Neither Time Nor Season


Now, you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there's a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song
— Leonard Cohen

Why did rhyme and meter grow so displeasing, offputting or simply invisible to so many Anglophone literary intellectuals over the course of the 20th century?

Put simply: they are liked by the wrong people, and by too many people. It is not a matter of conservatism vs innovation, or freedom vs regulation. Not really. It is a matter of elite values; elite disdain for popular verse forms, and (in the 21st century) elite attachment to an increasingly irrelevant print culture. Our literati don't usually take modern rhymed verse as seriously, because the masses enjoy rhyme too much. Even the Neo-Formalists, in trying (with some partial success) to reintroduce patterned prosody and rhyme to contemporary elite verse and print culture, had to take pains to avoid many of the other traits of popular verse.

Best say something about popular verse in English, which is badly misunderstood in a way so commonplace as to pass for common sense. Literary intellectuals like to think, and like even more to bemoan, that the masses have no appetite for poetry and well-turned lays. "Poetry is a dying art" is a cliché. A conspicuously false one.

Popular verse in contemporary English tends to be sung, or performed to musical or percussive accompaniment. We usually call it song or music, even (as is often the case with rap) when there isn't much singing involved. We just do not call it poetry. We do not even call it literature. The elite Anglophone response to Bob Dylan's Nobel win is an excellent example of how distasteful, distressing and insulting our literati find the very idea. One wonders how they would square this with the literatus' readiness to admit that Hafiz, Sappho or Bernard de Ventadorn are of course literature.

To this it may be objected that most contemporary popular verse in English is bad or mediocre. This is true but also irrelevant. Most poetry in contemporary elite forms is also bad or mediocre. Most poetry throughout history has not been of enduring resonance or relevance. Sometimes there are circumstances that favor better or more versecraft, and sometimes there are not. But that is a different matter altogether.

There is no intrinsic reason why popular verse, or song lyric, should be rhymed. Ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite song (popular and not) was unrhymed. But English popular verse, sung or spoken, has mostly been rhymed for the past thousand years.

It is sometimes said that English is especially rhyme-poor, that it is therefore too hard to write rhymed verse well in English (and unreasonably hard to translate verse well into rhymed English.) This is not true. If it were, anyone who made this objection ought to treat English popular verse as a formal miracle. It's true that "perfect rhymes" like fellatio/Horatio, Niagra/Viagra, penis/Venus, fistula/Vistula, death/breath or even sea/me/tree/etc are not as readily available as in French or Persian or Chinese. The reasons for this need not detain us here. But popular verse in English is rhymed and metrical all the same, as has much elite verse before the early 20th century. Strophic verse like Don McLean's "Miss American Pie" has no trouble rhyming. English is not as effortlessly easy to rhyme in as French (though the rhyme requirements of English have never been nearly as exacting as they have been in literary French.) But it is not intrinsically rhyme-resistant. And it did not suddenly become harder to rhyme ca. 1950. Rather, elite verse mostly abandoned a practice, and its practitioners mostly lost a skill, that popular verse retained.

In fact, as it stands, the techniques used to produce rhyme in contemporary English popular verse are by almost any standard more inventive, flexible and rife with untapped potential than the rhymes familiar from a Norton Anthology. One popular poet rhymes music/wounded, ready/sent me, boredom/reward them, heavens/weapons, baby/station in a single poem composed in accentual pentameters (these rhymes alternate with a single -in rhyme throughout.) Why is this kind of rhyming not admitted into elite verse forms in English? Why do we not translate rhymed poetry from other languages with this kind of rhyming into English?

Take a more extreme example. Another popular poet, again in a single composition, rhymes aimed/sprays/stays/days, hair/wear, office/problems, government/loving it/dumping it, squirts of piss/words exist/suburban kids/turbulence, hooked right in/looked like them, America/Erica/Character. 

Assonance is not "intrinsically" more appropriate to song or popular lyric. In other literatures (e.g. Medieval Irish, Old French, Modern Spanish, and even at times Dutch) it has been the vehicle for all kinds of literary composition from epic verse to hymnody to erudite panegyric to surreal love lyric. This is no shock to anyone who reads Neruda or Lorca in Spanish.

Literary intellectuals in English sometimes call this "off-rhyme." But it is not the kind of off-rhyme most favored in literary verse. Poetry in literary verse that uses "off rhyme" is more likely to employ consonance. Often, as in the verse of Seamus Heaney or in Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno, nothing but the final consonant of a word need be repeated to qualify as rhyme. This has the effect of making the patterning easy enough to see on the page, but hard to detect with the ear, producing a kind of sound-repetition that is as unlike the rhymes of popular verse as anything imaginable. I think this is precisely why consonance is the kind of off-rhyme most congenial to elite poetics in English today.

It is no surprise that modern English literati do not often know how to dance on their prosodic feet, and do not care to learn. How can they dance, when they can't even hear the music anymore?

1 comment:

  1. You are the first person in over a decade that I've heard make this point, and it's refreshing to know that I am not the only one of the same opinion.

    ReplyDelete