late Middle Ages. In other words, it may be said that the concept of poetry as a sequence of fixed intervals, marked by variations of end-rhyme schemes, had already become a cliché by the 14th Century. Why?
The concept of the "echo" of tangent syllabic sounds, emphasized by being placed at the end of a line of fixed length, strikes me as a novelty. What proof might be brought forward to support the "inevitability" of rhyme as a natural occurrence in the development of poetic forms? The frequency of such tangent sounds as a quantity of linguistic occurrence is variable with respect to the potential for clear meaning in any sequence of language.
Meaning usually seems at odds with any artificially imposed system of arrangements of abstract sound patterns. There's a natural tension between the need to express meaning through the precision of the signified (the right words in the right order), and the requirements of the formal artificial order of rhyme-schemes. Why should the ability to appropriate ornamental (rhymed) words be accounted as superior to the precise use of meaning (sans rhyme)?
For at least that last 20 generations, poetry has been taught as a phenomenon whose chief characteristics are rhythmic lineation and end-stop rhyme. Granting that there's a fairly primitive and simplistic tendency to appreciate the chiming recurrence of sounds, it might be remarked that the inculcation of rhyme-habit to students of the art--particularly children--might be adjudged a form of brain-washing, as intentional as the memorization of multiplication tables. But mathematics and music, which use principles and languages which have none of the signification that words embody, are much better suited to the rote inculcation of laws, rules and formulae than language ever is.
In one sense, the alteration which I'm suggesting here has already happened. Modernism triumphed over the traditional approach to the composition of verse circa 1920, and never looked back. And yet, the divisions in literary doctrine have continued to contend across the spectrum of possible approaches, and poetry of the pre-Modernist sort has continued to exert an attraction to practitioners of the art. This may be attributable to the reactionary continuity of regard, or--as I am suggesting--the predisposition towards a form which informs our training of the immature mind (i.e., nursery rhymes, standard religious texts, and the "established canon of literary archetypes.")
Meanwhile, Tom Graves over at the Scarriet website has mounted a broadside against my assertion regarding the obsolescence of rhyme. This disagreement is in good cheer, and we welcome the compliment of honest opposition. Tom seems most concerned about the connection between rhythm and rhyme:
Let’s cut right to the chase: Faville singles out rhyme as an object of contempt without taking rhythm into account--even after I pointed out in my first response to his essay that to rhyme nicely one must use rhythm nicely.
Let's ask what is the relationship between rhythm, as the scansion of any given line, or set of lines in a poetic sequence, and the frequency of rhyme, either "internal" or end-rhyme? Is it not possible to have a perfectly symmetrical syllabic measure without having any rhyme at all? Or, to put it differently, what is it about rhyme that even involves us in the question of rhythm? An iambic line, for instance, doesn't require an end-rhyme to fulfill its measure. In what sense is a rhymed end-word more meaningful than an unrhymed one? Aside from the congruent echo--between two words whose relationship may have no other evident connection--of similar sound--what, exactly, does the echo-sound achieve that the rhythmic performance doesn't? I simply fail to understand this point.
Arguments have been brought forward to suggest that the artificial requirement of strict formal structure is a way of forcing invention, and there is no doubt that making oneself choose or find words which rhyme, in preference to words which are undoubtedly better suited in terms of the meaning of a particular sentence (assertion) may enable the creation of different or ingenious employments. But setting up such artificial barriers to the perfection of statement or assertion seems a particularly synthetic test of the perfection of expression which is the greatest value we place on language. Powerful expression is a combination of precision of usage, combined with happy (inspired) invention. This happiness suggests unlikely, or previously non-existent coinages. Chance and originality. A seizure of inspiration.
The value we place on the potential of language does not in any way support a whole dismissal of either the monuments of rhymed poetic convention, nor does it suggest that any tool we might employ to exploit the various potentialities of language (including tangent, coincident sound), is no longer of any further use.
"Verse depends on rhythm, line, meter, stanza, an undercurrent of meaning, and even more fundamental things like unity, limit, duration, and variety."
This sounds reasonable enough, unless you're willing to accept that "verse" might be comprised of other combinations of use (and definition). Why is it that verse should "depend on" rhyme? How broad must our definition of poetry--or writing, or composition--be, to fully comprehend all the kinds of invention which the last 100 years have seen?
"Rhyme is the icing on the cake, or the percussion in a symphony orchestra, or the glint in a beautiful eye. To weigh against rhyme is the mark of a dour theorist, indeed. Shall we censor what can make language charming?"
"Faville, with single-minded, modernist glee, having no understanding of the rationale or the history of what he dismisses—”traditional forms”—pursues the general, well-worn path of loosening our collective mental grip on “the poem,” towards any number of holy grails: freedom, realism, social justice, prose-variety, prose-insight, prose-seriousness, prose-acrobatics, prose-morality, and prose-dignity. But what the modernists have done, starting with the exceedingly clever R.W. Emerson, was not to chuck “the poem,” but to transfer its properties (and more) in a mysterious manner to whatever prose-pursuit happened to be going on at the time, whether it was Yvor Winters yapping about “moral form,” or the Imagistes’ slightly Westernized haiku, or Eliot’s morose pastiches with footnotes, or the Iowa Workshop’s “the poem is my diary!” or Ashbery’s Dr. Seuss-for-grownups-minus-the-rhyme."
Aside from the fact that none of this is quite true, including the charge that I have no understanding, I have never advocated the "prose-fication" of "the poem"--and in fact have attacked concepts of prose-poem as being cannibalizations of what the rigors of poetry ordinarily require. (Reference my discussion of Silliman's The Alphabet for verification.) Or, to my supposed preference for Ashbery's latest animadversions (reference my The King of Camp's New Clothes, Stupid!). Nor have I been a defender of the Iowa Writers' Workshop; in fact, I have attacked the principle of the workshop system, in Lewis Turco & The Workshop System - A Test.
"You’ll sound like Shelley which means you’ll sound old-fashioned, so stop is the philosophy in a nutshell."
Well, really, Tom. My point was never that rhyme is old-fashioned--which, of course, it undoubtedly is, without any doubt--or that rhyme should not be employed--which is rather like inveighing against engaging in games of chance. The larger elephant in the room, I would offer, is the desirability (or not) of repeating what Pope and Tennyson accomplished within this very tradition. There is nothing about Pope's or Shelley's or Tennyson's accomplishments which would suggest either that they failed in their attempts to exploit rhyme, or that we should disabuse those attempts, or stop reading them, or not, if we choose, attempt to imitate them--though with the full realization that imitation is not a fully creative act.
"What modernists like Faville need to understand is that “the Poem” requires a length, and that mere fact brings us to the question of how we divide that length, which inevitably encompasses issues like the line, rhythm, meter, stanza, and finally, rhyme—mundane material considerations whichgood poets bother with and bad poets do not."
The question thus raised is how "that length" might be "divided." So my question is, fully logical, in what way does "division" necessarily imply anything about the number of lines, the number of syllables (and their variance), and the possible use of assonance, onomatopoeia, rhyme, etc.? Which form of such "issues" might take precedence, or be interpreted in a way that more nearly fits your preconception of them?
In what sense does an appreciation of the values of rhymed verse suggest that more examples of it should be essayed? Poe's The Raven has been done. Should we attempt to make another? What is it about The Raven that makes it an interesting poem? Is The Raven a good poem, then, and if so, why? Finally, if The Raven is indeed a work of genius, is that genius a prompt to imitation or emulation? Ultimately, privileging the technique of Poe's The Raven, as if these were THE ultimate, and crucial components of ALL POEMS, NOW AND FOREVER, seems a quite narrow application of the potentials of ANY future poetry.
Pound said that poetry should be "at least as well written as prose." What that means, or should be understood to mean, is that a poetry which inconveniences itself to the degree that it sacrifices eloquence and good sense, in order to fulfill the narrow requirements of a novelty known as rhyme, or numerical arrangements of syllables or numbers of lines (stanzas), does not deserve to be called truly creative. A subservience to predetermined arrangements of any form signifies an obsequious capitulation to expedient, false "problems" which are nothing more than trite games--such as juggling, memorizing lists, solving square roots on the fly, walking on your hands--or any other similar mental or physical "feat" of daring or derring-do. Some will have the knack, while others will not. The ability in and of itself neither signifies a value in the conventional sense, nor suggests that it can facilitate effective writing.
Rhyme is okay. Rhyme is just fine. But let's put it in its place. Would there ever be--on any terms you might like to posit--a reason to entertain another Alexander Pope? I've offered that Louis Zukofsky could certainly have been a poetic genius "in any time." I have no doubt that LZ could have written couplets as dignified and inspired as those by Pope. But to have done so AFTER Pope had done so, really begs the question. There's only one Pope, and only one Zukofsky.
Tom Graves sends us a lengthy response to our post in the comment box, which I've broken up for inter-linear rejoinders here:
"Ezra Pound may be one of the worst prose writers of all time; The jingle-jangle of Byron in his long poems is better "prose" than Pound's "prose;" nor was Pound by any means the first to ask that poetry be a well-written as prose---but it's absurd that Pound even gets to ask it---"
Well, ask it he did, or, rather, command it. The statement is useful, irrespective of who said it. Pound's having done so doesn't detract from its meaning, or its persuasiveness. English prose had fallen into a sorry state by the end of the 19th Century. Henry James's sentences had become unreadable. Fin-de-siecle over-ripe decadence. French naturalism. The novels of Dreiser. Proust. The names of the poets of that day are lost to us now, because their work was too horrible for posterity to contemplate. Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, was publishing doilies and dingbats. Pound wrote to her to try to bring her to her senses. Ezra himself had yet to achieve much of consequence, but he knew bad writing when he saw it. He looked to the immediate past: Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne; Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow. He didn't much like what he saw. How could a new tradition be started? He looked to the Continent, and to earlier eras. The rest, as they say, is history.
What I think Ezra was saying was that--to paraphrase myself from above--a poetry which inconveniences itself to the degree that it sacrifices eloquence and good sense, in order to fulfill the narrow requirements of crabbed schemes of formal arrangement (& rhyme), does not deserve to be called truly creative. Awkward phrasing, trite assertion, "decorative" effects, don't deserve the name of poetry. Though you may disagree about the extent to which he achieved success in his own work, you can hardly disagree about how awful "poesy" had become in America by 1910.
"Modernism was in fact a pretentious dumbing-down; this idea that everything changed around 1910, or 1920, and Pound and Eliot were inevitable revolutionary cogs in a scientific movement' is fatuous."
Actually, I didn't say anything like this. Someone--was it you?--remarked that Eliot, though writing what would be come to be seen as one of the crucial examples of Modernism (The Waste Land), was himself actually very traditional in his taste and poetic principles. As far as either of these figures being "inevitable" that is a question which is beyond the scope of my essay. Convulsions were occurring throughout the arts. Some of them would prove important, others would quickly die out. But neither Pound nor Eliot could be accused of having argued against the poetic masterpieces of the past--both privileged examples of past practice, against the "excesses" of late Victorian verse (its over-refinement, its effete airs).
The Raven was just one of many things Poe produced, and Poe anticipates the loosening of verse in his Essays (see my reply to Conrad at Scarriet for just one example)."
I probably wouldn't even have mentioned Poe, except that you brought him up. Poe argued for the narrative epic as the highest form of verse expression. Where did that lead? Clearly, Poe would have preferred to write an epic poem, but he seems to have been incapable of doing so. He may have died before he had the chance. If you believe Poe's The Raven to have been an example either of success, or a demonstration of one of his principles, it might help if you made that clear.
"Invention builds on the Past because the Past discovered something timeless;"
Here we have a clear disagreement. The mere use of the word "timeless" suggests a massive wall of presumption which had better be deconstructed, prior to its application in any sensible argument. The Past doesn't acquire an inviolability simply through age. What happens "makes the world" (Creeley) but we have no higher obligation than to decide for ourselves what to keep, and what to ignore, what to appreciate, what to disdain. The Past is not sacred. We must discriminate amongst the artifacts left to us, and not accept them all as "timeless" masterpieces. Time as a value is meaningless.
"Invention doesn't always dicard the Past"
We can't "discard" the past in any case. It won't go away. We don't have that power.
"in the case of Modernism, Eliot & Pound discarded the genius Poe (and the Romantics)."
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that neither one found the Romantics sturdy enough for their taste. The tug-of-war between classic and romantic has been going on for a good long while. I think Pound and Eliot, in their separate ways, were attempting to draw attention to what they felt had been unjustly neglected (in the case of Eliot, for instance, Donne and the Metaphysicals--or in the case of Pound, the Troubadours, the Chinese, and Cavalcanti).
"As for rhyme, it's a wonderful way to define a line for the ear;"
Again, I'm unclear on what you mean by "define." How does a rhyme define a line? It's a potentially interesting assertion, but it needs some explanation. If you mean emphasis, or familiarity, or congruence...? Also your use of the phrase "a wonderful way" leaves me breathless with anticipation; I could quote you tens of thousands of "wonderful" unrhymed sentences (or "lines"). What does this prove, either way? Perhaps we should define wonderful.
"I happened to catch Barbara Streisand singing a really slow semi-standard with a jazz trio and the repetition of the rhyme-sound took so long to land...well, let's just say I was thankful, and I had a 'they don't write songs like that anymore!' moment."
It might help to know who the lyricist was. I've commented before about the dangers of comparing music and poetry, and this is probably a perfect example. We all admire songs of various kinds. Poetry set to music does not in any way legitimate or validate the characteristics of what I've been discussing. A poem set to music doesn't improve the writing. The clearest proof of that is to read pure song-lyrics without the notes, and see what works and what doesn't, apart from the settings. Noel Coward wrote hundreds of song lyrics; is any of that great poetry? Mad dogs and Englishmen, go out in the mid-day sun.
"Look at Pope---a jingle-jangler, and yet one of the most quoted poets for his 'meaning.' "
Is Pope's success at appropriating meaning to rhyme--which I will for the purposes of argument here, agree about--a necessary proof of the superiority of rhyme as a medium for expression? Or could it be an application of a verbal skill and acumen to a formal trick (or feat)? Understand that I in no way denigrate Pope's skill, or his success, by asking this question.
"nothing said [by Poe] about [verse] since  has been an advance, unless you count 'let's write prose and call it poetry' or 'let's visualize prose and call it poetry' but this has nothing to do with verse and rhyme, does it?"
You've jammed a number of assumptions here into a couple of sentences, and I'm not quite sure what you mean, but I believe that Poe, like Pound, wanted to erect a standard of practice which would yield better products. He called what he thought of as bad poetry "Quietist"--which implies a certain lack of spleen, of effect, of force. Silliman appropriated this term, a century and a half later--somewhat inappropriately, in my view--to characterize what he considers the lesser efforts of 20th Century traditional poetries in America and the English-speaking countries.
With hindsight, we can understand Pound's frustration. Eliot's preferences are another matter entirely, and should not be conflated with Pound's provocations. Eliot's poetry, as a demonstration of Modernist principles, is certainly easy to accept, but his critical positions and interests (including religion) are harder to integrate. In many ways he seems a throwback. I think if you look at the main force of both men's writing about literature--rather than politics or religion or history etc.--you'll end up with a rather "anti-" modernist point of view. Is that ironic, or what??