William Bibby


The Invisible and Governing Rhyme

Thursday, 14 July 2016 at 19:49

                                         THE INVISIBLE AND GOVERNING RHYME

Paul Valery said a poem is never finished, it is abandoned. If this is true and the poem is incomplete then can this be said of the rhyme; or the complete rhyme? Is there such a thing as the manifest coherence of two words that rhyme that could not be replaced by two others to achieve the same meaning with a more complete perfection?

Christopher Ricks remarking on Bob Dylan’s lyrics asks a similar question. Who has not misheard the rhyming word in a Dylan lyric? Or if not misheard then either substituted another or anticipated something different from that which he used? The reactions are various: he got it spot on; I could have done better than that; I didn’t see that coming. For instance here are the first four lines of the second stanza of Tangled Up In Blue from the album Blood on the Tracks:

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam I guess
But I used a little too much force

When I first heard these rhymes I swung between anguish (I’ll never be able to think of anything as good as that) and elation (that is perfect). My first reaction being a very frequent one; not just with Dylan.

Apart from the felicitous sibilance’s of divorced/guess/force there is the matter of meaning. Had the stanza been written:

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam I guess
And my life took a different course

The projection of the tale that the song tells would not have been different in any meaningful way, except that we can’t compare it to any alternative course, but the perfect balance of divorce/force would not have existed. So the rhyme (using course) although adequate to the job and ultimately forgotten in the overall reach of the song’s tale would not have made the slightest difference to the song, it would have made a colossal difference to the underlying meaning of those lines. The dictionary definition of the word ‘divorce’ is: a complete separation between two things.

I use Merriam-Webster for its American landscape. The separation of two things requires an element of force, too much in this case, and perfectly rhymes as it perfectly describes the actions involved.

In the end ‘meaning’ is everything as Emily Dickinson knew (320. A Certain Slant of Light):

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us-
We can find no scar,
But internal difference-
Where the Meanings, are-

Another comment on the difference or separation of something, in this case pain and its visibility, where ‘meanings’ have their existence though invisible.

The perfection of a rhyming figure is also expressed in this invisibility.

For example, a well known (but adapted) schoolboy rhyme:

I had a lamb; I had a duck;
That they might bring me luck
I placed both in my pen
To see if they would - play

Of course the trope here is that the sheiling or pen for the animals is also the pen of the writer’s artifice. What happens is not just the familiarity of the rhyme and its insistence, it is the way in which the governing instincts of the English Language demand reciprocation where rhyme is concerned. This is partly because the rhythms of the language are such that rhyme becomes enmeshed in the sequence of our speech.

Nonsense, as in Edward Lear’s verse, and limerick and doggerel, all contribute this pleasure but when the craft is fully realised then the rhyme becomes almost invisible and correspondingly the ‘difficult meanings’ become more apparent. Take Philip Larkin in Church Going. It starts with a wry joke:

Once I am sure there is nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle clips in awkward reverence.

Larkin, famously ambivalent, about the existence of a creator makes sure that there isn’t one here before he crosses the threshold and lets the gates clap shut behind him, like a prevention.

But it’s the rhymes that are so subtle. Each stanza contains one or more perfect rhymes though mostly half and ‘ring’ rhymes only. In the first stanza it is ‘shut’ (as above) with ‘cut’ in the fourth line.

In the second stanza the perfect rhyme is ‘new’/’few’ with a clever half rhyme ‘sixpence’/’meant’. An so it goes on for seven nine line stanzas with the sixth line always referring back to the first, as in up at the holy end the small neat organ (line 6)rhyming off handedly with ‘on’ at the end of the first (above). Of course this line also is another joke reinforcing the impotence of the idea of God.

Larkin shuts the rhyming scheme in each stanza with the song of the perfect rhyme in one or two places and leaves the rest to minor chords. The echo remains in the reader’s ear and carries the stanzas through with this rolling wave of lyrical poesy. It’s almost invisible and the English language triumphs as it accords the generous words their siblings and their cousins.

The Modernist Lyric

Saturday, 1 August 2015 at 12:59

The Modernist Lyric

Reading about Plutonium recently, in a book called Plutonium by Jeremy Bernstein (Cornell University Press, 2007) it seemed to me, in my slightly irradiated state, that the history of Plutonium, like the history of modern poesy, is actually quite similar. Both had explosive prospects that have never been quite fulfilled. In plutonium’s case thankfully unfruitful, but in poetry’s case rather disappointing.

The reason for the latter, unlike the former, it seems to me, is because its entrance was so diffident and remarkable while Plutonium’s delivery was exceptional, violent and an exodium.

I suppose it all started in 1916 with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. What I want to do in this short piece is take the great lines, the one-liners, or the felicities if you like, and try and merge them coherently with 20th and 21st. century song lyrics. It is very difficult to quote back at people ‘one liners’ in modern poetry, because they don’t exist any longer and I believe there is a reason for this. The time frame is roughly 1980 to the present. We might be tolerant and allow ‘…they fuck you up your mum and dad….’  to be enough to carry the decade of the 70’s.

Of course Philip Larkin was no stranger to the work of T.S. Eliot and Eliot’s gift for introducing exceptionally vivid and dynamic phrases to rev the sagging bolus, on occasion, of his longer pieces, made him unforgettable. This wasn’t new of course, the stunning figure has always been employed. One only has to go to a dictionary of quotations to see the true giants, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne and many others including the anonymous originals of William Tyndale’s Bible. Often a single line, a brutal ravishing figure of speech can turn an ordinary poem into something truly mesmerizing. Much of Dover Beach, for instance, is a series of meditations that had the last line not been included, would have rendered the poem rather ordinary.
Dover Beach was written by Mathew Arnold in 1867; Prufrock between 1913 and 1916.

The famous first lines are as follows:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

followed by an ellipsis all by itself:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Well I mean, as Frankie Howard might have said, this is brazen showmanship. These lines could be transposed to the lyrics of a song by Bob Dylan and probably have been. They are big, grandstanding lines that any lyricist would be very grateful for. Ezra Pound egged him on, who himself went out not with a bang but a whimper. Then the lyrics of the Blues seemed to take over and had an echo in the other great modernist work, again written by T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land. The Waste Land however seems to me, many will disagree, rather self-conscious in its effect; too urgent and deliberate in its commonplace and misfiring in many of its strivings for immortal phrasing but nevertheless Eliot carried a great quiver, amongst them for instance:

…I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Then came the cargo of lines that broke Modernism from all its constraints, The Second Coming written in 1919 by W.B. Yeats. For us now, it is still a gut wrenching intimation of human destiny but for those at the time it was a terrible, spiritual, comment on the wreckage of war.

The three most electric observations from this one poem are arguably:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.

Everyone has their most admired phrases in 20th. Century poesy, yet I think that these lines of verse and prophesy and sheer depth of insight speak well to our uneasy age.

There are plenty of other single lines of great force, many of them from the First World War poets especially Wilfred Owen, but this is a subjective appraisal.

Interspersed with Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith’s line from Not Waving but Drowning published in 1957:

I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning

song lyric has taken on the role of providing the binding sentiment that speaks to a generation, while quotable poetic force, at present, is subdued.

In no particular order and by no means definitive (ignoring for instance Cole Porter, Country and Folk Song lyrics) here are a few that have caught my attention and certainly remain memorable.

Marianne Faithfull’s lyrics for Sister Morphine from the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers:

What am I doing in this place?
Why does the doctor have no face?

Some of the finest and most visceral lines come from songs about drugs.

John Lennon. in Happiness is a Warm Gun, a feat of lyrical engineering in itself and thoroughly memorable (if I remember rightly swiped from an American Rifle Association ad), writes up the hypnosis of his addiction as:

She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand
Like a lizard on a windowpane

The back step objectivity and coolness of the word acquainted, like an antiquarian observing a specimen, gives huge authority to the simile. That’s it,
touching velvet is like a lizard feeling its way across a windowpane. That slippery wet grain when rubbed the right way.

Christopher Ricks, Warren Professor of Humanities at Boston University in Massachusetts, has long written about the lyrics of Bob Dylan and has recently published a book of Dylan’s lyrics re-adjusted in the sentence structure and stanza formation, but otherwise exactly true to the actual words, so this is not a new idea. Here is a line from Just Like Tomb Thumb’s Blues, on Highway 61 Revisited:

  Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there and they really make a mess outta you.

Here’s Johnny Mercer with a blissful quatrain from Moon River, music by Henry Mancini:

We’re after the same rainbow’s end
waiting round the bend
my huckleberry friend
Moon River and me

The above quatrain, nearly a Haiku, (24 syllables rather than 17) encapsulates an idea with an ambiguous trick. The final line seems to introduces the river itself as the third participant in chasing the rainbow. That’s poetic grace.

Charlie Dore, a contemporary English songwriter, often manages in her lyrics
to hit the perfect pitch between sentimentality and tough insight. This is from Time Goes By from the Album: Things Change:

Everybody moves in rhythm
Driven by dreams
All in perfect sequence
..That’s how it seems

The coda of the quatrain once again having the ability to decompress and release the sentiment by its indifference; and rhythm/driven brings to the party the thump of a bass which doesn’t allow anyone off the hook. Or from the song When Bill Hicks Died on the Album Cuckoo Hill,

Swearing or praying
Sometimes they’re the same…

Another woman singer songwriter who turned out one-liners of power and sensitivity was Joni Mitchell. She was just 20 when she wrote this line from Hejira the title song of her album:

There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain

Is this true? What other quality can turn itself into an excuse for not having to present oneself in explanation, not having to expose the vulnerable self? Guilt perhaps, remorse definitely, but there is no comfort in the keeping of that silence. Only in melancholy, it seems to me, can silence reside in comfort. What an insight for someone barely out of her teens.

Then there’s Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues:

I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die

What line from contemporary English language poetry of the last forty years can you bring to mind without a prompt? This does not mean that some of the poems of the last 40 years have not been exceptional, but the one-liners, the moments from poems that are otherwise memorable seem to be absent. It seems that you have to go back to Larkin as the last trumpet of the single imperishable note.

Sexual intercourse began
               In nineteen sixty three…
               Between the end of the Chatterley ban
               And the Beatles first LP

or the lighthouse keeper as he stares from his tower in Livings as:

 Lit shelved liners
Grope like mad worlds westward.

or terrifying himself (and us) with thoughts of death from Aubade:

Most things never happen: this one will,…

I don’t think Larkin will be the last but since him there has certainly been a silence, happily filled by the lyrically explosive lines of songs.

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