“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.