Rhyme and Reason

In 1908, the poet T.E. Hulme gave a famous speech at in which he laid out the programme for modernist poetry, inveighing in vigorous language against rhyme and meter. His influence was already considerable by that time, and his address would both solidify his position and influence English literature for the rest of the 20th century:

Regular metre to this impressionist poetry is cramping, jangling, meaningless, and out of place. Into the delicate pattern of images and colour it introduces the heavy, crude pattern of rhetorical verse. It destroys the effect just as a barrel organ does, when it intrudes into the subtle interwoven harmonies of the modern symphony. It is a delicate and difficult art, that of evoking an image, of fitting the rhythm to the idea, and one is tempted to fall back to the comforting and easy arms of the old, regular metre, which takes away all the trouble for us.

Metered verse was, for Hulme and the other modernist poets, a crutch and an obstacle to authentic poetic expression. And rhyme, though already failing by the time that Hulme gave his speech, lost any chance of its survival as a vigorous part of modern poetry by this salvo. The edicts of Hulme and his influential cabal of modern poets (including Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and others) effectively directed the mainstream of English-language poetry (and, to a large degree, its prose) for the rest of the century.

All of which is preamble to something I heard a few weeks ago on This American Life. They commemorated the passing of one of their frequent contributors David Lakoff, with this excerpt from his new novel. Written in verse. In rhyming verse.

It was sadness that gripped him far more than the fear
that, if facing the truth, he had maybe a year.
When poetic phrases like “eyes, look your last”
become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast.  
A new, fierce attachment to all of this world
now pierced him. It stabbed like a deity-hurled
lightning bolt, lancing him, sent from above, 
left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.

Listen to the whole episode here..

And I could only think: rhyme is back, baby.

Of course one admittedly quirky novel doesn’t make a trend. But it’s one of several examples I’ve met lately of significant literary projects written in rhyming verse, which does suggest that there’s something in the water. Part of it is the hipster mentality—all of the examples that I’ve heard have been rhyming couplets, the cheesiest form of rhyme, the literary equivalent of wearing your dad’s chunky black glasses and plaid sweater vest. Part of it is 21st century remix culture, playing on old discredited poetic forms just for contrast and quirk.

And some of it is the inevitable tendency of "progress" to turn on its ancestors. (This is something that I’ve remarked on before,) Once you embrace novelty and progression as literary virtues, you set yourself up to be rejected a few generations down the line once your radical, progressive views have become commonplace. I don’t know if there’s any forceful rejection of unrhymed poetry going on here, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any kind of organized pro-rhyme school of poetry coming together. Literature in the early 21st century does not seem to lend itself to that sort of movement-building. Instead, it’s just that rhyme is becoming hip. And being hip is a more powerful motivator than being progressive ever was.

Which brings me to my real point: "progress" and "novelty" are terrible things to hold as literary virtues. Hipsterism is better, but only a little.

(Also, rhyme is awesome, but I still don’t think I want to read an entire rhyming novel.)

1 Comment

  1. I like to think of this post as “The Abjection of the Past” part two. 🙂 People who don’t do enough historical study of the arts often don’t realize that today’s avant garde is often shamelessly stealing from the pop or folk culture that was dominant a century or three earlier. I’d use Stravinsky as an example but that would take too long. T. S. Eliot was considered hot stuff as a modernist in the 1920s to 1930s but he unabashedly praised John Donne. Then again, it was hip to like Donne at that point, I guess because at least he wasn’t the Bard.

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