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Ars Poetica 1

by F. C. Stamps

"I wasn't too distracted by the rhyme," was meant as compliment by one of my college classmates in my poetry class. I didn't tell them what I wanted to say about the class' idea that it had gotten from the professor that rhyme was evil and the enemy to all "good" poetry.

"Why do you have to rhyme everything?" was one of the comments the course instructor scribbled on one of my pieces. I don't have to rhyme every poem. Most of the poems I write just happen to rhyme. A noted postmodern poet, Amiri Baraka, formerly known as Leroi Jones, arguing against such form as I often write poetry in, says, "Accentual verse, the regular metric of rumbling iambics, is dry as slivers of sand. Nothing happens in that frame anymore. We can get nothing from England." Anyone who has read much postmodern literature knows that I use Baraka's quote in my defense of rhymed, rhythmic verse.

However, for anyone who actually sees postmodernism as an advancement in literature (perish the thought), Milton, a near contemporary to Shakespeare, shows that distaste for rhyme in poetry is nothing new, (and thereby that liking rhyme nowadays is not a step backwards in the advancement of literature). Milton views rhyme as "being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age . . . ." Milton points out that many of the Italian and Spanish poets of his time have rejected rhyme, and he goes on to call rhyming in poetry a "bondage." Interesting how centuries after no one reads Milton unless a course of study requires them to, English speaking writers of all walks of life still choose rhymed iambic couplets or quatrains to write their love poems with.

At an event of Sigma Tau Delta, I asked Professor Sherman Han of Brigham Young University over the refreshment table what he thought about the differing views of rhyme's place in poetry. Professor Han's astute observation was that the subjective liking or disliking of rhyme in poetry was cyclical. Thus, what one era might view as a beautifully rhymed work, a later generation may see only as drivel simply because of its rhyme, while a third age may see the work as not including enough rhyme.

In her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem, Wendy Bishop concurs with Han's view, stating, "Forms go in and out of style in the world of poetry-writing like styles in clothes" (292).

The same subjectivity of liking or disliking rhyme applies to individuals within a period. While Milton felt like those around him cared too much for rhyme, I am surrounded by scholars and would be intellectuals who despise rhyme and who find fault with my writing simply because much of it rhymes. Rhyme in poetry? What a crazy idea!

Talking to my father about rhyming in poetry, he said he writes how he wants to and doesn't worry about what others think about his writing. I agreed, "Yeah, that's my problem too." I write what I write whether it's in fashion or not.

One point on which I agree with Baraka is that a poet should let the poem take on whatever form it will, regardless of formal traditions of rhyme and rhythm. Argues Baraka, "I'm not interested in writing sonnets, sestinas or anything . . . only poems. If the poem has got to be a sonnet (unlikely though) or whatever, it'll certainly let me know . . . ." Unless I'm purposely trying to write a sonnet or whatever traditional form, I write poems the way I do not because I feel they have to rhyme or have to have a certain rhythm, but rather because that is the rhythm in my heart, those are the words in my mind that want to be written down. Yet another renowned poet, X. J. Kennedy, has argued that one does not choose a form to write in, the form chooses you.

Rex West brings up a good point concerning the difference between free verse poetry and poetry written with rhyme and meter:

I can't imagine how Romantic poets like Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, the Brownings, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Hands, Ann Yearsly, Joanna Baillie (just to name a few) worked in tight form all their lives I can only imagine the freedom Whitman must have felt in abandoning all the rigidity of form. And yet there is a pride I felt after working on this villanelle. It was damn hard work. And, somehow, maybe a poet has to be even more creative to write a successful formal poem. It's a different kind of creativity: when writing a villanelle, I feel more conscious of the process than I do writing in free verse. Yet my impulses are still driven by a curiosity to see what happens.

West is correct; the language of poetry written in rhymed, rhythmic form is more refined than that of free verse. The poet must cut the filler words allowed in free verse and produce a compact message that conveys the same information in fewer words, creating a potency that is often absent in free verse. I don't write in rhymed form because I feel that I have to; I do so because I am creative enough to express in formal verse what lesser writers fail to. Although occasionally there may be a free versed message which I would not want to say in rhymed verse because changing the words would only detract from their power, all too often free verse is the safe haven of poets who can't write well enough in formal verse to phrase their message in a more refined fashion.

In defense rhythm, Janet Lewis argues, "We need meter. Otherwise, we fall into prose." When a classmate tells me that she liked my poem because she wasn't distracted by the rhyme and rhythm, and an instructor tells me that I shouldn't rhyme, I want to tell them that with the same reasoning one could justify dumbing down the language of Shakespeare to increase it's appeal!

Like melodious music such as Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," Creed's "Higher," or The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody," first one is drawn in by the sound and rhythm of a poem read aloud, then like when reading the lyrics to one of these songs, one finds meaning and appreciates the song even more. Poetic ideas along with the rhythm and rhyme drive the words and the message into our hearts, and we find ourselves wanting to hear them again and again. Without such poetic thought and language, one might as well be reading prose. Yes, meaning is paramount, but it need not destroy all meter. Although good free verse does have poetic ideas which help draw the reader in, it does not have the additional aid that rhymed, rhythmic verse has to immortalize its thought in the minds of readers.

My former classmates and instructor just cannot hear the music. They cannot feel the same beauty in the rhythm that I do. This isn't my problem; I'm not going to change the way I write for their pleasure.

Let the poem be as "sing-songy" as it wants as long as the rhythm is appropriate to the weight of the subject matter. Jane Greer purports, "The only point of poetry [is] to delight: to refuse rhyme or meter is to limit the delight. And no one has poetic license to do that." The reader has the responsibility of find meaning, just as the listener of music is free to merely enjoy the sound or can study the lyrics. The poet's responsibility is not to break poetry into mere prose for the sake of those who are too lazy to find his meaning, but to give enough information for the reader to discover his purpose in writing.

This leads to the matter of surface meaning verses hidden meaning in poetry. Poems such as William Blake's "The Tyger" or Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Pied Beauty" are great works in that they not only convey abstract ideas by means of concrete imagery, but more importantly continue to yield new meaning with additional readings and study. I admit that a piece that gives all its meaning in but one reading is an overly simple work. However, I contend that poets should not go so far as to make their allusion so vague, unconventional, or obscure as to indefinitely discombobulate all readers. Poetry's meaning should at least be explicable if not explainable. Unfortunately, I myself have been guilty from time to time of writing lines whose meaning can be forever known by me alone; and for this poor art I apologize.

Concerning both rhyme and the obscurity of meaning in poetry, teachers of poetry, such as college professors, cannot require students to read all the opaque and mundane rhetoric and drivel of past centuries and then expect their students to produce literature that is free of the very conventions they teach. If they hate Shakespearean sonnets so, then they shouldn't expose their students to them or at least not be dismayed when upon learning formal traditions their students choose to emulate those forms in broadening their own voices. Furthermore, if certain student poetry is too obscure to understand it is many times in part because teachers have taught their students that all great poetry was intended as riddle, which in reality is not true.

In the end, for me poetry is meant to be written, for the poet to enjoy creating, and when read by others it loses glory. Only a shadow of the creator's joy is passed on. Of the endless dusty volumes of verse now written only a few golden lines are yet alive.

Ars Poetica copyright © 2002 by F. C. Stamps

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