Rhyme: Simon Jarvis, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon

I seem to reading a lot of rhyme these days but I’m still trying to get my brain around why some of it ‘works’ and some falls flat on its face. This last category is perhaps best exemplified by Geoffrey Hill’s Oraclau whilst the most effective, to my ear at least is Simon Jarvis’ Night Office with Muldoon somewhere in between.

I’m not going to use Oraclau here but focus instead on Liber Illustrium Virorum, another of the Day Books because bits of it appear to rhyme and others seem to wave in the direction of rhyme but fall short. This isn’t a lit crit exercise, I haven’t re-read Jarvis on rhyme but I do recall what he and Rowan Williams said about it at the launch of Night Office last year. Paul Muldoon is included in this primarily because I think that he’s technically very gifted and he rhymes well, whatever that might mean.

We’ll start with Night Office:


I may know rest and let a sweet surrender
drug my light eyelids so I fall and drift
up to cool uplands where exhaustions tender
miraculous oblivions which sift
sharp pangs & terrors to the sink then render
each back to me allegorized, or lift
my worst thoughts up transfigured till I see them
like inaccessible retreats or flee them

to those cisalpine cantons whose hid peaks
for once escape clouds; yet their high pavilions
are just too distant to be clear : each speaks
in shepherd-emperors whose armed civilians
sing hymns from fields where chequered light's leaped freaks
sport, flit & glitter there; these equal millions
distribute needed bread with the champagne
to every citizen whose real pain

is salved & tended, & whose sorrows darken
just for one instant on the meadow, since
in this high kingdom every empress hearkens
to all her fellow-regents. I may rinse
in these long lakes whatever stain dishearten
my every gesture. To the east of Linz
there rise more ranges. Then I will wake up.
The milk, the tea, the table and the cup.

Now is probably a good time to recap on the Jarvis project which seems to be about demonstrating that constraints, like rhyme and metre, can enhance poems that ‘do’ philosophy. There is a lecture somewhere on the interweb where he uses Pope’s Essay on man to make this point. The relevant observation from the launch was Simon’s agreement with Rowan Williams that the rhyme constraint dictates the poem’s direction of travel.

As a reader of poetry I’ve spent most of the last forty years being against rhyme because:

  • I don’t see how it can be more effective than less restrictive forms at saying complex things;
  • I think the majority of rhyming verse is too close to song;
  • when a rhyme fails it fails really badly;
  • when I’m reading a poem that rhymes I’m more conscious of the rhyme rather than the sense;
  • deep down, against my new man instincts, I think rhyme is effeminate.

Obviously the last of these, which I’ve only just recognised, has no bearing on reality and is exclusively my problem. The other three however I can make a decent stab of defending / justifying. The first prejudice is now beginning to soften because Night Office does some very complex things indeed and because I recognise that the Spenserian stanza (which rhymes) does many complicated things, including an accomplished piece of philosophising.

With regard to the above, I’m of the view that it works, that it manages to avoid the proximity to song, there are no rhymes that fail and I am reading for the sense, even when reading aloud. What I think is also worth noting is that this is immensely readable, I don’t find myself becoming furrowed of brow when attending to Night Office because the syntax used is much closer to conversational speech than most works in the late modern vein.

I first realised that I may need to modify the rhyme position in 20o6 when reading Paul Muldoon’s The Old Country from his Horse Latitudes collection. I’ve always been intrigued by Muldoon’s work because it manages to enthrall and annoy me at the same time. The Old Country is a sequence of thirteen poems each with two four line stanzas followed by two with three lines. These two are from the middle of the sequence:


VI
    
Every slope was a slippery slope
Where every shave was a very close shave
and money was money for old rope
where every grave was a watery grave

now every boat was, again, a burned boat
Every dime-a-dozen rat a dime-a-dozen drowned rat
except for the whitrack or stoat,
which the very Norsemen had down pat

as a weasel word
though we know there speech was rather slurred.
Every time was time in the nick

just as every nick was a nick in time.
Every unsheathed sword was somehow sheathed in rime.
Every cut was a cut to the quick.

VII

Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle
Every whitrack was a witterick.
Every one was ina right kerfuffle

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

I’m taking it that this particular old country is Ulster and what is captured throughout this sequence is a portrait of and an oblique comment on a particularly grim mentality forged during the ‘Troubles’. That aside, i’m of the view that this is anexample of what rhyme can do to add another level of meaning to something that’s already complex. As a reader, I’m very aware of the rhyme and the rhyming scheme but I’m also wrapped up in the way that this seems to be an essential part of the meaning, an underpinning of the wry commentary on these stock phrases. In this sequence Muldoon manages to make the (very) difficult look and feel gloriously easy and this has the effect of drawing the reader in to a particular way of reading. It’s poems like this that enable me to tolerate some of his more glaring self-indulgences.

Speaking of which, we now come to the enigma that is the late work of Sir Geoffrey Hill. In The Daybooks he makes shape poems and he uses half-rhymes, some of which work and some of which don’t. At this juncture I have to point out the Bebrowed view that Hill can write anything that he wants of whatever quality simply because of Mercian Hymns and The Triumph of Love which are two of the towering works of the last fifty years. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the variations in quality that seem to run through these late works. As an illustration, this is the first poem in the Liber Illustrium Verborum sequence:

                         I
Medusas, basilisks, dragons in fens,
Eternal in their demands. Dragon's teeth
I have learned use of, with Coriolan's
Oliviousness also a plundered myth;
Determination of necessity;
Past recklessness in bruised misreckoning;
That blazed Yeatsian thing
Of savage joy.
The reed lake; wintering
Wild geese a-clang
Phenomenon darkens
The comprehension of its vanes,
Lividness in fettle. Something unclear
Scales the escarpment of this eightieth year,
Pray's the child's terrified
Comfort of bed.
Who is best able to
Choose whom to fable to,
Horse a way on a laugh,
Prance equity,
Appear both ends of the school photograph?

Given that all the poems in this sequence look the same, I’m taking them as shape poems in the shape (as with the first parts of the Clavics poems) of a key. Of course this is a tentative view taken without attending to most of the sequence but it will do for now. I also recognise that there’s a greater amount of verbal invention and dexterity than some of the already published Daybooks but we still have this odd mix of full rhymes and rhymes that rely on the sound of the final consonant. I’ve had several goes at reading this aloud and, to my ear, the constraints imposed on the first half get in the way of the sense rather than complementing it and this is only reversed in the last five lines of ‘full’ rhyme. This is a pity because the sense seems to mark out a more muscular and verbally clever poet.

In conclusion, I think this would seem to be an example of how constraint can hinder rather than enhance the experience of paying attention to the poem. Incidentally the full rhyme of the last five lines is not featured in the poems that follow.

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