"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.