Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"Rhyme's church"     [cautionary tale]

"I'll admit I've a weakness for rhyming"
said the opium-addict bemused
"excuse me it's time I be chiming"
I sat in his garret confused
what led to the fellow's affliction?
how dark are the lanes of addiction

"The world has gone elsewhere my lad"
I tried to explain to the wastrel
"your pleasure is tawdry and sad!"
my candor evoked in this minstrel
pained smiles as if he were hearing
my words as wry turds in a clearing

"The penchant for rhyming" at last
at least he owned up to the issue
"is rooted in love for the past"
quoth he as he reached for a tissue
"rhyme's church has its Pope and its Shelley
rhyme's dance has romance in its belly"

I would leave him to die in his den
fleeting hope for reform flew beyond him
for the lure of the keyboard or pen
(gleaming promise to write) would but wrong him
every word became lucre for trade
playing doom with oblivion's shade

At his door still reluctant to go
"have you pondered" (I sought to sound casual)
"the decline of Hart Crane and Rimbaud?
does the fall of the rhymster come gradual?
every addict to rhyme feels frisson
in the flush of the blush of false dawn

but the gravestones at Hallmark are legion"
here I winced -- truth's a bitter tragedian


Is rhyming (as a prominent structural device in poetry) passé, recherché, effete as style, etiolated as mannerism, fatally nostalgic, a thoughtlessly inherited habit lacking vitality, a sign of blind conventionalism, a flag waving in the welkin of conservatism, an obvious crutch, a saccharine addiction, a bootless denial of progress, a vestigial atavism sans currency, a baffling buttress vapid and vain, an empty token of creative exhaustion, a signifier of capitulation to conformist (or even reactionary) agendas, a stylistic correlate of backward thinking, proof of diehard antiquarianism, or what? It has its many practitioners, but is that general state of things sufficient as personal justification? What occasions its practice? What would motivate its acceptance or rejection (as writer or reader)? Etc. I presume these are the sorts of questions playing in the background of this poem, though who am I to say? I'm merely the guy who wrote it down. Why shoot the messenger? ;-)


Of course many writers do not travel in circles where such questions would seem necessary, or perhaps where they would arise at all. So happens I do. I'm a bit curious whether such (I'm proposing, implicit) questions would indeed prove evident and obvious in the poem itself (in absence of the above paragraph)? . . .

Perhaps the note (the paragraph) brings too much direction to bear, adds too heavy a burden of (unnecessary) interpretation . . . (?)


Anyway: the poem was occasioned (as it happens) as a species of response to comments of Ian Keenan's in wake of Brad Leithauser's recent statement (about the surprising utility of rhyming [noting distinctive shadings of rhyme practice] as a key to the individuality or specific inwardness of poets) -- the idea tersely lampooned by Ron Silliman. I suppose this poem's cautionary tale veers off (historical fiction-wise) on its own oblique tangent of atavistic imagination.

Perhaps I should quote the original Leithauser paragraph.
I sometimes think there's no more reliable way of initially entering a poet's private domain than by examining what he or she rhymes with what. Certainly, the abbreviated signature of a good many poets could be read by assembling a sample list of the end-words of their lines. George Herbert, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, James Merrill — in many cases a savvy reader could, with all the quiet exultation of a code-breaking cryptographer, identify the author purely through paired rhyme-words, independent of what the poem was actually about.
Is Leithauser's conceit intended as sheer hyperbole? (Indeed, is the hypothesis conceived as a conceit?) There's more than a hint of pleasantry afoot, I'd hazard. (Whether the dose of irony is slim to the point of homeopathy, is possibly a moot point not requiring ultimate determination.)

This we can agree on: it must go without saying that such a principle (the rhyme fingerprint) could be applicable solely (at most) to poets for whom rhyming figures as a fairly ubiquitious (or, ad minimus, frequent) device. (Really, Leithauser implicitly acknowledges the circumscribed scope of his procedure; -- albeit his failure to hedge it in more explicitly and more particularly could be imagined to provoke raised eyebrows from several precincts.) The method would naturally prove irrelevant (as Silliman's bon-mot suggests) with respect to poets who've (for instance, as they might frankly deem it) long since left that antiquated music in its lost bin of dust.

Where do I stand amid this clangor and hurrah? Alas, befuddled and bemused -- not so unlike Nasruddin (the naive fool) who, hearing each argument at court, shouts out "You're right!" "Wait, how can they both be right?" somebody pulls him aside and asks. "You're right!" replies Nasruddin, brightly grinning.



Modern / recent poets whose approach to rhyming (or, the ways it works in their poetry) I've appreciated, would include (among others) Robert Creeley, William Stafford, and W.S. Merwin (though the latter uses rhyme quite infrequently -- but most agreeably when he does). The rhymed poetry of Wallace Stevens is as sublime as is the unrhymed, or perhaps a little more so. (Perhaps I could add, as a 2nd tier: Vikram Seth, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath (in some of her work), Wendy Cote; and then there are older layers -- Burns, Thomas, Frost, Yeats, and onward through Shakespeare to Chaucer and antiquity.) Rhyming is rife with history.

As I think about this topic, I have to agree with Leithauser that different poets use rhyme differently; but I'm not sure if the difference resides in the rhyme-word pairs (choices) themselves, or whether it really involves other factors in the whole environment of the poem. Some have attributed an underlying wash of irony to Creeley's use of the olden device. I think there might be something to this, but irony seems far too blunt a term for it. Certainly there is intelligence in his use of it. Stafford's use of rhyme has something curious to it that I've not quite sorted out fully. Of coure the sublime slant rhymes of Emily Dickenson stand as a background (and perhaps buttress) to my comfortability with and enjoyment of the technique. Reaching further afield, the models of rhyme in classical Chinese, Persian, and diverse Spanish and Italian poetries also exert some subtle impress, I'd hazard. The beautiful rhymes of Mallarme also merit mention. (Ah once again I mourn my ignorance of French.) That Rilke (quite the modernist in his day) was comfortable as a rhymester, likewise seems to lend me some license. The Sonnets to Orpheus are (for God's sake) rhymed sonnets -- and no less fresh for that. But such a use of rhyming is not workmanlike; it participates in the expressive innovation of the lines: in the varied startlements, lingering questions, and emerging certitudes of thought arising as words.

/ / / / /

I now recall my introduction to Leithauser's name was via his novel Equal Distance, a tale of an American expat in Kyoto. He's evidently been writing reviews in the NYROB for ages. Morning lates -- shortly I run off to ching ching CHA for a tea meeting with Maida Withers. She's planning a trip to Africa (and surprisingly seems to think I may have pertinent suggestions); but I want to get her input about affordable health insurance for artist-types. Since I'm contemplating an extended stay in India next year (and thus, perforce, bailing out of the American dayjob with its maternal safety nets), I have to dot a few practical, cautionary eyes, if not to say cross every hypothetical tea.


Blogger Josh said...

i think it's interesting that you used so little punctuation in this poem. it can be a good device to suggest multiple meanings in a poem. was this your purpose in omitting punctuation?

Wed Aug 02, 04:23:00 AM PDT  
Blogger david raphael israel said...

Regarding the absence of punctuation, as a matter of fact I cannot articulate any purpose specific to this poem -- for this reason: generally speaking, I have removed punctuation from all of my poetry written in the past several years (in fact for maybe a decade now). This might not be 100% so, but I think the poems of mine that include any punctuation at all (with exception of dashes, parentheses, and question marks -- but no commas, semicolons or periods, and very rarely a colon) are very rare now.

So, in short, it's a general choice, not poem-specific. I arrived at it through experiment, but also influenced by both the practice and the remarks (on this topic) of W.S. Merwin, who removed all punctuation from his poetry I think nearly 30 years ago (and has sailed on punctuation-free ever sence). I began to read his work around the time that switch was still fairly new for him, and so of course as I read into the back-catalog of his earlier work, the change and difference it presnted for that writer became, in some ways, more interesting and evident. Merwin remarked that when he first began to write without punctuation marks, he felt it was like lifting the tacks out of the poem -- that then it was free to "rise off of the page." This would seem a possibly telling, or at least an amusing image. But there is something to it.

But my feeling for the unpunctuated poem (as writer and reader) also owes something to my studies of Chinese classical poetry. In that tradition, there is never any punctuation, and indeed, the reader has to sit and determine where the line breaks occur! Line breaks are then (conventionally, in the old school) often noted by the READER by hand-annotating his own books (with e.g. a red pen) via little punctuation marks (that in fact mainly simply note the occurrence of each line break -- which in itself amounted to the only necessary punctuation. Anyway, in short, my experience as student of Chinese classical poetry has some connection to my feeling for the "naturalness" and vitality of unpunctuated verse, as I encountered it in Merwin's work and as I've explored it in my own.

However, I'm typically usinjg caesuras as a form of punctuation, though not inevitably (and not in this poem). When there is no caesura as punctuation-proxy, the reading of a poem can really be slowed down. And that can in fact also be part of its value, no doubt. Anyway and in short, you might check out some of Merwin's work of the past couple decades and take note of how he navigates the unpunctuated poem. It has definitely had an effect on (and is involved in) the overall form (or forms) and style that he's developed for himself. Merwin perhaps uses this "device" in ways somewhat different from how I do (generally speaking) I'd say (which may sound strange, but to labor out what I mean would require detailed look at his poems); but at any rate, I've benefited from his valued example. Thanks for noting and asking about this.


Wed Aug 02, 04:59:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Rachel Dacus said...

David --

A charming poem, kind of an Ogden Nashy jab at Hallmarkism -- with a quaintness of its own, as the current crop of Neo-Formalists is anything but sentimental or recherche in their uses of formal techniques. More like deconstructivist formalists. I'm thinking of the sonnets of Kate Light, the wayward nonce forms of Kay Ryan, the dry ironies of A.E. Stallings and the trenchant realism of Marilyn Hacker -- all formalists who daringly recycle old forms into new uses.

My favorite of your rhyme pairs:

every addict to rhyme feels frisson
in the flush of the blush of false dawn

It's so slant it's cool.


But of course, writing in form is still so against the mainstream that it's ... well, becoming slightly chic as an avocation for free verse poets who want to prove their versatility. Which could lead to a resurgence of interest in rhyme.

Wed Aug 02, 08:06:00 PM PDT  
Blogger david raphael israel said...

Rachel --

ah, the "it's so old, it's new again" moment. Thanks for the particular mention of (some of) "the new crop" of new formalists -- though the names are familiar (especially Hacker's), I've really given the work shorter schrift than it might merit.

The conceit of the rhyming versifier as opium addict, although a tad exaggerated, oddly (arguably) gets at something about the emotional stringency of reaction against poetries employing the old ornament, still, among at least a few; though rhymesome versifiers remain extant, old or new, here or there.

I most lately drew some comparison to tonal vs. atonal music; an imperfect, but suggestive simile.

As for
> every addict to rhyme feels frisson
> in the flush of the blush of false dawn
> It's so slant it's cool.

[I being so French-naive, I presumed this as so sans certitude absolutement]

So yes -- but then the poem's final couplet (with legion allegedly finding rhyme in tragedian) is perhaps so slant, it falls off the edge of the stage. ;-)

However, if one reads those two couplets in terms of (implied at least "reverbarantly") reflexive descrption, the "false dawn" can suggest the false (slant) rhyme, and the wince [in the last line] may itself be be evinced by the tragical attempt to rhyme with the word "legion". (Even if I wouldn't wish to recommend such a reading as the primary or most necessary angle of interpretation.)


Wed Aug 02, 09:51:00 PM PDT  
Blogger ~River~ said...

I was reminded of the anti-rhyme diatribe by Ron S. and your justification of it some months back.

Thu Aug 03, 07:53:00 AM PDT  
Blogger david raphael israel said...

River, nice to see you back on these shores. I've oddly forgotten said diatribe; but this may be an occasionally recurring theme -- as this likewise weaves through a Silliman reaction (or bon-mot) to the same topic, mediated by Leithauser's own (sort of) bon-mot. Two bon-mots deserve a 3rd, 4th & 5th, is my motto.

Fri Aug 04, 05:52:00 PM PDT  

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