Saturday, December 27, 2014

Rhyme, Poetasting, and Light Verse

I have by now visited just shy of 100 Vermont community libraries to talk about my chosen art, this in accord with the aim I announced on being installed in 2011 as the state’s poet laureate. If, in that span, there is one issue I have encountered more than any, it is the matter of rhyme in poetry. A grumpy gent in Arlington, for example, announced to me that so far as he was concerned, “if it doesn’t rhyme it isn’t a poem.”

I acknowledged that rhymed poetry was indeed less common today than once. But I pointed out– gently, I hope– that rhyme is not a requisite in poetry, nor was it during much of the art’s past. The Homeric classics do not rhyme, for instance, nor do the great Psalms of David, nor do the great blank-verse passages in Shakespeare. In his preface to Paradise Lost, John Milton goes so far as to call rhyme “the invention of a barbarous age.” (He is referring to what we used to call the Dark Ages, the period in which, via Roman Catholic chant, rhyme first became an arrow in our bards’ quivers).

Rhyme is a tricky challenge. One must use it not merely to keep a particular scheme going, though that scheme, once chosen, must be consistently honored; but also to move the poem along dramatically, even as its language strikes the reader as feasible and apt. One must resist the temptation to facile rhyming, because when rhyme exists for its sake alone, the fact seems pretty obvious as a rule, and quite lame. I am a longstanding lover of vernacular musical idioms, but must admit that we encounter a surrender to that temptation with considerable frequency in pop, rock, and blues (although –harrumph– rarely if at all did Billy Strayhorn, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Willie Dixon, or Cole Porter succumb to it).

I am not the anti-fan of the Beatles that I was back in their early, bubble-gum, sock-hop days of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” etc., but I confess I’m still no great enthusiast: Lennon and McCartney can, yes, now and then come up with a pretty or a catchy melody, but consider, in one such tune, “I don’t want to leave her now”– so far, so all right– “You know I believe, and how...” And how? Well.... Dante it ain’t.

Of course, the Fab Four never sin in the manner of the late Jim Morrison, alleged “rock poet”(please!) buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, of all places (yipes!):

“Like a dog without a bone,/ An actor out on loan,/ ”... “There’s a killer on the road/ His brain is squirmin’ like a toad/ Take a long holiday/ Let your children play....” How does one begin to critique such a mess? What on earth is an actor out on loan, and what has he to do with a boneless dog, a squirming toad, and on and on? I could proceed to impugn the poetic genius, as some oddly consider it, of Bob Dylan. I have too many friends, however, who are his devotees, and I don’t want to start a fuss with them.

Of course, I am a language nerd. But I think poets need to be language nerds. Though many seem to assume that poetry consists of vague and billowy language, I agree with W.H. Auden that its truer aim is to use language that is in fact as precise as possible. That’s a hard thing to do when addressing such common poetic themes as death, loneliness, joy, anger, love, memory, and so on. Throw the demand for chiming end-words into the mix and the challenge may grow even more acute.

We nerds wince to hear “his influence can’t be understated” when the speaker actually means “overstated.” (Has anyone else noticed the current prevalence of this inversion,  lately used even by the super-bright Cokie Roberts?) Please don’t tell us that someone addressed a letter to “my wife and I.” (I recently heard that on a BBC broadcast, of all places!) When someone says “anymore” for “nowadays,” I mentally red-pencil him or her. Mock me for all that if you like. “It is what it is,” to cite a buzz phrase traceable to the odious prevaricator Donald Rumsfeld.

Yes, these are the sorts of concerns that attract my thoughts. (Go ahead, tell me to get a life.) And the other day, as I considered the matter of rhyme, it occurred to me that those most taxed with inventive rhyme are the authors of so-called light verse. In what I have always considered a shorthand response to Rainer Maria Rilke’s fabulous poem of the same title, for instance, the late, great Ogden Nash composed this one:

The Panther

When called by a panther,
Don’t anther.

That is scarcely among Nash’s greatest poems– and they are indeed great. In the interest of space, I merely use it as my own shorthand.

We do not, however, at least to my knowledge, have any eminent light verse poets in our day. Oh, Billy Collins can be funny, all right; so can others as diverse as Stephen Dunn, Marilyn Hacker, and Charles Fort. But comedy is rarely their sole aim. I find this something of a pity, though I haven’t the resources to do anything about it myself. I’m told I’m a fairly amusing guy in person, but for some reason almost my every effort to be funny in poetry goes awry.

Here’s the strange thing: in order to get their greatest comic effects, light verse poets actually use rhyme that does exactly what I’ve argued against in other sorts of poetry. The wackier, more improbable, and conspicuous the rhyme, often enough, the better.

All of which got me to remembering George Starbuck, who died in 1995, and who was sometimes referred to as the thinking man’s Ogden Nash. Though he participated in Robert Lowell’s famous Boston University workshop with fellow students Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, the latters’ confessional poems have survived better than Starbuck’s technically and intellectually masterful inventions. Even in his lifetime, though his first book was selected over Plath’s for the Yale Younger Poets series, he had more a cult reputation than a general one. He did not help his own case after Oscar Williams anthologized his “A Tapestry for Bayeux” in the highly influential Little Treasury series, only to drop it when someone told him that the initial letters of the first 78 lines spelled out “Oscar Williams fills a need, but a Monkey Ward catalog is softer and gives you something to read.”

I got to know George a bit, because I had been one of three judges to award his “The Argot Merchant Disaster” a lucrative Lenore Marshall Award. I found him a remarkable human being as well as an astonishing writer. For two decades, he valiantly and without any self-pity battled the Parkinson’s disease that would kill him at a young 65. Another intriguing detail from his life is described by Eric McHenry in a 2004 article appearing for Slate:

“No poet was more scrupulously attentive to words and to the ways in which even the subtlest manipulation of words can bring about seismic shifts in meaning. Starbuck, who was born in 1931, is actually the reason loyalty oaths are illegal in the United States. When the State University of New York-Buffalo fired him in 1963 for refusing to sign one, he fought the university all the way to the Supreme Court and prevailed.”

I could make a claim for Starbuck as among the dozen most technically gifted writers in the history of Anglophone literature, but I’ll let him speak for himself. Those of us with backgrounds in old-style English teaching will identify with the author here...because we are all, as I say, language nerds, sensitive to proper or brilliant or improper or outrageous spellings, word combinations, and usages.


(a poem to be inscribed in dark places and never to be spoken aloud)

My favorite student lately is the one who wrote about feeling clumbsy.
I mean if he wanted to say how it feels to be all thumbs he
Certainly picked the write language to right in in the first place.
I mean better to clutter a word up like the old Hearst place
Than to just walk off the job and not give a dam.

Another student gave me a diagragm.
"The Diagragm of the Plot in Henry the VIIIth."

Those, though, were instances of the sublime.
The wonder is in the wonders they can come up with every time.

Why do they all say heighth, but never weighth?
If chrystal can look like English to them, how come chryptic can't?
I guess cwm, chthonic, qanat, or quattrocento
Always gets looked up. But never momento.
Momento they know. Like wierd. Like differant.
It is a part of their deep deep-structure vocabulary:
Their stone axe, their dark bent-offering to the gods:
Their protoCro-Magnon pre-pre-sapient survival-against-cultural-odds.

You won't get me deputized in some Spelling Constabulary.
I'd sooner abandon the bag-toke-whiff system and go decimal.
I'm on their side. I better be, after my brush with "infinitessimal."

There it was, right where I put it, in my brand-new book.

And my friend Peter Davison read it, and he gave me this look,
And he held the look for a little while and said, "George..."

I needed my students at that moment. I, their Scourge.
I needed them. Needed their sympathy. Needed their care.
"Their their," I needed to hear them say, "their their."

You see, there are Spellers in this world, I mean mean ones too.
They shadow us around like a posse of Joe Btfsplks
Waiting for us to sit down at our study-desks and go shrdlu
So they can pop in at the windows saying "tsk tsk."

I know they're there. I know where the beggars are,
With their flash cards looking like prescriptions for the catarrh
And their mnemnmonics, blast 'em. They go too farrh.
I do not stoop to impugn, indict, or condemn;
But I know how to get back at the likes of thegm.

For a long time, I keep mumb.
I let 'em wait, while a preternatural calmn
Rises to me from the depths of my upwardly opened palmb.
Then I raise my eyes like some wizened-and-wisened gnolmbn,
Stranger to scissors, stranger to razor and coslmbn,
And I fix those birds with my gaze till my gaze strikes hoslgmbn,
And I say one word, and the word that I say is "Oslgmbnh."

"Om?" they inquire. "No, not exactly. Oslgmbnh.
Watch me carefully while I pronounce it because you've only got two more guesses
And you only get one more hint: there's an odd number of esses,
And you only get ten more seconds no nine more seconds no eight
And a wrong answer bumps you out of the losers' bracket
And disqualifies you for the National Spellathon Contestant jacket
And that's all the time extension you're going to gebt
So go pick up your consolation prizes from the usherebt
And don't be surprised if it's the bowdlerized regularized paperback abridgment of Pepys
Because around here, gentlemen, we play for kepys."

Then I drive off in my chauffeured Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham
Like something out of the last days of Fellini's Rougham
And leave them smiting their brows and exclaiming to each other "Ougham!
O-U-G-H-A-M Ougham!" and tearing their hair.

Intricate are the compoundments of despair.

Well, brevity must be the soul of something-or-other.

Not, certainly, of spelling, in the good old mother
Tongue of Shakespeare, Raleigh, Marvell, and Vaughan.
But something. One finds out as one goes aughan.

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