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!


Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This post is a little disingenuous, isn’t it, Mr. Faville? That is, to choose some of the worst poetry ever written in order to demonstrate the deficiency of rhyme? May I suggest:

Alexander Pope
William Blake
E.E. Cummings
Ezra Pound
T.S. Eliot
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Bly
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Robinson Jeffers
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Robert Service
Carl Sandburg
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Hart Crane
Emily Dickinson
John Keats
W. B. Yeats
Robert Burns
John Donne
Et al
Et al.

Surely you jest.


Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for the post.

My point, which I think is plain--though one may have to read, as it were, between the lines, to see it, is not that rhyme, as one possible poetic construction or method of composition, is "bad" but that the importance given to it over the centuries may well be far beyond its inherent value(s).

I would by no means agree that quoting one of Marvell's great poems is an example of "the worst"--and I was careful to choose a modern example by a poet whose work I do admire.

I like all kinds of poetry, and a lot of that which rhymes. But I do think, over the longer perspective, that so much bad "rhymed poetry" has been churned out, that we might think to drop it down a few notches, and give other kinds of ordering more attention.

Is your list intended as a list of the worst, or the best?

Often I think it's the mood or preconception that one begins with that matters. I can pick up the same poem by Millay in one mood, and think it overblown pastiche, then at another time, be quite happy with it.

Why, when you come to think about it, should we have fallen into this iron-clad notion that writing should have this sing-song-y preoccupation of end-rhyme? What, really, could be more silly? --An enormous affectation, whose point seems more elusive the more you try to justify it?

Imagine a whole life of joining couplets! An absurdity beyond belief! So banal! So meaningless! So unimaginative!

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


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.


Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...


I'm going to answer you as an addendum to my post of July 18th.

You're wrong about both my motivation and what I think about rhyme. You're over-reacting in defense of tradition. Which is really beside the point.