Is poetry rational? Is rhyme reasonable?

By | June 27, 2012

Is poetry rational? Is poetry reasonable? Is rhyme rational? Is rhyme reasonable? Does reason rhyme? Is rhyme a kind of non-reason, or nonsense?

It is readily accepted among today’s cultural elite that modern poetry doesn’t have to rhyme – as if it is an unreasonable demand to be so reasonably rhyming in an age where, in the face of individualism and self-expression, reason has been agreed to have surrendered much of its universalizing dominance. Effects of continuity and wholeness, such as rhyme produces, no longer equate to rational poetic decorum as they might have done, say, for Alexander Pope: they have become spurious in their outmodedness, and childish in their results. The connections made between rhyming words seem adventitious, so if you must write a rhyming poem, better make the rhymes as deft as possible. True, not rhyming leaves you open to the charge that, like an abstract painter who avoids figurative art, you simply lack the technical ability to carry off this traditional craft. But because that craft looks to modern eyes so very contrived, being against rhyme in modern poetry carries the more sympathetic rationale.

Two oddities follow. First, modern free verse needs a rationale to justify its rejection of the reasonableness of rhyme, even though its freeness ought to mean it doesn’t need to justify itself at all. Second, that freedom is further curbed by singling out one poetic technique (rhyming) as off-limits, where all others are admissible. Rhyme operates as a cordon sanitaire around modern free verse, substituting a negative rule (Don’t rhyme!) for the positive rule (Do rhyme!) it formerly imposed. The spectre of rhyme still patrols the poem’s boundaries.

And yet the orderliness of rhyme never had much reason to begin with. Far more delinquent than it appears, rhyme might even represent a precious resource to the modern poet keen to depart from the main. How so? Rhyme qua rhyme is the simple matching of words according to how they sound and/or look; a rhyme is a rhyme whether or not any semantic connection links the relevant words. ‘Table’ and ‘fable’ meet all the criteria needed for rhyming; that there’s little or no connection between the words at the level of meaning matters not. A rhyme is a rhyme regardless of whether one can infer semantic links between elements rhymed, and so it possesses an aleatory superficiality that might appeal to the modern, or at least the modernist, sensibility, especially as the latter manifests itself in, say, surrealism or Dada. Strictly speaking, rhyme is nonsense.

It is around this nonsensical core that the rhyming bard hopes to weave a plausible semantic structure, made up of the threads of the two or more matching words. Thus I could manipulate ‘table’ and ‘fable’, apparently so little connected, to produce the following couplet:

Engraved upon the mythic table,

The knights read of the coming fable.

I accept the poetry is undistinguished, but it at least forces ‘table’ and ‘fable’ into a passingly meaningful relationship with each another, based on an allusion to the Round Table. The fact it is an allusion that helps the rhyme to make sense is important, because it suggests that the ‘meaning’ achieved by rhyming words lies not in the words themselves but the context in which they are stationed. One can picture rhyming words as stars put into attraction with one another by the gravity produced by surrounding words. On their own, ‘table’ and ‘fable’ still fail to make sense; only when the words around them are appended do ‘table’ and ‘fable’ begin to relate to one another, even as the rhyme per se is neither improved nor impaired in the new context.

Not that it is only the context within a poem that helps the rhyme falsely appear meaningful. Say I change the couplet to:

Snow falls. Inside, a kitchen table.

A plane flies on to France. A fable.

This time I have tried to do the reverse. Instead of using the antecedent terms to help the rhyming words make sense in relation to each other, I have put in a series of disconnected images, hoping now to separate ‘table’ and ‘fable’ from one another, and expose more of the rhyme’s inner nonsense. But my attempt is not entirely successful, because now you, the reader, are likely to fill the semantic vacuum that has been created. You will want to frame the couplet in such a way that it does make a kind of sense to you. To be sure, it doesn’t take a rhyming couplet to stimulate a reader’s hermeneutic instinct to make sense of a poem, but the rhyme does emphasize to the reader that sense is there to be made. This time the meaning of the two-line poem will lie more in the head of the reader than in the lines that lead up to each rhyming word, though it doesn’t change the fact that the rhyme as such is meaningless.

As I said, this intrinsic meaninglessness of rhyme, its nonsense= factor, ought to be more attractive than it is to a modern mindset: it would seem to play to the subversive instincts of surrealism. And in the verse of, say, Edward Lear, which is expressly ‘nonsense verse’, it does – but this is perhaps the problem. Modern poetry in general, or specifically its more modernist modes, will not embrace rhyme even in its self-consciously nonsensical mode, because the latter risks looking like comedy, and this offends modern(ist) poetry’s taste for seriousness – which includes the longing for meaning, especially at the personal level. Modern free verse exists much more to serve this personal need than that of a synthetic or subversive aesthetic as encapsulated in nonsensical rhyme.

– The above is taken from our new book On Modern Poetry by Robert Rowland Smith (Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, UK).

It explores the divide between practical criticism and theory in 20th century criticism to propose a new way of reading poetry. The themes discussed in the first part of the book include tradition, voice, rhyme, rhetoric, and objects, bringing in critics such as Eliot, Heidegger, Empson, Blackmur, and De Man. The second part examines texts by Tennyson, Symons, Hopkins, Larkin and Prynne.

Jenny Tighe

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