Wednesday, March 30, 2016


What does the expression “without rhyme or reason” tell us about rhyme? It seems to me to mean that, along with reason, it is one of two valid alternative modes of expression, at least in poetry.

Let us consult the excellent J. A. Cuddon’s “Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” which tells us that it is “the formalized consonance of syllables . . . which probably originated in prehistoric ritual, but only in the last millennium has it come to dominate verse architecture.” Cuddon died in 1996, but the fourth, and to my knowledge last, edition, revised by C. E. Preston, came out in 1998, and the following year as a Penguin paperback. Though admirable, his discussion of rhyme may not be totally up-to-date.

Poetry went its merry unrhymed way until circa AD 200, in North African Church Latin. rhyme appeared and was duly popularized by the wandering scholars, drinkers and womanizers, the so-called “vagantes,” in the Middle Ages, with their rhymed Latin verse. This we now know best from the “Carmina Burana,” a selection set to music by Carl Orff. The word rhyme itself comes from the Provencal “rim,” whence the still extant version “rime,” mostly superseded by the rh spelling, derived by faulty analogy from the Greek “rhythmos.”

Before that, much splendid lyric poetry, say, by Sappho in Greek and Catullus in Latin, and not forgetting the epic of Homer and Virgil, depended solely on meter or rhythm. To my mind, or ear, rhyme is much missed, as in modern times it has been much abandoned for blank verse  (iambic pentameter—five accented syllables to five or more unaccented ones to a verse i.e., line) and free verse, about which more anon.

Full rhyme means identical consonants after a repeated vowel, e.g., book/nook or glide/deride. Which when the rhyming sound is monosyllabic is called masculine, when bisyllabic, e.g. barber/harbor, feminine. Clearly monosyllabic sounds harder than bi- or disyllabic. There is also triple rhyme, as in gratitude/platitude, but that is somewhat ponderous and relatively rare. There is also rhyme where the consonant before the rhyming vowel is  identical, as in bled/fled, known as “rime riche,” the French term, because it is considered okay in French versification but, for some reason, frowned upon in English.

There is also something known as half-, slant-, or near-rhyme, as in gender/hinder or helping/scalping or Cerberus/barbarous, which, however, should be used in moderation, except, say, in Hungarian, where pure rhyme is hard to come by.

There exist also cousins of rhyme, first of all assonance, where a vowel is repeated e.g., sodden condom or thrilling visits. Next, alliteration, where a consonant is repeated, as in rightly remembered rituals or warmly welcomed wanderers.

Rhyme can be especially seductive within a single verse between middle and end, e.g., “I often heard a saucy word/ From cheeky tots who dreamt up plots,” known as leonine rhyme, named after twelfth-century Canon Leo of St. Victor’ Church in  Paris, who practiced it in Latin. But this can become tiresome in overuse.

Finally, there is such a thing as eye rhyme, existing only for the eye and not the ear, as in wind (the noun) and blind or rather/blather. As a joke, there is also the holorhyme, with entire verses rhyming, as in (sorry I can’t think of an English one) “Par les bois du djinn ou s’entasse de l’effroi/ Parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de laid froid’ or (one I have previously quoted) “Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,/ Gallament de l’Arene a la Tour Magne a Nimes.” (Please excuse my  lack the requisite accent marks.)

It is time now to ask the basic question: of what use or appeal is rhyme?

There is obviously the harmonious musical effect: the symmetry as of two ears or eyebrows, or of two windows and doors to a room, the fit as of a lid on a box—the sense of brief, momentary
closure, but closure nevertheless. This regardless of whether the rhyme scheme of a quatrain (four-verse stanza) is, in order of frequency, abab, abba, or aabb. Take, for instance, this quatrain by Swinburne:

                        And the best and the worst of this is
                        That neither is most to blame,
                        If you have forgotten my kisses
                        And I have forgotten your name.

Surely this is superior to, say, “Your forgetting my kisses is no worse than my forgetting your name, both equally good and bad.”

Or take the opening quatrains of “A Little Music,” by the now undeservedly forgotten Humbert Wolfe:

                        Since it is evening
                              let us invent
                        love’s undiscovered

                        What shall we steer by
                               having no chart
                        but the deliberate
                               fraud of the heart?

Could that be equaled by any version, similarly in two stanzas, but without the rhyme? You try to do it.

Now let us return to Cuddon: “Particular degrees, types, or positions of rhyme have reasonably particular consequences (though poets are of course always as likely to try to work against the grain). Full rhyme will tend to harmonize with or confirm the sense, while half-rhyme will tend to dissonance or interrogation of the sense . . . . The greater the proximity of rhymes, the greater the acceleration they induce . . . . Such things, of course, bring word effects closer to music.”

But they also have other uses, prominent among them being memorization. It is much easier to remember a rhyming text than an unrhymed one. If you can recall a verse of a rhyming poem, it will most likely conjure up the rhyming next verse. Any public recitalist, or, for that matter, almost any actor, will confirm this mnemonic aid.

Consider, next, the usefulness of rhyme to the traditional poet. He or she, having written one compelling single verse may well wonder where to go next. As words rhyming with the extant verse defile through the memory, you are quite likely to hit on one that elicits some kind of response, some kind of continuation. Thus “heart” may call forth something ending in “part”; “love” may lead to an eye rhyme like “move,” or to a half-rhyme like “of,” if not to a pure rhyme like “above.” The outcome may be in debt to the poet’s unconscious, but then that is where so much poetry originates anyway.

Consider now Robert Frost’s famous dictum that poetry without rhyme is like tennis without a net. There is at least some truth in that, although even Frost has written poems that don’t rhyme, though they do the next-best thing: use blank verse. We need only Shakespeare to remind us how potent blank verse can be, even if rather more so in drama than in poetry. But much modern poetry goes well beyond blank verse, to free verse. Cuddon dates somewhat when he asserts that “prescribed rhyme schemes have often been disavowed, but rhyme has remained a feature of much elite poetry, and continues to dominate popular verse.”

That no longer obtains. I don’t know what he means by “popular verse,” about which he may be right, but not so about most “elite poetry.” The prescribed rhyme schemes of course refer to such forms as ballade, triolet, sestina , villanelle, pantun, and what have you, and those have indeed lost their popularity. With one exception, however, the sonnet, whether in Petrarch’s or Shakespeare’s version. What accounts for its stubborn survival? I would guess that it has historically proved a favorite form of love poetry, love in all its aspects, including failure. If easy sex were to completely oust love, the sonnet would follow it into the grave, like Good Deeds to Everyman. But why the indisputable predominance of free verse?

Free verse is definable as lines of any length whatever, freely varied, and differing from prose mostly through line breaks that occur wherever it pleases the poet. We owe this, to my mind, less than felicitous development largely but not exclusively to Walt Whitman, a rather poor poet in my estimation. But we owe it also to freedom of so many kinds, some of them welcome, and a general rejection of so many kinds of restriction, some regrettable. Even the habiliments of poets have changed: compare a picture of Rupert Brooke with one of  (gulp) John Ashbery.     

And then there is also democracy, freedom of speech, and why not couch poetry in prose. It needs only to rely on more tropes or symbols, more rhythm, and perhaps a little cadence. There is even such a legitimate thing as the prose poem (about which, as it happens, I wrote my doctoral thesis). This fairly popular genre depends on some brevity and concision, requiring a certain shapeliness and point to be intensely made, and achieving justified closure before prolixity sets in.

Finally, though, what characterizes the free verse poet when successful is a strong, individual, perhaps even unbridled imagination. Unfortunately, that is also what makes so much contemporary poetry far-fetched, opaque, uncommunicative. Rhyme has a way of acting as a bridge to comprehension, a parapet rather than a precipice. Don’t let it, like the dodo, die out completely.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Mistakes, Minor and Major

Let me start with a postscript to a previous blog entry about obesity. There is a plea on ABC television for locating missing children, which provides a picture and description of them, and, perhaps inadvertently, induces some serious observations.

First off, these missing children are preponderantly girls. Why? While differing in other ways, some 95 or more percent have one thing in common: they are overweight, many of them grossly so. Well, what imposes itself as the likely connection between obesity and vagrancy?

My guess is unhappiness at the bosom of their families, assuming that their families even have a bosom. The attempted compensation is overeating, mostly of junk food, and if that doesn’t help, escape. Now, lack of bosom brings me to reconsideration of a mistake that has haunted me through the years. Forgive me if I have inflicted it on you before.

It is something recorded, among other places, in the book, “No Stone Unturned” by Diana Rigg, a collection of hostile criticisms disbursed and endured in the theater. There she cites my review in New York magazine of a play called “Abelard and Heloise,” in which she starred as, you guessed it, the latter. And not only starred, but also appeared in a brief, rather discreetly lit, nude scene. It elicited my comment, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” Or so she claims; actually what I wrote was “brick basilica.” This sally, I regret to say, quoted thus mistakenly, is the only quotation from me in a number of anthologies.

More importantly, alas, it prompted what she describes as follows: “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know.” Besides being needlessly injurious, my remark was also inaccurate. Neither a mausoleum nor a basilica, whether it refers to an ancient Roman public building or an early Christian church, had, or was expected to have, a flying buttress, something that came in with cathedrals.

Aside from being in questionable taste (but then witticisms--especially needed in reviews of poor plays—are seldom kind to their targets), there is also a historical question involved: Did Heloise have a flattish chest, and if so, would it have mattered to Abelard, her lover, about whose pectoral preferences. as about so many other things in the Dark Ages, we remain in the dark?

I doubt whether Miss Rigg, a lovely and gifted artist, has read my apology buried somewhere in my writings, but let me assure her herewith that had she ever deemed fit to appear in my bedchamber (to use an appropriately medieval term), the last thing I would have thought of is kicking her out of bed-- basilica, mausoleum, or any other metaphor be damned. Need I add that my joke was based on the popular expression “built like a brick shithouse,” another edifice forgoing flying buttresses.

But on to more impressive mistakes. I repeat here the remark of a female graduate student guide through Olana, the Hudson Valley home of the painter Frederick Church. Before a grand landscape, she declared that “this was the work with which Mr. Church plummeted to fame.” A rather unique mistake from charming lips, forgivable with friendly titters.

But so many other mistakes nowadays are more widespread and far less pardonable. Take what has been issuing with alarming frequency from competing Republican politicians these days on television. Hardly one that hasn’t been wallowing in such idiot idioms as “cannot help but” and “the reason is because.” Call it pleonasm, tautology or redundancy—by any name it smells just as unsweet.

Now it is true that grammar can be curiously idiosyncratic: why should it be “other than” and “different from”? Why is a demeanor masterful and an argument masterly? Why, in popular parlance, is “parameter” wrong for “perimeter”? (If you had some knowledge of Latin, perimeter would be obvious, but who nowadays has even that much Latin?) And in pronunciation, why DESpicable rather than DeSPICable? One could go on and on.

Yet there are cases where minimal thought could avoid illogical lapses. How could “the reason is” be anything other than the same as “because”? How can “cannot help” doing something not suffice without that “but,” and why “cannot but” do something subsist without “help”? Again, doesn’t it take two, and only two, people to love each other, whereas it takes more than two to love one another? There is such a thing as mutual respect, but a friend can only be shared, not mutual, i.e.,reciprocal. Again so on and on. And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous pleonasm “free gift”;, of course the world of advertising can no more be trusted than that of television, whose regulars usually “lay” where they should “lie,” never mind that other “lie,” a synonym for major fibbing.

To be sure, there is incorrect usage that has become so ingrained that there is scant hope for correction. There is no chance of good food being called “healthful” rather than “healthy,” as if good could otherwise be infested with germs. And will a crowd of spectators ever be consistently a “number of people” rather than an “amount,” as if it were a quantity of salt in your diet.

So, mostly out of mistaken political correctness (and when is P.C. not mistaken?) we get “everyone has their reason” or “everyone please sit in their seat” where the “one” part in “everyone:  begs for a singular. But “his” would be, it seems, an affront to feminism, and “his or her,” though correct, would be cumbersome. Thus does gross solecism become enshrined in polite discourse. How much real harm does “his” and, for that matter, “mankind,” do to rational women’s self-respect? Of course, for “mankind” there is “humanity,” but for “his,” despite the weirdest attempts, there is no bisexual version.

And why, out of sheer ignorance, come up with “thanks for inviting Bill and I to your party,” as if there were no such thing as the properly accusative (or objective) case to be made for “me.”” This is an errant gentilism, which assumes that “I” is always more refined than “me.” Not only is “me” mandatory there, it has also pretty much replaced “I” in phrases like “It is me.” With this, we cannot but acquiesce, even without reference to (preferable to “referencing”) Rimbaud’s renowned “Je est un autre.”  This usage is so ingrained that it bypasses the rule that any form of the verb “to be” governs the nominative, thus “It was they [not them] who got there first.” Complicating matters is that the correct phrase “Than whom no one is smarter” somehow may justify “He is smarter than her.”

These days “good” has, with like illogic, replaced “well” in an answer to “How are you?” The questioner is, however uninterestedly (not, please, disinterestedly, which bespeaks selflessness), politely inquiring about your health, not about your behavior, about which he couldn’t (not “could”) care less. “I am good,” besides being a mistake, is boastful; only other people can truly judge how moral you are. The problem is that adjectives, like good, are more popular than adverbs, like well. This, probably, because they are shorter, snappier, than adverbs: “I was doing nice (rather than nicely) before I met you.” Also, confusingly, adjectival forms often do nicely as verbal complements: “Go slow,” for “go slowly.”

Ah, grammar! It has more pitfalls than a minefield, and similar problems arise with spelling and pronunciation, the rather dim Spellcheck notwithstanding. And the same for phrases: how many people use “begs the question” correctly? It is not only a matter of British versus American English, although Bernard (not George Bernard) Shaw was right to characterize us brilliantly as two nations separated by the same language. There are obvious differences involved here (in England, Parliament is plural; in America, singular) and a difference in one does not affect the other. The problem is that English’ unlike French, does not have an Academy prescribing what is correct. And even the good old Academie Francaise is apt to change its mind, presumably to follow usage rather than to stipulate it. I was in Paris on a Fulbright when it was announced that the “s” in “pas” (not) may or may not be elided, which, as I recall, caused quite a fracas. What we do have are the Internet and the computer, bit I won’t go into the devastation they have wreaked.

A good many mistakes could be avoided if we did have some sort of established guardians of correctness, although even then we could ask with Juvenal, “But who will guard the guardians themselves?” And there I am concerned with bigger mistakes than the mere linguistic ones I have mostly dealt with herein.

How to avoid the wars that cover more of our globe than do the oceans? How avoid the folly of many of our elected—or worse yet, unelected—leaders? How to try more earnestly to eschew religion, or at least differences in religions, setting us at one another’s throats? How to get our teachers to really teach, and our students to really study? Surely we could do better than that fine writer George Meredith, who, because of his own marital troubles, arrogantly demanded for women “More brain, O Lord, more brain.” There is no such thing as more brain to be granted, or even a Lord who might do the granting.