Time to Rhyme?
Sounds Link Lines and Meaning
IN an essay that was originally published in the Turin, Italy, newspaper La Stampa in 1985, (and now available to English readers in ``The Mirror Maker,'' Schoken Books) the Italian writer and poet Primo Levi predicted a ``spontaneous return'' to rhyming verse as a distinguishing quality of poetry. First, however, he noted the reasons for the ``oversupply'' of poetry. This results, he said, because ``poetry lives with us, like music and song,'' and also, more specifically for our time, because ``classical metrics and prosody'' have been abandoned. ``This apparent freedom has flung open the doors to the army of born poets: and, as said before, all of us are born poets.'' The resultant noise has made it hard to pick out the authentic new voices, Levi said.
Now Primo Levi is one of the most beloved writers of our times. His death in 1986 made his work on the holocaust, his fables and essays, his poems, a unique treasure. But his prediction of a ``spontaneous return'' to rhyme does seem to be going against common sense.
His reasons for hoping for such a return are clearly set out in the essay. Rhyme unifies the line of verse; it connects verse to music; it underscores key words; it helps us memorize poetry; and, above all, it forces the poet to invent new combinations of words, to innovate. The rhyming poet leaves his stamp on his verse in no uncertain terms.
And this, I believe, is why modern poets avoid rhyme. In the early days of modernism, impersonality was important. In these latter days, the ``oversupply'' of poets may be embarrassed to try to rhyme. Depending on the language (Chinese poets avoid rhyme because it is too easy), bad rhymes are easy rhymes. One really has to know the language to rhyme effectively.
Nevertheless, Levi predicted a ``spontaneous return'' to verse. Looking through the volumes assembled for this book section, one finds little rhyme. Of the well-known poets, only Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott would bear out Levi's prediction. Donald Hall is more typical in that he rhymes occasionally when he wants a nostalgic or witty effect. Charles Gullans is an example of an unfashionable rhyming poet, and a very skilled one at that.
Rhyme has been rejected in modern times because it was perceived as traditional, classical - even though the classical Greek and Roman poets did not rhyme. A return to rhyme would occasion a renewal of interest in the classical discipline of poetry as set out by Horace, the Roman poet who lived during the time of Augustus. In the same year he published his essay on rhyme, Levi wrote an open letter to Horace in La Stampa, bringing him up to date on all the changes in the world but in the end stressing the continuities.
At the end of his life, Horace wrote some philosophical poems - he called them epistles - in which he defended his lifelong commitment to poetry as an art, a craft, a form of wisdom. These epistles are difficult reading, but now one can turn to Ross K. Kilpatrick's ``The Poetry of Criticism'' (The University of Alberta Press), by far the best book on the subject for the general reader. Translations of the poems are appended to the brief, sometimes obscure, discussion of the poems.
Horace's position is summed up in this rhetorical question (as translated by Kilpatrick): ``Should I prefer the reputation of a wild and untrained writer (provided my bad work delights, or at least escapes me) to one of growling discernment?'' The answer is, of course, yes: However antisocial, ``growling discernment'' is preferable to joining the ``oversupply'' of poets.
For Horace, art is a form of philosophy: Living well and writing well are two sides of the same coin. The discipline of art is one of the great themes of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. His new ``Selected Poems'' bears witness to the influence of rhyme. Heaney does not always use end rhymes: He has integrated rhyme into his concept of poetic order.
Take the last poem in the sequence ``Clearances.'' Writing elegiacally about a ``chestnut tree'' (already an echo of the ``great rooted blossomer'' of the great rhymer of the previous Irish generation, W. B. Yeats), Heaney says, ``Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval / Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole, / Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere, / A soul ramifying and forever / Silent beyond silence listened for.''
Lines are linked by like sounds; within the lines, sounds link and fuse meanings (heft and hush). Sound bodies forth the missed tree, giving grief an object and consolation an end.
Charles Gullans, a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes a very plain verse. His rhymes, unlike Heaney's, are usually exact. Irony and sincerity strike luminous balances. ``The years divide,'' he writes in ``Labuntur Anni,'' ``and yet the years fulfill: / The past we laid down carelessly returns / With gifts more stunning than the future seemed / When it held everything in promise still. / In the ironic grace of time, one learns / That, gift by gift, all losses are redeemed, ...''
Exact rhymes on the ends, skillfully modulated repetitions inside the lines: The sound of this poem is inseparable from a sense of onward motion, somewhat like a fine car on a California freeway, as the skilled driver negotiates changes of speed and lane.
That's one way to put it. Another is: Gullans's achievement is to have stuck to writing a poetry that will be rejected by reviewers and teachers before he writes it because it is rhymed. Rhyming embarrasses people, for some reason - perhaps because it at once sets off the poetry from the verbal noise of the global village and at the same time undermines the pretentiousness of poetic utterance. Gullans's voice is memorable and worth remembering.
``Omeros,'' by Derek Walcott, is a book-length poem about his native West Indies. Walcott has slowly built a reputation as one of the finest poets writing in English. Along with Seamus Heaney and the Australian poet Les A. Murray (who also rhymes many of his poems), Walcott has helped poetry go beyond modernism.
In style and content, ``Omeros'' recapitulates ancient (Homer), medieval (Dante), and modern (James Joyce) epics. It is a triumph of sound. End rhyme is used freely, as is internal rhyme: Walcott's Dantesque tercets move with extraordinary power and grace.
Like all great poems, the sound of ``Omeros'' imposes itself on the silence of the contemplative mind. Of his hero Achille, Walcott writes: ``He could hear the same echoes made by their stone axes / in the heights over the tied sticks of the settlement, / and the echoes were prediction and memory, the crossing X's / of the sidewise strokes, but here in their element / the trees and the spirits that they uttered were / rooted ...''
The echoes were prediction and memory: not a bad description of the force of rhyme. Walcott's poetry, ``Omeros'' and before, stands as a unique testament to the possibility of the ``spontaneous return'' to rhyme. Indeed, a good rhyme (stone axes, crossing X's - tool and product, ancient ways and new habitat) always makes a ``spontaneous return'' to something forgotten, reviving our sense of what it means to be human in our time.
Perhaps Levi was right. If we include the great living masters of the short poem - Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Joseph Brodsky, as well as the most popular late British masters, John Betjemen and Philip Larkin, and young poets like Dick Davis, Timothy Steele, and Dana Goia - Levi wasn't far off.
There are a lot of reasons to return to rhyme. Horace's ``growling discernment'' of these reasons and what they mean for the poet personally and socially separates the poets from the rest of us who just like the idea of being a poet, an idea that shines more brightly when wired for sound by rhyme.