Curtis Faville was a regular anti-Quietist commentator on Silliman’s Blog before Silliman’s squeamishness cancelled conversation. Since Emerson’s surly “jingle man” remark, the puritans of modernism have frowned on rhyme. Now Mr. Faville, on his own blog, The Compass Rose, in “The Meaning and the Structure of Rhyme, parts I and II,” this month, keeps alive Emerson’s animosity with a didactic assault on beauty and expression. Thomas Brady’s comment (to Part II) and Faville’s response is now an addendum to Part I.
Here is Thomas Brady’s comment:
Faville objects to the glorification of rhyme, which he thinks is nothing but a parlor trick. I have news for Curt. A poem is nothing but a parlor trick and, as far as we know, life, which is made of dust but exists as we see it, is a parlor trick too. Life, the Big Parlor Trick, can deliver more joy or suffering, but with the Little Parlor Trick, what matters is: is the Parlor Trick amusing, or boring? And whatever is not a trick, has no theological or aesthetic interest whatsoever.
Faville is certainly justified in wanting his ‘meaning’ straight, without jingle-jangle. But he is confusing the parlor trick with the parlor. Aspects of the parlor are important, sure: Isn’t that paint starting to peel? Does the parlor need dusting? When is the pizza man coming? Should we use more lights in the parlor? Is there enough diet coke in the mini-fridge? There’s all sorts of things to consider.
Rhyme is merely emphasis, but of course emphasis is a whole world when it comes to music, and expression. There is no ‘meaning’ in a certain word rhyming with another, but neither is there ‘meaning’ in a Beethoven symphony, which again, is a mere accident of sound. But why does a Beethoven symphony have more interest—as well as more ‘meaning’—for us than any prose passage of Curtis Faville’s? Well, it’s nothing but a trick, of course.
I am always amused at how nonplussed people can get when you presume to criticize traditional poetic structures.
First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?Life, despite what Tom says, isn’t a parlor trick. Matter and animate protein aren’t parlor tricks. Not bad jokes. Not simplistic games of chance. Reducing poetry to a branch of clairvoyance, or sleight-of-hand, is a belittlement of literature. I don’t see serious literature as needing to furnish meaning “straight” either. Au contraire.
The parlor used to be a room in the house where private and public met, a kind of limbo space in which visitors could be admitted, without relinquishing the privacy of the family living spaces. The parlor was where manners and propriety were observed, and things were kept trite and harmless. Parlor games were diversions–cards, checkers, etc.–which had no ulterior consequence(s). To be amused or mildly diverted.Rhyme may be used to create “emphasis” but that isn’t its only purpose. (Unfortunately, that’s often how it’s often employed.) As I tried to make clear, words are not notes, and trying to think of poetry as a kind of musical expression is an error, because the two media are different in their effects and underlying bases. Which is partly why the meaning of rhyme is purely gratuitous. Beethoven’s symphonies aren’t “meaningless” as Tom asserts. There is nothing accidental about musical composition. But it is a mistake to think that meaning in music can be constructed in the same way that it is in verbal composition. The two are analogous, but not parallel.Comparisons may be invidious, especially when used in an obviously sarcastic way. It is very flattering to have my “prose” compared to a Beethoven symphony, but I’m afraid this is merely a silly misapplication. In no way is a blog essay intended to stand as an aesthetic performance–either as poetry, music, or casual journalism. Tom knows this.
Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
Let’s cut right to the chase: Faville singles out rhyme as an object of contempt without taking rhythm into account—even after I pointed out in my first response to his essay that to rhyme nicely one must use rhythm nicely. Faville applied Robert Frost’s ”playing tennis without a net” to rhyme, when Frost’s subject was ”free verse,” not rhyme. If Faville is merely objecting to doggerrel, that would be one thing, but like the modernists and New Critics who heaped scorn on their illustrious predecessors such as Shelley, Poe and Byron, Faville chose to pick on Andrew Marvell, describing as “trite” and “gratuitous” the rhyme and metre of ”To His Coy Mistress.” The 900 pound gorilla in the room, as usual, is Edgar Poe—who anticipated Faville’s vague objections with scientific rigor and ingenuity. Let us grant that poets mindlessly jingling and jangling century after century is a legitimate concern. Here’s Poe:
Rhyme is supposed to be of modern origin, and were this proved, my positions remain untouched. I may say, however, in passing, that several instances of rhyme occur in the Clouds of Aristophanes, and that the Roman poets occasionally employ it. There is an effective species of ancient rhyming which has never descended to the moderns; that in which the ultimate and penultimate syllables rhyme with each other. For example:
Parturiunt montes et nascitur ridiculusmus.
and again—Litoreis ingens inventa sub ilicibus sus.
The terminations of Hebrew verse, (as far as understood,) show no signs of rhyme; but what thinking person can doubt that it did actually exist? That men have so obstinately and blindly insisted, in general, even up to the present day, in confining rhyme to the ends of lines, when its effect is even better applicable elsewhere, intimates, in my opinion, the sense of some necessity in the connection of the end with the rhyme—hints that the origin of rhyme lay in a necessity which connected it with the end—shows that neither mere accident nor mere fancy gave rise to the connection—points, in a word, at the very necessity which I have suggested, (that of some mode of defining lines to the ear,) as the true origin of rhyme.
I quote the above not to refute Faville, for Poe agrees with Faville that rhyme can be “obstinately and blindly” persisted in, but Poe, in this brief passage from his Rationale of Verse, gives us history, rationale, and material solutions. In his Philosophy of Composition, which reconstructs “The Raven,” Poe does not mention rhyme once. In one interesting passage, he writes:
And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite—and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.
Now Poe is perhaps the most original author who ever lived; Faville holds a vague opinion that rhyme is rather silly and has gone on for too long; Faville has not written a “Raven” or a Rationale of Verse or a Philosophy of Composition, but it is nice to know that Faville, as he says:
First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?
Faville doesn’t “object” to rhyme, and admits that “historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive.” But after saying this, where is the force of his complaint? It’s sort of like saying, ‘words were once rather wonderful things, but posterity now slaves itself to a monotonous use of them—perhaps it’s time we did away with them.’ Just like that?
As we can see from Poe, the ’jingle-man’ himself, verse depends on rhythm, line, meter, stanza, an undercurrent of meaning, and even more fundamental things like unity, limit, duration, and variety. Rhyme is the icing on the cake, or the percussion in a symphony orchestra, or the glint in a beautiful eye. To weigh against rhyme is the mark of a dour theorist, indeed. Shall we censor what can make language charming? Really?
Faville, with single-minded, modernist glee, having no understanding of the rationale or the history of what he dismisses—”traditional forms”—pursues the general, well-worn path of loosening our collective mental grip on “the poem,” towards any number of holy grails: freedom, realism, social justice, prose-variety, prose-insight, prose-seriousness, prose-acrobatics, prose-morality, and prose-dignity. But what the modernists have done, starting with the exceedingly clever R.W. Emerson, was not to chuck “the poem,” but to transfer its properties (and more) in a mysterious manner to whatever prose-pursuit happened to be going on at the time, whether it was Yvor Winters yapping about “moral form,” or the Imagistes’ slightly Westernized haiku, or Eliot’s morose pastiches with footnotes, or the Iowa Workshop’s “the poem is my diary!” or Ashbery’s Dr. Seuss-for-grownups-minus-the-rhyme.
The modernist agenda would be necessary if the two centuries previous to the 20th had produced bad poetry and stupid criticism—but it didn’t; Pope to Tennyson was quite remarkable, and Gertrude Stein huffing on her professor William James’ nitrous oxide didn’t exactly improve it. But fellows like Faville, swept up in the nitrous oxide fun, feel it is their duty to tell everyone not to rhyme. You’ll sound like Shelley which means you’ll sound old-fashioned, so stop is the philosophy in a nutshell.
Like any agenda or manifesto put forward by clever people, it has a grain of truth, a ‘little learning’ about it which is on target. We Quietists, we defenders of “ye olde traditional forms,” we dinosaurs, wearing big hats and stiff collars, would, with a single hit of nitrous oxide, get it, and groove with Lyn Hejinian at academic conferences all-around-the-world-yea, except for one small detail: Pope thru Tennyson did not produce limericks.
Faville would have a case, if, beginning around the middle of the 17th century, there had been an onslaught of limerick-appreciation, and it quickly infected every poet and critic: Shelley’s A Defense of Limericks, Poe’s A Rationale of Limericks, building on Pope’s An Essay On Limericks, to Tennyson’s Maud: A Limerick, which drove reasonable men to build the Iowa Writer’s Worskhop and write New Critical texts to save us from the limerick-menace (though T.S. Eliot would still allow us to admire the ur-work: The Divine Limerick).
But now, thank God!, there are poets like Rae Armantrout, who decided deep down in their souls they were not going to write limericks—and we are saved.
Poe ‘splained “the Poem” as belonging to the province of Beauty, not Truth or Passion, and Faville may think Beauty means pretty, but it does not; what modernists like Faville need to understand is that “the Poem” requires a length, and that mere fact brings us to the question of how we divide that length, which inevitably encompasses issues like the line, rhythm, meter, stanza, and finally, rhyme—mundane material considerations which good poets bother with and bad poets do not. Faville would pluck the rhyme without comprehending the whole flower, including root and stem—the whole plant to him is nothing but prose meaning, and everything else that the genius Poe is concerned with, he, Faville, can just throw away.
The limerick belongs to the parlor, obviously, but it also belongs to poetry and, as such, can be made the center, perhaps (is there a modernist who would even dare?) of compromise between my position and Faville’s.
Faville probably thinks ”The Raven” is a limerick, or might as well be; he has already demonstrated he thinks “To His Coy Mistress” is a limerick, with Marvell’s “jews” and “refuse” rhyme-combination a bit of silliness no serious, contemporary, educated man should tolerate. Faville, as a schooled modernist, fears limit. Faville feels the tiny, artificial pool of “jews, refuse, lose, and ooze” rhymes, which Marvell swims in, is a big slap in the face to one as intelligent as himself. Faville roams the Towering Forest of Prose Ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson And John Ashbery with his gun—to kill any limerick-rhyme he might happen to see. Faville, unlike Marvell, wanders an autumnal landscape that stretches for eternity—there is Henry James on the right and Walter Benjamin on the left—and contains no parlor games or parlor tricks or anything that could be put neatly inside a game-board or a stanza. Faville is a colossus—and strides a colossal world.