Sunday, July 31, 2011

Meaning and the Structure of Rhyme - Part III Rhyme or Reason

I think everyone has heard the phrase "rhyme or reason."

The phrase is recorded in English as far back as the 15th Century--in a rhymed couplet--

As for ryme or reson, ye forewryter was not to blame,
For as he founde hit afore hym, so wrote he ye same.

The evident distinction between rhyme, standing for poetry, and reason, standing for rational definition--goes therefore as far back to a time when our sense of the meaning of poetry included the concept of rhyme as in sound. Rhyme and poetry were synonymous, or at least ineluctably linked. The attraction of like sounds to like, in measured lines, was deemed obvious--the same quality of inevitability we've noted before in the history of aesthetics, as a description of a practice as if a development were natural and predictable.

Rhyme is noted as far back as the 10th Century BC, in China, and was employed by the ancient Greeks. The Irish seem to have adopted rhyme as a method of poetic composition as early as the 7th Century. The actual origins of rhyming are clouded in antiquity, so it is highly unlikely we will ever really know how rhyme was invented, or who did it. Of greater moment in my discussion, however, is the enthusiasm with which it was adopted throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and after.

In Milton's Preface to Paradise Lost [1667], he says this:

The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom...

He seems indeed to be repudiating his earlier genius in rhymed verse, at least as applied to the writing of an Heroic Epic, such as Paradise Lost. Much of the greatest English poetry is written in blank verse--Shakespeare's plays, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson. Milton calls rhyme a "barbaric invention" written by poets "carried away by Custom...." Harsh words.

Rhyme in longer sequences of narrative has a monotonous, even annoying effect. Certainly by the latter half of the 19th Century, poets had had enough experience of rhyme--600 years of it!--to view it with a certain ambiguity. I have written earlier here about Arnold and Hopkins--whose use of rhyme has a plodding, earthy quality. Poe, like many of his Victorian Age contemporaries, seems to have thought of rhyme as a dreary tolling, signifying morbid senescence and death. That's true of much of Tennyson's work as well.

We think of decadence as the decaying of inspiration over time, it also signifies a fullness or over-indulgence, the ulterior ripening of a life-form. Certainly, over the arc of time in which rhyme was used in English poetry, there was a kind of slow reckoning with respect to the qualities of the pure English lyric. In Donne's hands, for instance, the lyric poem becomes like a metaphysical lecture (or sermon) with the finest conceits and figures of wit. And yet, even with him, there is a heaviness, as of a truncheon-blow, in the end-rhymes. So much gloom inhabits the English rhymed lyric between Chaucer and Browning. Think of Keats's Odes.

One way to consider rhyme--and its inherent quality--is to think of it in terms of opacity or translucence. Are two words that share a common (syllabic) sound a "see-through" in which their respective separate meanings are "visible" through each other? Or, conversely, are two words which rhyme a kind of "dead-end" in which the coincident separate meanings are "stopped" or made blank? Equivalencies tend to reflect or "mirror" meanings back upon themselves--which is how I believe rhyme usually functions in verse. Rhyme-schemes set up predictable expectations which are then confirmed (realized) or not. Variability may be defined as the avoidance of repetition. Unnecessary versus necessary repetition.

A definition of rhyme is of an arbitrary necessity imposed on the meaningful variability of language. Since almost all sound qualities of words are arbitrary assignments, the limited subset of possible rhyming words (or phrases) is a severe narrowing of the possible formations of meaning in language. The challenge of overcoming this inherent limitation makes of rhymed verse a minor diversion from the rich potential of linguistic variability. One could make a case for "internal" rhymes--that is, rhymes which occur across the fabric of lines, whether set or not--being a more natural expression of the common qualities of sound--but self-consciously hard rhymes, even "mixed" in, tend to over-dominate any sequence in which they occur. This over-emphasis tends to push the argument of any poem in which it's employed into heavy irony, pretentious humor, or patronizing condescension. In the age of Dryden, these kinds of poses may have seemed apposite, but today they sound merely hoary and antidiluvian.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Conservatism - A Personal Take

Conservatism is an uncertain term, appropriated over the last three centuries to apply to varying kinds of political assertion or belief. There are few people today who, even though they would call themselves true conservatives, would ally themselves, for instance, with a position which defends monarchism and the divine right of kings, though that position was once considered a key tenet of that tendency. As society has changed, so have visions and versions of political partisanship.

Parties and thinkers have adopted so-called "conservative" attitudes to respond to the needs of a changing world. In a pre-industrial society, conservatism did not have to account for the rise of the factory system, the middle class, and organized labor. The development of socialism, universal suffrage, the ending of slavery and the servitude, were responses to the concentration of capital, the exploitation of the working class.

At the end of the first decade of the new century, competing definitions of conservatism threaten to fragment traditional constituencies, making enemies of old friends, and unlikely bedfellows out of old foes.

Fair warning: I've never considered myself anything like a conservative, but my faith in progressive liberal pretensions has decayed over the years. I was raised in an impoverished, but basically conservative, household. Whereas economically, our family should have had a natural sympathy with a liberal political view, my parents tended towards a traditional view. Raised in the Midwest, they had supported FDR and Truman, but had voted for Stevenson and Kennedy. But in the 1960's, they turned, voting for Reagan as Governor in California, and (grudgingly) giving the nod to Nixon in 1968. I was forced to attend church as a boy, though my parents refused to do so. During the late 1960's, when I was radicalized by the Vietnam War, I became alienated from my parents, and we never reconciled.

Throughout most of my adulthood, I've considered myself a sort of "lapsed liberal independent"--supporting Democratic candidates across the board, though acknowledging, with increasing frustration, the essential corrupted nature of both major parties--neither of whom, I think it's fair to say, represent the interests of the general population. I tend to regard the Tea Party movement as a confused rabble of benighted fools, seduced by carpet-bagging corporate and capitalist interests, who've been manipulated into advocating policies and positions which are diametrically opposed to their own interests.

What would a "true conservative" agenda look like? Here's a talking-points list of principles, out of which a rational political program could be constructed:

Population. World population growth is totally out of control. 9/10ths of the world's problems are the consequence of over-crowding, stressed resource, and competition for dwindling stocks. As a public policy, every nation on the earth should have a no-growth provision. Conservation should mean quality of life, not simply expansion (quantity).

Consolidation (instead of constant growth). Economic theory over the last 200 years has been dominated by the growth paradigm which drove the Industrial Revolution, and the occupation and "development" of the earth. This expansionist bubble has had many good, and many bad effects; but we're clearly at the end of this phase. Any economic policy which drives population growth, and constant expansion and/or consumption of resource use, and land, should be abandoned.

Nationalism. Nationalism has gotten a bad name over the last century, principally because it became associated with negative applications. As a form of division and allocation, the creation of nation-states is a natural development of the common interests of regional and local groups and geographical limits. Nations are formed to bring order and structure to social and economic affairs. The simplest interpretation of nationalist government would be to foster the interests of the citizens of a given nation. The establishment of a priority of self-interest and prosperity should be the driving motive force behind nationalism. Any national government which did not perform this function, would be a failure. True conservative policies would foster the prosperity of its citizens--before any other priority.

Preservation of resource and the environment. We now know that mankind is one part of a whole interactive, interdependent ecosystem. That system is finite. Man's imagination of his place in the universe must acknowledge these limits, and husband the earth's bounty in such a way that our planet may survive. The present rate of consumption and soiling/desecration is unsustainable. Population control is one priority. The others are preservation of resource from over-exploitation, and the setting aside of the remaining unspoiled precincts for posterity's appreciation, and the oxygen-nitrogen balance.

Isolationist Foreign Policy and Foreign Aid. There are certainly instances in which conflict and the needs of other nations may justifiably draw a nation into alliances, wars and spontaneous altruistic gifting. But a nation's first priority must be to preserve its own security, and the welfare of its own citizens. Nations should not engage in policies and actions abroad which cause their own citizens to sacrifice and suffer needlessly. Alliances may preserve peace, but they often cause a widening of conflicts which might otherwise be limited. The United States, for instance, did not directly intervene in the long Iran-Iraq War--which in retrospect certainly seems prudent. Our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, however, now appear to have been grave errors--campaigns in which we expended great wealth to no real purpose whatsoever. True conservatism begins at home: Preservation of a nation's wealth, is the first priority. With the luxury of prosperity, modest kinds of aid are possible. But "nation-building" is far beyond the meaning of this kind of limited charity. Democracy, if it is to prosper, must grow from within. It cannot be "imposed" from without. This is one of the lessons of the modern world.

Separation of church (and capital) from government. Religious doctrine and influence have no place in a true parliamentary democracy. Similarly, the power of capital to control government through influence and co-option of the means of dissemination of information must be limited. The buying of government should be a crime. The right of the people to worship and congregate should not be abridged, but no single faith should be allowed to exert influence through government.

The Family. The nuclear family is the most successful social institution in history. When people lived in tribes or small bands, other kinds of loose organization may have made more sense. But since the advent of agricultural settlement and the domestication of animals, the potential stability of customary social arrangements has made the family unit indispensable. Pressures threatening the viability of heterosexual contract notwithstanding, the use and value of the family, both for the conception and raising of children, and the focus upon normalized sexual interaction, remains unchallenged. Every effort should be directed towards preserving the hetero-sexual family unit.

Much has been made in recent decades about the higher purposes to which political organization might be directed. So-called "humanitarian" priorities have tended to get the best press. One hears the "one world" phrase brought forward, to justify certain kinds of policies. But we are manifestly not "one world"--we are a group of nations, each of which has differing priorities. Where our priorities as nations overlap--as, for instance, in the matter of global warming, its causes and possible cures--there can be a basis for international cooperation. Common interests may facilitate common efforts. But as citizens of different nations, national priorities still must take precedence over international ones. It is not our business, for instance, to see to Chinese prosperity, or African prosperity, or Mexican prosperity, over and above that of our own. In fact, in many instances, our attempts to assist other nations or groups, either through outright gifts, or through military actions, have had counterproductive affects. In areas where famine is a cyclical process, artificially propping up indigent populations, without instituting controls over their population growth, has had the net result of exacerbating the cycle, with each subsequent crisis worse than the last.

Another priority we've heard espoused, in America, is that of the freedom of capital, to act independent of restriction. The "pursuit of happiness" has been co-opted by those who would redefine that implicitly fair concept in terms of privilege--the right to exploit labor and resource for purely personal gain. But we all know that such "privilege" is not an inherent, unlimited "right"--and that limits are what government regulation of human affairs are about. We don't grant the "freedom" of some individuals to impose intolerable burdens on society, just as we don't allow people to maim and murder each other. Preventing an oil drilling corporation from polluting the ground-water of an entire region, is not an unwarranted "abridgment" of the freedom of capital to act in its own self-interest: There is a higher interest which a society places on its own well-bring, than the drive for wealth or power.

These are just a few notes on what might constitute a true "conservative" agenda at this point in our history. I don't expect anyone to agree with my version.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lawless South of the Border

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported on the ongoing effort by the government of Mexico to weed out the corrupt members of its federal law enforcement staff and Attorney General's Office. The program has involved requiring "lie-detector" tests, administered across the board, to root out dirty cops who've been turned by the criminal drug cartels.

Police are being targeted by the drug lords for failure to play along, but are also being sacrificed to the conflicts between competing crime organizations.

Imagine what it would be like trying to serve as a peace officer in Mexico. Your superiors may be on the take, your fellow officers may be, or you may be approached by thugs who threaten to shoot you if you don't do their bidding. What motivation is there to play according to the rules, if you literally don't know who you can trust?

What seems clear is that the long Mexican tradition of government graft and bribery has contributed to an environment in which lawlessness has literally become the ruling force in many communities. This situation has actually worsened over the last decade, despite increasingly drastic attempts by the Calderon administration to crack down. Mexico is losing--has already lost--the war against the drug trade.

This reality gives one pause. Americans living or considering traveling to Mexico are increasingly advised not to depend on official law enforcement authority there. In the old days, law and order in the Mexican outback could be chancy. Foreigners seeking to protect themselves by carrying weapons, were routinely prosecuted or effectively kidnapped by police. Extortion was a very real possibility in any casual transaction with authority.

Mexico has been an outlaw nation for at least a century; but the deterioration in the state of order there has fallen to such a degree that there is literally no one who can be trusted. No amount of aid or "cooperation" with American law enforcement has had any appreciable effect on this trend.

For 20 years, we here in America have argued over the advisability of constructing a fence between ourselves and the Mexican border. People criticizing it tend to treat it as a symbolic "failure" of diplomacy. "It's unfriendly," they say. And so it is.

But a nation of self-determination must determine its own course. It can't be ruled by a sense of guilt or fake obligation. Mexico has shown itself to be unable to enforce its own laws, much less keeping its own people from violating ours.

I've been in favor of legalizing some of the drugs that are driving the steep demand for illegal substances from Central America. But, as has been pointed out, even if the Mexicans themselves weren't responsible for the trafficking, foreign interests would still be using our southern border to spirit them in, since Mexico is so impotent to control things on their own side.

Here's a link for the detailed border maps circa 2009. Click on the little yellow dots for detailed maps of the fence. If we can't help our neighbor to the south put its house in order, we need to protect our own people from the scourge of social chaos which is spreading through Mexico. It's the least we can do.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fraudulent Chinese APPLE STORE rip-off

The United States and China are presently in the midst of an undeclared Trade War.

Communist China turned its nose up to entrepreneurial capitalism for decades. They fought hard to implement the communal paradigm of group farming and factory production, to no avail. Though not abandoning the essential Red Party structure--with the familiar rigid controls of all business and labor activity--the Chinese finally capitulated and adopted investment and capital-driven manufacturing and trade policies, which, given the enormous population of cheap workers (abandoning the dying agrarian economy of the countryside), and preferential loans etc., have become splendidly successful. It's unprecedented. China has become the economic engine of the globe, and is no longer a so-called Third World Nation.

The opening of China to the West, may have begun with Nixon's visit in 1972, but the twists and turns of our relationship could hardly have been predicted. As recently as the Tiananmen Square protests, and the storm of indignation in the West, it was still possible to imagine that our connections with them were tenuous enough to consider severing ties over diplomatic disagreements.

But today all that has changed. Take our trade imbalance for 2010 with China:

Total exports - 91.9 billion
Total imports - 364.9 billion

That's an annual trade imbalance of 273 billion dollars, or the largest discrepancy, by percentage, we have with any other country. In case you don't understand the meaning of trade, that translates into 273 billions of dollars of income to the Chinese, companies selling good to Americans. 273 billions of dollars flowing OUT of our country, and INTO China. Profits of that caliber will rapidly impoverish the debtor economy in such a relationship. Which is exactly what is happening. The U.S. government, rapidly losing ground in the tax sweepstakes, has had to go deeply into debt in order to pay our operating expenses. China, realizing the whip hand it now holds, has bought deeply into our bond paper.

In their own, mostly closed, economy the Chinese permit a number of unethical practices. Product and technological piracy is widely permitted. The Chinese labor force is pinned down by their military. Environmentally, China will soon surpass America as the primary polluter on the planet. They've proven that they don't need a parliamentary democracy to challenge the West economically. Beijing has shown no inclination to liberalize, keeping a tight lid on the media, and suppressing the merest hint of dissent or demonstration. It's that new hybrid, a centrally planned capitalist dictatorship.

On July 21st, the Wall Street Journal reported the discovery of a "fake" Apple Computer store in Kunming, China. This probably wouldn't have gotten so much press, except for the fact that Apple has no stores in China! Outside of America, China is probably the largest market for computers and computer paraphernalia. But China won't let Apple Macintosh sell its products there. No one has so far reported on how a Chinese retailer was able to acquire new Apple products, let alone market them openly in a major metropolitan centre. Nor have there been any reports about why the Chinese government officials--who could hardly be more cognizant of the issue of industrial/technical theft and piracy--stood by while this was happening.

The implication, which is impossible to miss, is that China not only is aware of the enormous inequality of our trading relationship, but actively promotes piracy and fraud in their country, victimizing American companies in the full light of day.

When China was our nominal "enemy" on the world stage, no one would have trusted their motives. Now that we're great "friends"--China is now "most favored trading partner"--China can use its reputation as the gruffest negotiator in trade disputes, to fend off complaints and charges of unfair practices.

The clearest instances of conflict among nations are usually the result of power confrontations. China wants more power. It's become very ambitious. It approaches its relations with the rest of the world from a purely selfish priority. What's good for China is good for China. The hell with the rest of the world.

Does anyone now believe that China will deal fairly with us in our trade relations?

It's high time that the U.S. institute some tough trade policies with China. For starters, we slap a 15% tariff on every product imported here from China. That might get their attention. If he hollers, pinch his toe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meaning and the Structure of Rhyme - Part II

Critics of poetry will often speak in praiseworthy fashion of a poetry which "aspires [or attains] to the condition of music." Music and poetry have been traditionally associated as being allied arts, particularly since poetry is often set to music, and lyrical texts are often considered to be a certain kind of poetry. Reviewing the process by which lyricists go about adapting measured lines to musical sequence can be instructive. The true inspiration for song, or art-song, must come first from the quality of the lyrical line, else the "orchestration" of the words being sung is nothing more than incidental to the narrative of the text.

But comparing poetry to music creates a number of misapprehensions, not least of which is that words are simply not notes. Notes, which stand for tones, describe a specific pitch, which is constant, though timbre and sonority may alter a single tone's specific effect. Individual syllables may be pronounced with a certain pitch (or tone), but the succession of tones associated with the succession of words in a phrase or sentence is nothing more than a parallel sound phenomenon, like a bicycle bell competing with a whistle. The critical use of the term "condition of music" is invariably intended as a positive quality, as if poetry which sang with greater effect could be superior to that which didn't. But what is meant, in a verbal context, by song? Poems are often described as being "songs" even when not set to music. In a historical context, our experience of the body of sung speech pre-conditions us to think of poetry as a kind of music.

Louis Zukofsky posited a poetics in which speech was lower limit, and music was upper limit. In a biographical fallacy, Zukofsky strove to find a unity between his family life, his poetry, and his poetics. Celia, his wife, "orchestrated" a long section of his epic poem A. Paul, his son, became a professional classical violinist. There is no way, however, in which I have been able to imagine Zukofsky's poetry as having anything but a vaguely tangential relation to actual musical composition. The point, therefore, of defending rhyme, as an euphonious musical value in poetry seems merely conceptual. Poetry may be said to "sing" in several senses, but the linking of common sound values in monotonously structured schemes (i.e., end-rhyme) might be the least happy of such coincidences. And in any case end-rhyme is by no means synonymous with repeated notes or figures in musical notation; so that when we speak of a "musical" poetry, we are not really being very descriptive. In lyrics set to music, the voice can follow a musical line, as on two parallel tracks, but there is no sense that the actual notes of music can produce anything like the multi-contextual implications and layering which words--with their meanings, connotations, and multifarious combinations--can evoke. The simplest paragraph of prose is many, many times more complex and synergistic than any musical composition.

Speaking generally about the degree of musicality in poetry, we can say that verse which aspires to a condition of music, will almost certainly sacrifice something of its potential for expansion or propagation of meaning--rhyme being one of the chief "methods" for attaining this "musicality." Every incremental step of the process of verbal composition involves an accommodation of impulse (intention) to word-choice. We can argue that words are always an approximation of human impulse (or feeling)--especially since all of us who use them inherit them: We don't invent words for our expedient purposes; they pre-exist our use of them, and each person maintains a separate sensibility, with a whole vocabulary of secondary apprehensions of words, phrases, tones and associations. Since our linguistic faculty is almost completely non-instinctual and volitional, each of us sees and feels and hears words with a slightly different perception/perspective. The same could be said of music, but since notes and pure sounds are neutral (they have no built in "definitions" as words do), they can't be "misinterpreted" to nearly the same degree.

A musical composition by Delius may remind us strongly of a mood in nature, but the sounds he employs to produce this impression are wholly abstract. The "imitation" of the sound of a lark, for instance, carries no deeper level of ambiguity. The music can "imitate" the birdsong, but the sounds the notes make don't carry any deeper implication. In the same way, words set to rhyme in a poem do not, in and of themselves, acquire any deeper meaning through their similarity. Aural similarities, with words, are completely accidental and gratuitous with respect to meaning; because there is no reason that the sound of one word (or group of words) should relate to the sound of another word, beyond the shared oscillation. Agree and a tree are not related because they sound alike--they simply sound alike: There is nothing about their origins (as individual words) which yields any purposeful relationship beyond the accident of their similar sounds. Words and sentences are so much more complex than any simple aural similarity that it hardly bears stating. Rhyme is a reductive abuse of language which reveals precious little about its complexity (and the feelings we have about it).

True investigations into language, behavior, and linguistic cognition don't get hung up on rhyme, which we acknowledge is nothing more than a finger-exercise of application. Rhyme is a language game, and a not very interesting one at that. You could say that rhyme is like playing dominoes, matching parallel halves of congruent syllables. What, then, is the advantage to meaning or pleasure in linking up likes to likes? Take a poem by a poet whom I admire, but whose use of rhyme doesn't always validate his choice to employ it.

Clair de Lune

Powder and scent and silence. The young dwarf
Shoulders his lute. The moon is Levantine.
It settles its pearl in every glass of wine.
Harlequin is already at the wharf.

The gallant is masked. A pressure of his thumb
Communicates cutaneous interest.
On the smooth upward swelling of a breast
A small black heart is fixed with spirit gum.

The thieving moment is now. Deftly, Pierrot
Exits, bearing a tray of fruits and coins.
A monkey, chained by his tiny loins,
Is taken aboard. They let their moorings go.

Silence. Even the god shall soon be gone.
Shadows, in their cool, tidal enterprise,
Have eaten away his muscular stone thighs.
Moonlight edges across the empty lawn.

Taffeta whispers. Someone is staring through
The white ribs of the pergola. She stares
At a small garnet pulse that disappears
Steadily seaward. Ah, my dear, it is you.

But you are not alone. A gardener goes
Through the bone light about the dark estate.
He bows, and, cheerfully inebriate,
Admires the lunar ashes of a rose,

And sings to his imaginary loves.
Wait. You can hear him. The familiar notes
Drift toward the old moss-bottomed fishing boats:
“Happy the heart that thinks of no removes.

This is your nightmare. Those cold hands are yours.
The pain in the drunken singing is your pain.
Morning will taste of bitterness again.
The heart turns to a stone, but it endures.
---Anthony Hecht

I think of poems like this as much investigations into language, as entertainments or dramatic monologues. An unfavorable estimation of this poem might include a criticism that the rhyme, as well as the stanzaic structure, are merely "ornamental" though the techniques employed clearly are integral to the poet's conception of his subject. Think of Venetian masked balls--

You could say, with justice, that the poem--its technique, structure, rhyme--is like a kind of mask. Just what is it, pray tell, that "dwarf" has to do with "wharf"? Only, you say, that they rhyme, or come together, or are brought together by the poet into an aesthetic unity. But what is the basis of this unity? Is it a creative act, to have appropriated the two rhyming words into a stanza--whose first requirement is only that they "fit" into the scheme? We know what the relationship is between
"A gardener goes" and "the lunar ashes of a rose" but what is it that goes and rose actually tell us--by way of the similarity in their sounds--about each other that we didn't know before? A rose is a rose is a rose, in moonlight or in sun. It goes, and goes and dies, and the black night consumes all. Well, okay.

As with Hecht I usually feel a difficult weight in the sentiment. It is his nightmare, his performance, not mine. The painful or clownish rhymes are to be endured, even celebrated. As in Hitchcock, the dance is an infernal rendition, round and round and round we go (as with Williams's Kermess--or as with Ravel's La Valse). Even the best of poets can rarely find a match between sound, meaning, and word-choice. And when they do, it's almost always like a small piece of luck, like finding a hundred dollar bill on the pavement. You can't predict it.

For Carson McCullers

Which is my little boy, which is he,
Jean qui pleure ou Jean qui rit?

Jean qui rit is my delicate John,
The one with the Chinese slippers on,

Whose hobbyhorse in a single bound
Carries me back to native ground.

But Jean qui pleure is mysterieux
With sorrow older than Naishapur,

With all of the stars and all of the moons
Mirrored in little silver spoons.

Which is my little boy, which is he,
Jean qui pleure ou Jean qui rit?

---Tennessee Williams

A poem like this--which was written specifically to be set to music--sacrifices nearly everything to sound and repetition and rhyme. These qualities usurp the probable relationships which the initial narrative condition sets up. The juvenile quality--which is so memorably reminiscent of nursery rhymes--condescends to this narrative, even satirizes it. The historical position of the contemporary poet who would use rhyme, must contend with this ironic vantage. Expected rhymes may be as frustratingly "inevitable" as they are happily unsuspected. "Failures" or near failures--"John/on" or "mysterieux/Naishapur"--may stand as approximations of the effort--as frustrations of the chance. As we have seen, tetrameter (as in Tennessee Williams) effectively overemphasizes rhyme, making it seem twice as emphatic. Whereas Hecht's dreary pentameter seems apt only if you acknowledge its gloomy application.

Though I regard both of these poems as evident successes, I am hard pressed to say just what it is that the rhymes achieve that couldn't as well be done differently, with less self-consciously old-fashioned technique. But then, they'd be different poems. Vive la difference!

The Diver - New Summer Concoction

There is something euphoric about deep sea diving. Just watching footage of divers descending gracefully through the semi-obscurity of tidal pools and kelp beds seems a graceful dreamy experience, time slowed down, movement made mellifluous.

Though I've never dived, only snorkeled briefly in the Cook Islands, I can appreciate this feeling vicariously, in a way our ancestors could never have done, prior to the development of photography, or underwater photography, and video technology.

In the spirit of Summer and Surf, here is a mid-season concoction sure to please the overheated brain-pan.

The ingredients, as usual by proportion:

3 Parts Bacardi 8 rum
2 Parts melon liquor (Marie Brizard Watermelon)
1 Part Limoncello
1 Part fresh squeezed lemon juice

Shaken with ice and served up. Lemon peel garnish if desired.

This cocktail has an exceedingly smooth and seductive mouth-feel, sweet without being cloying. The combination of rum and watermelon is classic, of course. The separation of the lemon into liquor and fresh (acidic) preserves a balance, just enough to moderate the overall sweetness. Think of a spa on a warm summer evening. Half submerged in the tub, with a glass of this in one hand, you'll be transported. Perhaps to the gliding semi-murk of dreamy depths, exotic semi-tropical climes, other places, other times.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Meaning and the Structure of Rhyme - Part I

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's Unabridged Rhyming Dictionary
. By Clement Wood. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company. Copyright 1943. 1040pp.*

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 [1940], 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 clich├ęd 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.