Friday, November 11, 2011


Lovers of poetry may wonder what happened to meter and rhyme. If one looks at modern poetry, one finds little meter and even less rhyme. Which raises the troubling question “What is poetry?” to which centuries have not provided a compelling answer.

Most famous among English attempts is Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order.” But what are the best words, what is the best order? That could be debated till the cows come home. So let’s take T.S. Eliot’s almost equally famous, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from them.” This raises more questions than it answers. Can there be a human being devoid of personality? Devoid of emotions? And why would one want to escape from them? Are they bad things? And if escape is needed, are there no better ways than through poetry?

Let’s try another famous poet, Pablo Neruda. “Poetry is a deep inner calling in man; from it came liturgy, the psalms, and also the content of religions.” In other words, poetry is the need for religion in its basic, verbalized form. But what if you are an atheist and can still write poetry? And is a comic poet really a seeker of God?

Famous, too, is Wordsworth’s definition: “Spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” This is patently self-contradictory: where powerful feelings are in overflow there is no tranquil recollection; where tranquil recollection prevails, feelings are no longer powerfully overflowing.

Then there is Poe: “I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of Beauty.” Is there poetry other than in words, except as a metaphor? And is satirical verse, for example, a creation of Beauty—with a capital B yet?

Or consider that notorious mystifier Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is a search for the inexplicable,” he writes; and “Poetry is the supreme fiction.”  What makes a fiction supreme? Is, for instance, a congratulatory birthday poem a fiction, let alone a supreme one? “Search for the inexplicable” is not bad, but it describes the why of poetry, not the what.

There is also A. E. Housman’s famous warning that poetry is what makes the skin bristle and should not be thought of while shaving because that incapacitates the razor. Charming, but surely a very personal, hardly universal, reaction to poetry; besides, does a bristly skin, whatever that exactly is, present that much of an impediment to a razor? And if it did, would we, to test whether something is poetry, have to promptly start shaving?

Well, let us forget about what is poetry and return to rhyme and meter. These, I assert without being startlingly original, are very useful poetic tools. They serve to make poetry musical and memorable. The musical aspect makes it enjoyable as music does; the memorable aspect makes it portable. It also enables us to recite it more easily for the delectation of others and ourselves. And for all our modern hostility to didacticism, we do learn something from poetry that is useful: that others have felt like us and how they dealt with it.

In the days before portable radios, the Walkman, and the more recent inventions like the Blackberry and all those things with a prefix in “i,” remembered poetry was our most comforting companion, and profited from any mnemonic devices. Which, as noted, were pre-eminently meter and rhyme. Blank verse—iambic pentameter—was particularly ingrained in our minds thanks to Shakespeare and the verse drama and is thus more easily recalled. And if there are such things as i-pods and i-phones and the rest, does it mean that memorization is passé?

Does the motorcar eliminate the horse-drawn carriage? No; we still enjoy such things as a romantic carriage ride through Central Park. Does the electric shaver doom the unmotorized razor? The Sweeney Todd kind, perhaps. But not the good old Gillette, which costs much less and requires no elaborate upkeep. Not even the bow and arrow have fallen completely prey to the gun. We still have archery as a not unpopular sport.

We still like rhythm. And isn’t meter a well-defined rhythm? It needs a bit of  variation to avoid becoming doggerel, but it is one of the things that make verse easier to memorize than prose. Many people can recite speeches from Shakespeare from memory; but can anyone recite paragraphs of Faulkner or Fitzgerald? I don’t think most people remember the line “To be or not to be, that is the question” merely for what it says and not as much for how it rolls off the tongue. Those three lovely iambs in the first hemistich, then the neatly bisecting caesura, and then a switch to the two balancing trochees, plus that extra syllable of the so-called feminine ending.

Or take the almost as well-known “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast.” Again, iambic pentameter, with the popular variation in the first foot to a trochee, good in beginnings where we like an accented syllable to start us off with a bang. But then we have the docile progression of four iambs, with that repetition aurally replicating the soothing in question.

As for rhyme; it even helps the poet to create. Suppose he writes a line that ends in “night.” Now he looks for a rhyme that is not the obvious “might” or “right” or “white.” (Rhyming dictionaries exist to help in the search,) And he comes up with things like “dynamite,” “plebiscite” and “troglodyte.” Each one of these can propel him in an original, unusual direction.

Beyond that, rhyme means symmetry and closure, and aren’t those good, desirable things? Doesn’t the saying “makes no rhyme or reason” entwine rhyme with the great good of reason? “Cela ne rime a rien” say the French, equating rhyme in its absence with the lack of good sense. Rhyme betokens order, harmony, fulfillment of expectation—all good things. So, poets, how about a return to rhyme and meter?