Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On Rhyme

Working on a new poem tonight, it occurred to me - not for the first time - that a poem without rhyme stumbles about in a kind of shadowy half-life, looking in vain for completion ... for the suggestive, resonant closure that rhyme provides.

Rhyme is what launches the poem off into space, the white space of the page, the tense, humming space of the ear. It both confirms and undoes the poet's intentions, putting its finger on significant meaning whilst simultaneously pointing beyond it into a dark glimmering barely glimpsed or understood before the poem began to take shape. An awkward position to be in. But not all rhymes are equal. The full rhyme satisfies the listener with the certainty of the absolute, but closes off further echoes and possibilities in a way which risks deadening the poem, like beating a drum that's been muffled. The half-rhyme is delicate and ever so slightly shakes the poem off-balance, but its recovery is swift and the new path - the swerve in the plan - energises and inspires. Beyond those are the quarter-rhyme or sound echo: assonance, consonance, the tease of alliteration, the eye-rhyme, the breath falling on the air as it fell a bare moment before. Together, these all play their part in creating a living entity, something no longer inert on the page, the poem by a stranger that reaches into our memories and pulls out an emotion we didn't believe we possessed or that we'd put behind us years before.

If the verb is the soul of the language, the rhyme must be the soul of the poem. Without it, nothing ascends. Nothing transcends.


David Lumsden said...

"a poem without rhyme stumbles about in a kind of shadowy, half-life, looking in vain for completion" is a memorable phrase - I am reminded somewhat tangentially of the essay 'Humdrum and Harum-Scarum: A Lecture on Free Verse' by Robert Bridges, whose ideas about poetry are to my mind unjustly neglected (except by other similarly neglected practitioners such as F.T.Prince).

George S said...

Some really interesting points about drums and balance. I think the last paragraph may be pushing it a little far though. Milton rebelled against rhyme so did, and do, many others. Good reasons and bad.

Rhyme is an object of fascination. A good argument might, I think, move around the more promising area of structure-accident-echo.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, indeed. Milton compensated - in his own way - for the lack of rhyme with a heightened tone, a grand style and rhetorical delivery, taking his cue, one assumes, from Latin epic, where the rhythms of the metre, both subtle and insistent, were their equivalent of rhyme's structural resonance.

So rhyme is a modern invention in those terms, a late medieval response to the natural 'chiming' of Latin agreement. And you're right to point out that many poems do succeed without rhyme. But there's also a case to be made for their success to be down to other measures which heighten and hold poems together as substitutes for the structural integrity of rhyme.

David Lumsden said...

Milton is much in our thoughts at this hour. Bridges concludes that 'Humdrum & Harum-Scarum' essay with "In the art of English verse my own work has led me to think that there is a wide field for exploration in the metrical prosody, and that in carrying on Milton's inventions in the syllabic verse there is better hope of successful progress than in the technique of free verse as I understand it." Here Bridges is referring to his well-argued theory that with a certain definition of elision, there is no line in Paradise Lost which contains other than 10 syllables, and that - in the tradition of Chaucer as he sees it - Milton is writing syllabic verse.

Andrew Philip said...

Jane, you might be interested in my series of blog posts on rhyme, "Reasoning Rhyme", though it takes a look at rhyme phenomena from a more linguistic point of view than the approach you're taking here.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, I would be interested, Andrew. (When I've had my lunch!)

And David, many thanks for that recommendation. I'll put it on the List of Things to be Read. It's a frighteningly long list at the moment, and growing all the time, even though I'm nibbling away steadily at the other end. Gosh, that sounds rather risqué - unintentionally, I assure you!

All this talk of Satan ... :o

Rachel Fox said...

I just love rhyme...from the simplest and most obvious to the strangest and subtlest. When it works it is like good sex or something...perhaps even sex with Satan...who knows? I don't think I've ever slept with him but I suppose he might not have given his real name.