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
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’.