“Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”

  • The title is the search term that brought a visitor to my blog.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

In the teacup that is poetry, the question stirs up tempests. Many rationalizations for the rejection of rhyme have been given, some are genuine but just as many, I think, have been disingenuous. Some of the most absurd rationalizations have been sociopolitical. Formal poetry, and by extension rhyme and meter, has been saddled with accusations of being unpatriotic (Diane Wakoski ~ American Book Review May/June 1986), patriarchal (Adrienne Rich, Deinse Levertov, Diane Wakoski), nationalist (starting with Whitman wanting to break with the poetic tradition of the “Old World”), and whatever other -ism suits whatever chip a poet or critic carries on their shoulder.

“As long as the States continue to absorb and be dominated by the poetry of the Old World, and remain unsupplied with autochthonous song… so long will they stop short of first-class Nationality and remain defective.”

The quote above comes from Walt Whitman’s 1888 version of A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads. Whitman’s reference to the “Old World” was code for what Whitman considered the “European” tradition of meter, rhyme and form. The chip on Whitman’s shoulder? — his poetry wasn’t as widely read as he thought it should be (compared to the rhyming and metrical Longfellow). The following is from Ezra Pound’s preface to Some Imagist Poets 1915.

To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry a new cadence means a new idea.

That last line, “In poetry a new cadence means a new idea“, is pure Romanticism. The 19th century created and enshrined the artistic paradigms of genius, creativity and originality, concepts that were less clearly defined in earlier centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kant wrote that “genius does not follow rules”.  Pound is essentially saying the same thing. A “new cadence”, by definition, breaks from the past and presumably from any rules – such as rhyme or meter. The ideal of creativity is restated as the “new idea”.

Pound’s contemporaries absorbed his argument and transformed its tenets into the free verse of Modernism.

For a time though, two competing visions of poetry were at war. Pound, from the outset, framed the debate when he referred to the “old moods” of traditional poetry, echoing Whitman’s nationalistic “Old World”, along with his insistence that free verse is a fight for the “principle of liberty”. Pound’s rhetoric takes on unmistakably political undertones. Disagree with me, he seems to warn, and the fight will be political; and that, as time passed, is how many poets justified their rejection of techniques like rhyme – through the politics of race, gender, and class. Any new artistic movement must validate itself; and, it seems, the best validation is political.

So, my first answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is to answer that the disappearance of rhyme resulted from the desire to reject what had become the stifling tradition of Victorian rhyme and meter (which is what Pound was chaffing against). And because no artistic revolution goes unchallenged, the rise of free verse had to be defended (forcefully in some quarters) by portraying advocates of traditional poetry (and by extension the techniques of meter and rhyme) as reactionary, conservative, patriarchal, etc… In other words, it’s not the poet, it’s the poetry at fault; it’s not me, it’s you.

I don’t find any of these rationalizations against traditional poetry convincing or compelling; however, it can be equally stated that the political arguments against free verse were just as absurd. To some, free verse came to represent anarchy and moral degradation. I don’t buy those arguments either.

It’s the Poet, not the Poetry

It used to be that a poet’s meter and rhyme were what weeded the poet from the poetaster. Walt Whitman changed that. Whitman was not a talented writer of meter or rhyme, but he proved that being a great poet and a talented formalist were two different things.

With that in mind, there is an implicit confession in Pound’s revolution that many poets don’t care to admit or discuss. Implicit in Pound’s manifesto is an admission that the vast majority of poets just are not good at rhyme or meter — the problem with Victorian poetry was only partly it’s subject matter. The worst of it was the sing-song, amateurish quality of its lines.

Though it is better to cast free verse as a triumphant “new idea” rather than an admission of defeat, Pound’s manifesto nevertheless implicitly confesses that rhyme and meter are hard, that even the Victorians don’t do it well, and that most poets would be better off if they just didn’t try (or, as he more favorably put it, that they be “liberated” from the expectation). Of course, Pound didn’t put it that way publicly. He did so privately with T.S. Eliot:

Pound’s criticism of The Waste Land was not of its meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended, unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon.” It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from “Gerontion” and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade). Instead of making her toilet like Pope’s Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce’s Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for the disappearance of such lines as:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
Electric summons of the busy bell
Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

From On The Composition of The Waste Land by Richard Ellman

Says Pound, Pope did it better. The problem, Pound tells Eliot, is not that he is using rhyme and meter, but that he isn’t that good at it.

The truth is, the vast majority of free verse poets are not good at rhyme or meter (possibly none of them). And to be fair, the majority of formalist poets are also not that good at it. The majority of readers don’t know that, yes, the  majority of contemporary poets aren’t good at rhyme or meter because those poets are sensible enough not to try it. (Rue the day that a poet like Ron Silliman tries to write meter or rhyme.) And it is a far more pleasant thing that rhyme be rejected for trumped up reasons than that the poet admit he or she isn’t good at it.

There are exceptions. John Ashbery, for one, has gracefully stated that, if he could, he would write traditional poetry, that he likes traditional poetry, but that his talent lies elsewhere. I have had many free verse poets tell me, in private, that they have tried to write rhyme or meter, that they admire it, but that they lack the talent for it.

So, my more fully honest answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is that poets aren’t good at it.

It’s not that poets “don’t write rhyme” because they reject it, but because they’re not, and never were, good at it. If you are writing poetry that rhymes and uses meter, be good at it. (Just as poets recognize their own limitations, they’re especially good at recognizing the limitations of others.) If you don’t “write rhyme” well, criticism will come where criticism is due. The best poets recognize good rhyme and meter when they see it. At worst, traditional poetic techniques are slighted for ideological reasons, and even envy.  Until you can tell the difference, ignore everyone and write what’s in your heart.

If your interest is in reading modern traditional poets, a few of us are around.

I’m always ready to recommend a few. Every heard of Duncan MacLaurin? He’s a poet about the same age as myself. Take a look and see what you think. Click on August/September 2011 Snakeskin 179, and look for MacLaurin at the top left. A pdf of MacLaurin’s poetry is available, along with a selection of eight at The Hyper Texts.

A Concord River Romance

There’s bound to be poetic tradition, lost or otherwise, in many families. The back cover of a book I recently picked up, called Songs of Ourselves, offers the following:

In the years between 1880 and 1950, Americans recited poetry at family gatherings, school assemblies, church services, and civic affairs. As they did so, they invested poems–and the figure of the poet–with the beliefs, values, and emotions that they experienced in those settings.

Those days are long since passed. Yes, poems are still occasionally read at this or that gathering, but with nothing like the commonality, reverence and meaning of an age prior to Radio, Television, MP3s, YouTube, or the modern pop/music culture. If you want to know what I mean by “reverence and meaning”, then read Joan Rubin’s book. Nowadays, a lover is more likely to pick up a guitar than a quill.

Who knows how many books, over the years, have been inscribed with a poem. The poem below comes by way a General Contractor I work with, Brad Johnston. A recurring discussion—which he never tires of—is his relationship, by marriage, to Nathaniel Hawthorne through Sophia Peabody (at left). (Their fame is his fame.) Ashley Palmer How’s mother was the niece of Sophia Peabody.

A little ribbing aside, his ancestors interest in literature didn’t subside with Peabody or Hawthorne. What interests me about the Concord River Romance is that it was written by a Banker well grounded in the techniques of traditional poetry. His verse is written in open couplets and Iambic Tetrameter. He writes with freedom—headless lines, feminine endings, anapests. Modernism was in full swing, and though he was a rank amateur writing in a tradition readily being abandoned to free verse, his metrical writing is flexible and more modern than the tradition it springs from. He was surely well versed in Robert Frost’s poetry and was probably familiar Edna Vincent Millay.

Beyond that, the poetry is worth reading if only because it speaks to a poetic tradition other than that cultivated in anthologies, collected works or academia. This poem wasn’t written to speak to the world or for all time, but to a friend and lover. It’s a poetic genre that remains largely unknown if not, in many cases, lost. Ahsley’s poem is also a little special and unusual being so full and rich with history, some of which every American is familiar with. I’ve annotated the poem so you can get a little glimpse into the lost world he evokes.

Concord River Romance

To my dear wife Elizabeth for her Birthday August 1rst 1941

From memories of past glory
To the present wondrous story,
Stream of beauty ever flowing,
Renewing life and love ere growing,
Never ceasing in thy mission
Giving strength for life’s fruition;
As by meadows, hemlocks lapping,
While rugged rocks, grim, gray seem napping;
Battle Ground (1), so peaceful sure
Myriads of the clan doth lure,
Egg Rock (2) breathing Indian lore
Where Bartlett merriment (3) in full store
Gave warm welcome to a lad
Full heart warming, making glad.
Thus he met you for approval —
Never from long life’s removal —
By the tribe so stable, strong
Which never ventured toward a wrong.
Thence canoe on smooth stream gliding
Off by shade of trees abiding;
To Fairhaven(4), Conantum(5) too.
Clam Shell Bluff (6) of deep green hue,
To Davis Hill (7)– picnics galore,
Brewster’s (8) too. – to feast the more,
And all along what beauties greet,
Water lilies, scent so sweet;
Birds a carrolling in grass and trees,
Air refreshing, glorious breeze,
Picking berries, blue and black,
Days ever ending alas, alack;
Dear Concord River to you and me
Calls often with life’s ecstacy.
Let memories linger as years do grow
Bringing love’s full measure, heart’s overflow.

With treasured thoughts to strengthen
Each day’s horizon to lengthen,
Making happy days the longer
As our joys grow ever stronger.

Ashley

1.) Battle Ground: A reference to the grounds where the first battles of the American Revolutionary war occurred.

2.) Egg Rock: An inscription carved into a rock at the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury rivers. The inscription was completed in 1885 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the 1635 founding of Concord.

3.) Bartlett Merriment: Ashley courted and married Elizabeth Bartlett, daughter of George Bradford Bartlett and the granddaughter of Dr. Josiah Bartlett (a practicing Doctor of some 52 years). Elizabeth’s family was well established and well-known in Concord. The following two paragraphs from Recreation on Concord’s rivers in the 19th Century by Leslie Perrin Wilson gives a sense for Elizabeth’s family, her roots in Concord, and the scenic atmosphere from which Ashley’s poem springs.

By the late 18th century, however, Concord people were starting to develop a less utilitarian approach to the landscape. Significantly, in 1895, George Bradford Bartlett—well-known in connection with the Manse boathouse—wrote of the cliffs near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River: “For more than a hundred years these cliffs have been a favorite resort for the nature lover, and the climax of many a Sunday walk or autumnal holiday trip, as no better view can be had of the waving tree-tops and gentle river.”

One favorite summer activity was the “Moonlight Float.” People would gather together in their boats at a designated spot, arrange themselves from one bank of the river to the other several rows deep, tie their boats together, and drift downstream, singing all the way. George Bradford Bartlett frequently organized such floats. He also arranged picnics at the various scenic locations along the rivers. The area around the Leaning Hemlocks on the Assabet was a favorite picnic place, as was Martha’s Point, near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River, which was named for Bartlett’s sister Martha. Egg Rock, at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, was a preferred spot for summer holiday breakfasts.

Martha’s point was named after Elizabeth’s Bartlett’s Aunt. Ashley might have had such a “Moonlight float” in mind, or in memory, when he mentions a “canoe on smooth stream gliding” and “picnics galore” later in the poem.

Notice in the photo above, the C Bartlett house at the lower right (who was likely to have been a relation of Elizabeth Bartlett). Also, you can find Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house across the brook.

4.) Fairhaven: This refers to Fairhaven Bay, possibly the starting point for such a float.

Fairhaven Bay is just to the south of Concord. To see the entirety of this old Map, click here.

5.) Conantum: The history behind this name actually involves Henry David Thoreau. If you look closely at the map above, drawn in 1852, you will find a house belonging to E. Conant, E for Ebenezer. (Look under the III and you can also expand the image if you click on it.) I am told, by the research librarian at the Concord Library, that the name Conantum was a play on Contant’s last name by Thoreau, being that Conantum sounds both Latin and Indian. The area (including E. Contant’s house) offered cliffs and an overlook of Fairhaven Bay and became known to locals as Conantum.

Round about 1899 Herbert Wendall Gleason photographed the area (photo above right) and drew a map of the area as Henry David Thoreau conceived it. The map reflects local lore. You won’t find Conantum on any official map of Concord. You can match the map below to the one above.

 

6.) Clam Shell Bluff: Here’s a photo of Clamshell Bank which, being by Gleason, could well be another name for Clam Shell Bluff.

Interestingly, I found the following passage in Google Books:

“Now we are rounding Clamshell Bluff, and the children always like to hear of the old days when the Indians lived on the river banks, and left the great heaps of shells after their feasts on the fresh water clams. Clamshell Bluff is a great place for “buried treasure,” too, in the way of arrow-heads, spear-heads, bits of flint, etc., and the boys love to stop there occasionally and hunt for those old Indian relics, often finding prizes in the way of perfect implements. (…)

On, on we go, under the bridge, through the meadows by which Thoreau used to paddle, past the cliff where the harebells crow, and then we round the cool, dark point where we always look for cardinal flowers — scarce enough to make the sight of one a delightful surprise.

Where shall we land? Martha’s Point is voted for, and soon the Nina’s keel is grating on the tiny sandy beach at the foot of the high cliff. Martha’s point is a great picnic place, and we are almost afraid we shall find someone there before us. (…)

Later she writes:

Our dessert is to be berries; shall we pick them first, or start on the chowder? I had peeled and sliced the potatoes on the way up, dropping the peelings overboard to give the fishes a feast; so we decided, as things were ready, to make the berry trip. We have private wild berry patches in Mr. Conant’s field, which we pretend we own and visit each year.”

The snippet comes from an article in Country Life, May 1921! – twenty years before Ashley wrote his poem to Elizabeth. He could easily be remembering just such a trip, an afternoon’s outing that many local Concord residents made and enjoyed. Notice the reference to “Mr. Conant’s field”. Ashley also later mentions “picking berries, blue and black” and I wonder if he wasn’t referring to the same secret spot on Mr. Conant’s field.

7.) Davis Hill: This finds us suddenly quite a ways along the Concord River (and to the North of Concord). Google Map is to the right. You can see Fair Haven Bay at the lower left and you can follow the River upward until Davis Hill is reached. (Walden Pond is not labeled but is just above the word Sandy.) The “mountain”, as it is called by the locals, is still considered a scenic overlook and tourist attraction. I wasn’t able to find any photos of Davis Hill.

8.) Brewster’s: I haven’t found any references to Brewster’s, but it’s possible that Ashley was referring to family friends or to a locally popular restaurant known as Brewster’s (since he writes “to feast all the more”). However, if I were the betting kind, I would say Ashley was referring to Brewster’s Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Although the Concord River wouldn’t carry one to Brewster’s Island (rather to Plum Island just south of the New Hampshire state line), one can follow Ashley’s imagination from the smooth waters of the Concord River to the mouth of Boston Harbor, the last stop before the Atlantic Ocean. “Brewster’s too,” Ashley writes. Let’s make the day go on forever, he seems to say to his wife. Let’s not stop until we reach the Atlantic! Their last journey surely took them far beyond the shores of the Atlantic. Let’s hope they’re still in love, the breezes are as beautiful as ever, and that the berries are as black and sweeter. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little colorful glimpse into a distant love and way of life. Be sure to write your lover a poem to remember you by.

The facsimile below is a copy of a copy. It looks as though it was written with a quill.

If you have any old poems written by parents, grandparents or older, poems that would otherwise be lost in a book, send them along and I’ll post them. If it’s written in a language other than English, I’m still interested.