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The richness of rigor

If a teacher of English asks his student to write in meter and rhyme, the first response he hears is a long groan, followed by something like ''How boring! It's just repetitive rhythms with a few words that sound alike.'' But one of the excitements of writing in meter is precisely that a poet can constantly work against the metrical standard, creating a huge array of subtle rhythmic variations. Louise Bogan does this in her poem ''Memory'':

Do not guard this as rich stuff without markClosed in a cedarn dark,

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Nor lay it down with tragic masks and greaves,Licked by the tongues of leaves.

Nor let it be as eggs under the wings

Of helpless, startled things,

Nor encompassed by song, nor any glory Perverse and transitory.

Rather, like shards and straw upon coarse ground,Of little worth when found -

Rubble in gardens, it and stones alike,That any spade may strike.

I find this poem comforting in its unwillingness to falsify memory - and also in its implication that, by keeping memory unsentimentalized, it becomes more accessible: ''any spade'' may strike it. But I'm especially pleased with the music of this poem, the subtle rhythms. The stanzas basically consist of alternating tetrameter (four-beat) and trimeter (three-beat) lines: da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA, da-DA da-DA da-DA, and so on. But anyone who tries to transfer these ''da-DA's'' to the actual poem will quickly see that the lines are rarely strictly tetrameter or trimeter. In the first line, for example, Bogan begins with four heavily stressed syllables - ''Do not guard this.'' ''Rich stuff'' is also an unexpected pair of heavily stressed syllables. The first line is striking partly because it violates the metrical standard of the poem, and partly because it even violates our speech patterns - we rarely string together so many stressed syllables. The second line is more regular, except that the first pair of syllables is inverted - ''DA-da,'' followed by the expected iambic feet. The third line is exactly regular; the fourth line follows the variation of the second, inverting the first foot.

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If we had time here to go through the whole poem, we'd find that half the lines maintain the metrical norm, while half bring in variations or violations of the norm. These variations can take all kinds of forms - inverted feet, a series of three or four stressed syllables, two unstressed syllables stuck in unexpectedly - and they give the poem a sense of rhythmic inventiveness that delights the ear. Moreover, even as some of the rhythms in the poem work against the norm, the rhymes work to give the poem a sense of wholeness, to release some of the rhythmic tension at the end of every pair of lines. The rhymes, essentially, work as a final harmonic chord works in a piece of music that has mingled dissonances and consonances.

But, just as Bogan has shown a subtle use of rhythm in poetry, one can also use rhyme in more subtle ways. Look for example at the first two stanzas of a poem by Christopher Scott called ''Cenotaph,'' a rather curious poem that (like Bogan's ''Memory'' in some ways) examines the problem of sentimentalizing memories:

Rooted somewhere under the dense leaves,

somewhere damp and dark, ideally suited

for deceit, it stands out suddenly from the dark trees,

glinting with the marbled light of duskstill lean with shadow and still unrelenting,

cold on the bust and bright on the marble base . . .

This poem contains no real end-rhymes (''leaves'' and ''trees'' is a half-rhyme); rather, the rhymes are diagonal: ''rooted'' and ''suited,'' ''glinting'' and ''unrelenting.'' This diagonal rhyming is almost impossible to pick out, even after several readings, yet it gives the poem a series of sounds and echoes that is quite captivating, arresting in an intentionally mysterious way.

It seems clear that, in terms of rhythmical or musical excitement, rhyme and meter can give a poet new perspectives. But what about lively language? For an example of how rhyme and meter can fire up language by forcing the poet to be more choosy with his words, I'd like to offer a personal example. Below is the free-verse beginning of a poem of mine that wound up in rhymed iambic tetrameter:

Among the pines one morning, I discovered

an old pond, thick with silt and algae;

and I stopped there, curious to watch

the minnows like shadows on the lighter water . . .

Now, frankly, those lines are terrible. The beginning is too slow and boring (so what if I was walking in the pines?); ''thick with silt and algae'' is utterly unexciting, just doggerel. The last line has an interesting perception, but it's too little to ask for in a poem that's already taken up four lines of the reader's day. After some work, I came up with this:

Once by a morning pond I stayed

too long, peering where I could not wade

at minnows rising from the dark,

their eyes as bright as black is made.

Black-eyed and gleaming black, they rose

from unseen shallows, thin as those

short streams of silt that swam when I

thrust sticks down hard where the quiet grows.

With silt as thick as flesh, the pond

gave life to earth beneath my hand,

and minnows caught the filtered light

beside the minnows made of sand.

This isn't the whole poem, but I hope from this excerpt that two points are clear: first, the language is more succinct and direct (the point in the first stanza is no longer the boring discovery of a pond, but the enchantment - perhaps excessive enchantment - with a form of life that humans cannot create). Second, the poem has found its subject; it's no longer a kind of rambling travelogue, but a philosophical reflection.

I am not by any means claiming that rhyme and meter should pre-empt free verse. The fact that Theodore Roethke, for example, an early metricist, could also write the free-verse ''Big Wind'' or the ''North American Sequence'' should alert us to the fact that no one form can dominate the language of poetry. But I think it's crucial to recognize that - staying for a moment with Roethke - ''Big Wind'' has enormous power, compression, and intensity. I believe it's more than a coincidence that the author of that, and other great free-verse poems, spent much of his poetic career practicing rhyme and meter.

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