Hill, Jarvis, Muldoon and rhyme.

I’m about to announce a bit of a conversion but I need to give some background first.  In 2010 Geoffrey Hill produced “Oraclau |  Oracles”,  Simon Jarvis produced “Erlkonig” and “Dinner” whilst Paul Muldoon published “Maggott”.  Much to my surprise, “Oraclau” uses rhyme and does so in a perplexing way, the Jarvis poems rhyme (which is less surprising) whilst Muldoon is known, at least in my head, for flaunting his ability in this department.

At some stage during December, I came across an essay by Jarvis entitled “Why rhyme pleases” which some kind soul had uploaded to the AAAAARG site (which now contains an impressive collection of his criticism) and have now read it.

Since early adolescence I’ve been against rhyme for personal reasons and also because it seems to trivialise the materialise the material in bringing it too close to song.  Reading “Oraclau” has provoked a mixed response in me. The rhymes Hill uses are, for the most part, half rhymes functioning as a nod in the direction of ‘like sounds’ but not quite getting there. The overall theme is clear enough (Hill’s Welsh ancestry and most things Welsh) as is the structure (144 nine-line stanzas, some of which form longer (and titled) poems. The “voice” is clearly Hill’s and there is less God than usual but the rhymes don’t seem to work and in some cases operate against the sense of what’s being said (being Hill, this could be the point).

Jarvis uses rhyme in some parts of the defiantly metrical “The Unconditional” so it’s not surprising that the two subsequent and shorter poems should use it throughout. I’m less impressed with “Dinner” than I am with “Erlkonig” although they are meant to be related.  This may be due to insufficient attention on my part so I’ll read it a few more times before arriving at a view.

So, I decided that I needed to take rhyme a bit more seriously and then recalled a Muldoon Poem called “The Old Country” from ‘Horse Latitudes’ which I found impressive and read this again.  I wasn’t entirely clear why this particular poem should ‘work’ for me in a way that most rhyming verse doesn’t but the re-reading confirmed my initial reaction.

Simon Jarvis is a man on a mission, the UK’s major hardcore advocate of prosody in all its forms and someone who is clearly not afraid to reinforce his critical argument in his poetry. He also writes very well – even when he’s wrong. “Why rhyme pleases” operates on several levels, Jarvis starts with 18th century critics of rhyme – “Yet rhyme is also a toy, a bawble, a gewgaw, a trifle; it jingles, it tinkles, it rattles and babbles. In short, it is something of absolutely no importance whatever, which must therefore be destroyed without further delay, because it is so deeply evil”. The “deeply evil” aspect is attributed to the protestant view of rhyme as essentially papist. This is juxtaposed with an extended paraphrase of Viktor Zhirmunksy’s untranslated ‘Rhyme: its history and theory’ published in 1923 and described by Jarvis as the most important book on rhyme that has ever been written. Both Prynne and Zhirmunksy are cited as critics who view rhyme as something that either stimulates or cocoons- a view that Jarvis wishes to dispel. He sets out his stall by invoking Adorno in stating that

….technique is the way art thinks. The second is the argument that art thinks historically, and that what it knows, when it thinks well, is natural-historical experience. So called ‘form’ becomes in Adorno’s account a kind of inexplicit mimesis, a mimesis which is not of individual objects in the world, but of those features of natural-historical experience which are at once the most elusive and amongst the most important: of structural shifts in the texture of experience itself which are too painful, or too blissful, directly to be thematized. No art is about itself. So technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff.

I must confess that I have yet to read ‘Aesthetic Theory’ but my usual response to Adorno is one of unabiding scepticism. Nevertheless the idea that art uses its technique to ‘think’ is impressive- leaving aside the question of how something as abstract as art can be said to think at all and whether you really can have form as a ‘mimesis’ of ‘structural shifts in the texture of experience itself’.
Jarvis quotes Prynne’s ‘Ariestas, in Seven Years’ to make a point about the differing ways that rhyme might be identified. He then looks at the way rhymes by Wallace Stevens and Louis Aragon have been viewed by critics before looking at detail at a longish passage from Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ in which he equates Pope’s virtuosity with Barthes’ description of the seduction of the unknown reader.
For me rhyme only works when it doesn’t get in the way of the poem. I find that when I’m reading some poems that rhyme I tend to scan ahead looking for the rhyme words/sounds which is very distracting and reduces any pleasure I might get from the verse.
I’d now like to compare the use of rhyme in these three poets to indicate why rhyme is beginning to please me and also to point out my ongoing concerns about the Jarvis argument.
Here’s the first two stanzas from the ‘Hiraeth’ sequence in ‘Oraclau’:

119: Hiraeth (1)
I would do gratefully what others claim
They could not: relive my adolescence
If I were granted a special licence
To learn Welsh and love you. Great shame
I cannot speak or sing
This language of my late awakening
Nor ask you pardon, Beloved, nor bring
You, my bride into the feasting house
Of first desire, dazed by your wedding dress

120: Hiraeth (II)
Tell me, what is my sense of abiding.
Ah, love, are we to labour over these
Mechanic etymologies
Who encountered blank forbidding
Before we gave much thought
To language – touching was vivid sight
Our fingers talked, we were illiterate.
Abide does not hit home as does inure:
I who have swum in love words, shore to shore!

(In each stanza lines three and four should be indented by two characters and line five should be indented by six characters.)
I recognise that this requires a much fuller read than the one it’s about to get but I want to use it to demonstrate the problem that I have with rhyme. This centres around the last line of each stanza and whether or not ‘shore’ is an adequate rhyme for ‘inure’ and if allowing the ‘like’ sound to be a consonant is a case of having your cake and eating it. My first reaction to house/dress was that it didn’t rhyme and then (after reading Jarvis) I realised that the same consonant was being substituted quite frequently for the vowel so the last stanza in Hiraeth ends on whelped/scalped.
Because I tend to avoid rhyming verse, I don’t know if this is a long-standing technique with an illustrious pedigree or whether this is a Hill innovation. What I would like to point out is that the last line of the first stanza isn’t very good and the absence of a vowel rhyme makes it worse. Perhaps it’s just the unromantic part of me that thinks that being ‘dazed’ by a wedding dress isn’t very poetic and more than a little banal in this context. The absence of a vowel rhyme to my mind just brings more attention to the fact that the line lets down the rest of the stanza. I don’t think this is saved by the bride / desire rhyme half way along but perhaps others would disagree. Reading this aloud and trying different approaches seems to confirm the wrongness of the last line.
The second stanza is better in terms of what’s being expressed but in my head ‘shore’ is never going to rhyme with ‘inure’ even though the ‘re’ ending is identical. There’s also a midway rhyme going on with ‘home’ and ‘swum’ which almost works.
I do hope that regular readers will appreciate that I continue to hold Hill in high regard and the disappointment expressed here is due to a mixture of my own prejudices and some ongoing doubts about whether you can be too idiosyncratic for your own good. As ever with Hill, I’d far rather think about what is being said than the method of delivery.
We now come to Jarvis and ‘Dinner’ which rhymes throughout and is successful in carrying the reader along without drawing too much attention to the nature of the rhyme. Here’s two stanzas that exemplify this:

A disassembled personality:
a legal concept, whose recursive shape
will offer no intentionality
to be detected by lips or tape
but distributes its known reality
throughout its assets where they fold or gape:
a holding company, a nest of links.
Was this his inside? As he frowns, she thinks,

it hardly could be anyone’s, still less
that owner of the most persuasive grin
she had known twenty years ago, unless
instead of speaking, as she’d thought to win
no points but merely in a fine undress
the unforced force of wit’s adventures in
their very musculature, wit instead
ruled like an errant gene the vacant head?

This is both very clever and well put together and shows why we need to take Jarvis seriously as a poet and a critic. The points are being made in a complex and lateral way to add further layers to the portrait of a man consumed by scratchy disaffection whilst affecting to play the bourgeois game. The rhymes are precise, don’t feel forced and contribute to the strength of these two stanzas. I’m also beginning to see the point of using rhyme as an off-setting device as in ‘lips or tape’ and ‘fold or gape’. The only minor qualm is that if you’re using rhyme in the sense of similar vowel sounds then this intensifies the need for the rest of your word choice to fit and ‘musculature’ doesn’t – it draws attention to itself with the repeated vowel and the dearth of hard consonants but it isn’t strong enough as an image and simply indicates its own weakness when compared with the rest.
After four or five readings I still don’t like ‘Dinner’ but I find that I’m having productive arguments with it which is always a good thing.
I want to finish this rhyming trio with an excerpt from Muldoon’s ‘The Old Country’ which is successful because it manages to be technically accomplished and thematically astute without ramming either of these facts down the reader’s throat.
‘The Old Country’ consists of thirteen sections each or which runs into the next, the last line of a section forms the first line of the next. Each section has two four line and two three line stanzas and the rhyming scheme is uniform throughout. This is the seventh section:

Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle.
Every whitrack was a whitterick.
Everyone was in a right kerfuffle

when from his hob some hobbledehoy
would venture the whitterick was a curlew.
Every wall was a wall of Troy
and every hunt a hunt in a purlieu

of a demesne so out of bounds
every hound might have been a hellhound.
At every lane end stood a milk churn

whose every dent was a sign of indenture
to some pig wormer or cattle drencher.
Every point was a point of no return.

This works on a number of levels, the ‘Old Country’ of the title refers to Ulster and this is a clear exposition of Muldoon’s view of a number of complex threads pertaining to the place of his birth. Instead of drawing these out I’d like to concentrate on the rhymes and repetitions and what they bring to the poem as a whole.
The rhymes are clear and direct with the very minor exception of ‘bounds’ and ‘hellhound’ and repetition occurs on the second line of the first and third stanzas- as well as the repetition of the last line mentioned above. Normally this level of structure would annoy me to death but I get immersed in it because these devices are an important element in underpinning the strength of the message. I have yet to work out why this might be the case but I do know that it’s a poem that I re-read on a regular basis because of the pleasure to be had in this degree of accomplishment.
I’m aware that there is a view that Muldoon is too clever for his own good and that he has somehow squandered his talent. I can see that this might be accurate and I continue to dither about whether his work as a whole is any good but nevertheless feel that this may be one example of why this jingling gegaw can ‘please’.


23 responses to “Hill, Jarvis, Muldoon and rhyme.

  1. I think all these discussions, yours and Jarvis’s, leave meter too much aside. (I’m not yet convinced he uses it well, but he does clearly use it.) In Marianne Moore’s tricky syllabics, the rhymes arrive on schedule, but you may miss them, even when reading from the stanzaic layout.

    Do you strongly prefer exact rhymes? Yeats’s studied informality depends on the use of off-rhyme — “Easter 1916” wouldn’t be the same if the rhymes were all exact, or if there were many truly unrhymed lines. (And again, the off-rhymes depend, even more than exact rhymes do, on regular meter in order to register as rhymes at all.)

    Part of what’s going on in the Muldoon is a frank glorying in a particular vocabulary — the rhymes let him linger gluttonously on the goofy words.

    I’ve skimmed Jarvis on rhyme. He does, as you say, write well, though showily (take just the title and first sentence). It’s remarkable to meet with someone who so combines attitudes of the artistic “left” and “right” — John Hollander wouldn’t write about Prynne.

    • I’m trying to compartmentalise my thinking on this but rhyme and meter are linked- I was going to deal with things metrical and then try and put the whole prosody / Adorno argument together before arguing with it.
      Marianne Moore is almost as wonderful as her protege and probably more skilled.
      I don’t prefer any kind of rhyme- I’m just getting round to the idea of it not being a useless gewgaw but I am thinking more carefully about it which is why your examples give more food for thought.
      I think the Muldoon’s gluttonous lingering is what I like about him plus the impression that he gives of not really trying….
      I’m about to do ‘The Melodics of the Long Poem’ which Jarvis claims expands on his notion of technique as the way that art thinks- might also offer me some incentive to get past page 105 of “The Unconditional”. Oddly, I wouldn’t have given rhyme much consideration had not Hill started to play around with it for the first time since “For the Unfallen”- a move that I fail to understand.

      • Vance Maverick

        (If by “protege” you mean Bishop, I did pick that Moore poem with her in mind.)

        Do you have a copy of Saintsbury on prosody? Even the condensed version is a great anthology of examples. That’s where I first read Blake’s “Mad Song”, for example. His theory, of course, will drive you up the wall — not only does he privilege “the method of delivery” over “what is being said”, but his account of the former (scansion in particular) is clearly less systematic than he thinks.

  2. I now have a copy but won’t begin to wade through it just yet, Jarvis also recommends something on the heroic couplet by J. Paul Hunter which looks much more manageable.
    I’m not against form, it’s just that I haven’t thought about it very much with regard to contemporary stuff. I also have a sneaking suspicion that I’m on the way to conversion.

  3. Having read “Why Rhyme Pleases” more carefully, I now think it’s incoherent. Some interesting things in it, but also bizarre digressions and changes of direction. And his working out of the Pope example seems to prove that rhyme is a good tool for writing The Rape of the Lock — implying (presumably not on purpose) that it’s not so good for other poems or poets. I think, for example (hoping you won’t laugh me out of court for the admission) that In Memoriam is very good on the whole, but the argument can’t be the same.

    Do you know what Jarvis means by “thinking”? This seems to be a keyword for him. Evidently it’s a special category of mental activity, but I’m not sure of the distinction — he says somewhere that with systematic philosophers, some of their working out of the system will inevitably fail to qualify as real thinking. Perhaps it’s mental activity that’s especially alert/alive/sensitive, the opposite of mechanical or unconscious? I’m not sure I believe in a black and white distinction there, so I don’t much worry whether rhyme qualifies as thinking or not.

    He’s also too binary, it seems to me, in distinguishing rhyme as prosodic feature with aesthetic qualities, on the one hand, from rhyme as badge of party affiliation or “socially symbolic act” on the other. Doesn’t everything noticeable about art partake of both of these in some degree?

    Finally, he makes heavy weather of disagreeing with the definitions of rhyme he’s taken from Zhirmunsky and Hugh Kenner. I don’t think it would be hard to come up with a better one; in fact I imagine someone has already done so (maybe Jakobson). Doing this would be a better use of rhetorical space than puzzling over the inadequacy of his arbitrary choices to examples they probably didn’t intend to cover.

  4. I’m still trying to work out (with the help of Adorno) what is meant by technique being the way that art thinks about itself but it’s a big book and this may take some time- page references in the essay would have been useful.
    I’m looking again at some of my favourite rhymers, especially Spenser and Marvell to try and work out why these appeal to me more than contemporary stuff, might have something to do with cultural expectations with regard to the older tradition of rhyme and meter….
    I’m going to stay with the Kenner definition for the moment because I understand it and (probably) agree with it.
    With regard to the coherence of the argument, I think it rests on a premise that isn’t made sufficiently clear and gives too much weight to the Pope extract. There’s the odd inclusion of Prynne as well which seems superfluous but I am going to persist with the ‘Melodics’ essay to try and get a bit more context.

  5. I thought the Prynne was an excellent test case. The rhyme is hard to miss — the question is how to say that clearly in the course of an ordinary account of the whole poem.

    I think about rhyme first as a relationship between sequences of syllables, then secondarily a property of stanzas and poems.

    Suppose we start with syllables — consider each one as a cluster of consonants and vowels, either stressed or unstressed. Then, we can say that two sequences of syllables rhyme if

    each sequence has at least one stressed syllable
    starting with the vowel of the first stressed syllable in each, the two sequences contain exactly the same pattern of vowels, consonants, and stresses.

    With this, we can say e.g. that fandango and mango rhyme, but fandango and mangold do not.

    The second step is to talk about rhyme as an “organizing principle”. Two lines rhyme if there is a rhyme (as defined above) between sequences of syllables at their ends (i.e. continuing to include the last syllable in each). A poem “rhymes” if there are regular or repeated rhymes between it lines. (Thus “Intimations of Immortality” rhymes, even though its meter is irregular.)

    What’s odd about Aristeas, in this context, is that while it doesn’t generally rhyme, it does deploy one clearly audible rhyme between line-ends.

  6. Currently looking at William Harmon on Spenser’s use of rhyme which seems to describe how rhyme and structure are mutually dependent and what the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rhyme might be.
    In your definition, is the any space for lines that ‘rhyme’ in the middle rather than the end?
    Further thought on Prynne, in the translating difficulty essay he does spend some time giving emphasis to the way a poem is structured although he uses line endings as an example.
    The other thought that this debate has led me to is that how do we quantify or talk about the relationship between form and content in contemporary work- am in discussion with Sutherland on the prose poem which I’ll blog about shortly. I’m also going to rte-read Hill in the light of what we’ve discussed here.

  7. Spenser is an interesting example — a lot of his individual rhymes are pretty simple, but there’s such a large structure in place that they’re not unsatisfying on that account.

    Yes, internal rhyme is easy to discuss in the terms I suggested — simply lift the constraint that the sequences of syllables which rhyme must come at the end of the line. In “Through the night with a light from above”, for example (sorry, but it’s what came to mind, since for some reason I saw “God Bless America” on a poster in my neighborhood this weekend), the sequences in question are “night” and “light”, one syllable each, and they plainly rhyme.

    See “A”-9 (there are excerpts from the first and second parts here) for an extended, and less embarrassing, example.

  8. I’ve now read Jarvis’s “Melodics of Long Poems” piece. To some extent it’s a statement of the obvious (there’s no fundamental split between the melodics of short and long poems); to some extent it’s a clarified reworking of what was incoherent in “Why Verse Pleases”.

    But then at the end there’s a short blast of genuinely intolerable rhetorical tactics. He wants to tell you about The Recluse Endymion, and The Triumph of Life, but rather than argue his case, he coyly conceals the name of the poem, transmits his potted analysis, then lets you in at the end of the paragraph on what he was analyzing. This renders his analyses unreadable — you have the choice between accepting them in ignorance or rejecting them ditto, and (like, I suspect, most readers), I chose the former.

    Why in the world would he do this? Was he constrained by a page limit from arguing with examples? If so, he should have gone to another journal.

  9. (My kingdom for a preview function!)

    I mean I chose the “latter” — I rejected his analyses of the three early-Victorian long poems unexamined.

  10. With regard to Spenser, the Spenserian stanza used for the Faerie Queen uses a fairly complex rhyme scheme which allows the reader to acknowledge that lines do rhyme but without getting in the way of the ‘sense’ of things.
    This is more effective in some parts of FQ than others, one of the most accomplished uses of rhyme and structure are the occasions where proverbs are used to substitute for dialogue especially in book I.
    I still haven’t looked at ‘Melodics’ but I will try and read it today bearing in mind your points. Does he actually explain the thing about art thinking about itself?

  11. No. For what it’s worth, the enigmatic phrase is “technique is the way art thinks”, not about itself in particular but anything.

    (Which given my particular background reminds me of a great passage in Conversations with Stravinsky, where he denies a distinction between technique and anything else in art. But music is different.)

  12. I’ll give it a miss then, I’m not wading through the Adorno tome because it’s bound to make me cross.
    I like the Stravinsky quote even if music is different.

  13. For some reason Conversations is hard to find online. The passage begins:

    Robert Craft: What is technique?
    Igor Stravinsky: The whole man. We learn how to use it but we cannot acquire it in the first place; or perhaps I should say that we are born with the ability to acquire it. At present it has come to mean the opposite of ‘heart’, though, of course, ‘heart’ is technique too.

    I suppose the English is really Craft’s, but I don’t think he was ventriloquizing the sentiment.

  14. Think I’ve found the Adorno reference-
    “Form converges with critique. It is that through which artworks prove self-critical; what in the work rebels against any untransformed residue is really the bearer of form, and art is disavowed wherever support is given to the theodicy of the unformed, whether under the name of musicality or ham acting. By its critical implication, form annihilates practices and works of the past. Form repudiates the view that artworks are immediately given. If form is that in artworks by which they become artworks, it is equivalent with their mediatedness, their objective reflectedness into themselves. Form is mediation in that it is the relation of parts to each other and to the whole and as the elaboration of details.”
    He takes a while to get to this- it’s from Aesthetic Theory – and I might have to read the rest…

  15. Well, let me know if that turns out to be it. Form isn’t technique, really — at most, a department of technique. I understand some of what Adorno is claiming — again, with reference to music in particular (I know he cared intensely about the classical tradition). Even with that context, though, some of the claims are bizarre, or compressed to the point of incomprehensibility.

  16. Isn’t form the manifestation of technique – he uses music to introduce this argument rather than other modes of expression and it does seem to me that the argument is better suited to music than it is to verse.
    Jarvis makes frequent reference to music in ‘The Unconditional’ which may or mat not be significant…
    I’m still of the view that Adorno is a priori wrong on most things

  17. Well, we need to get down to definitions. And in classical composition, “form” refers to the shape of the piece over its whole duration. So “technique” includes some matters (e.g. harmony, orchestration) that are distinct from form. (Not, I admit, utterly distinct — harmony has a directionality in time, and form is only manifest through changes in local properties such as orchestration.)

    I won’t disagree with you about Adorno — I’ve been hearing about him for decades, without ever feeling moved to read him in the original.

    • Okay, a glib one-liner (a permanent fault of mine) but I think I meant that in poetry a sonnet, to take the most obvious example, is a manifestation of (among other things) the poet’s mastery of rhyme and meter (which are technical skills).
      To return to Jarvis, ‘The Conditional’ contains “Something of the wish embodied in / that music-making pose the picture saw / must stick forever to whatever art / however disenchantedly pursues / its still-persisting minutely detailed / in the slightest twitch of force or tone.” Which is about a photograph of a pianist in conducting mode….

      • Vance Maverick

        Fair enough. “Form” has several meanings, and I tend to stress the long one. Take something longer than a sonnet, like Gray’s “Elegy” — the rhetorical structure of the poem is very carefully plotted from beginning to end, but the aspects of the poem we usually call “technical” are at the quatrain level. (Within the sonnet, there’s a rhetorical structure too, but it’s easier to think about in the same terms as the rhyme scheme — Shakespeare’s use of the couplet for a twist.) Which level we prefer call “form” is a matter of inclination.

        One reason I liked composition, and was never a promising performer, was that I don’t have the gift for minute persistence in the moment, but rather have to accumulate scattered moments — like a writer. So yes, “something of the wish … must stick to whatever art”, but perhaps not recognizable in a photographed pose.

      • To go back to the Faeire Queen, it does have a structure which is to do with allegory but I wouldn’t see this as being the same thing as form – allegory can be ‘done’ in a number of different forms but the Spenserian stanza is a fixed form with quite specific rules.
        I don’t have any musical skill but I do enjoy the process of reading stuff to an audience more than writing it.

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