Friday, November 15, 2013

"Imagine That Happening Again in Poetry": The Future and History of Rhyme

Anthony Madrid (right) with Michael Robbins and Stephanie Anderson

It is, of course, a debatable proposition that Anthony Madrid's paper on rhyme at the recent Midwest Modern Language Association conference is the most exciting thing to come out of Milwaukee since the introduction of the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy in 1990, but I'm inclined to believe it is just that.  Indeed, in combination with another paper on rhyme by Robert Strong of Bates College, Madrid's paper led me to revise my sense of literary history.

Madrid came to Milwaukee to speak on a panel I'd organized on the poetry of Michael Robbins.  He joined Don Share of Poetry magazine, who spoke about the controversy that surrounds much of Robbins' work, and Lea Graham of Marist College, who spoke of capitalism and commercialism as influences on both the form and content of Robbins' poetry.  Madrid took a long view, and arrived at Robbins only after giving a pr├ęcis of his University of Chicago doctoral dissertation on the history of English rhyme from the sixteenth century on.  What he revealed was, to the best of my knowledge, and entirely original and convincing theory on the evolution of rhyme, and a hint at the direction in which it may be going in English language poetry.

The story begins with the surprising frequency, in the Elizabethan period, with which rhyme words occur with particular kinds of semantic elements: rhymes that are not merely aural, but linked in certain kinds of elementary dyads, especially opposites like he/she or me/thee or ever/never, say, or hither/thither.  Synonyms are also common rhyme pairs in the period, as are pairings with a genus-species link (cherry/berry) or that come in one way or another from the same category (mother/brother, say, as a kinship pairing).  The idea was to combine semantic similarity with sonic similarity.

The striking thing is that these whole categories of rhyme begin to disappear, or become greatly diminished, in the Stuart period (Madrid's diligence over the course of several years in counting rhyme words is to be commended and honored, and perhaps also pitied just a little, in the way we might pity Milton's study-bound scholar in "Il Penseroso").  The disappearances happen without being theorized: there are no manifestoes or treatises condemning such rhymes, but the change is real and clear and empirically there.  Semantically significant rhyme becomes greatly reduced, and a new form or rhyming becomes the norm.  This new form is sonic or aural first, says Madrid, and seeks to be a kind of climate of background sound, a white noise or a lulling drug.  It does not wish to draw attention to itself by making a clever semantic parallel to the rhyme's sonic element.  Rather,  it wishes to go by as something felt but unmarked.  Mother/brother or hither/thither fade to be replaced by the kind of rhyme we in our time deprecate as mediocre or banal—moon/June and the like.  This is not to say that such rhymes, with their refusal to forefront any kind of semantic cleverness, are bad—although I heard papers at the same conference where Madrid spoke that asserted just that, as if there were transhistorical truths about rhyme, unbound by any historically contingent aesthetics.

The kind of rhyme that came to prominence in the Stuart era and lasted throughout the Augustan period fell from fashion with the Romantics and has not returned to fashion since (though it persists, of course, in many popular forms—wedding verse, greeting card verse, and other forms despised by the literati).  The Romantic transformation of rhyme drew inspiration, in England, from Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, that great rag-bag of popular song and balladry.  The transformation is most visible in the works of Lord Byron.  Byron, after all, was a great lover of the Augustans, and much of his poetry partakes of an Augustan form of rhyme.  But when he leaves off the seriousness of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage for the comedy of Don Juan, Byron lets loose with a new virtuosity in rhyme.  Instead of letting rhyme be unobtrusive, he juices it up, and makes us notice it for its originality, striking newness, and cleverness: "But oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual/Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all" is the most famous case of dozens, even hundreds, of virtuoso rhymes from Don Juan alone.  Rhyme, in the new dispensation, is to be about flash and dazzle and cleverness, and you are meant to notice it, as you had not generally been meant to notice it in the Augustan paradigm.  The new rhyme differs, too, from the old Elizabethan form, since it does not necessarily seek some kind of semantic parallel to the sound echo.  It is about startling freshness, however that might be found.

The trouble with this new kind of rhyme, Madrid says, is that it can, if established as a tradition, become tedious—especially when handled by pens less deft than that of Byron.  So rhyme falls from literary fashion almost altogether with modernism, or becomes something we  downplay and disguise with off-rhyme, enjambment, and other de-emphasizers.

Rhyme never really goes away, of course, and it has remained with us in popular poetry, in song, and in poetic movements that set themselves self-consciously against the dominant culture of unrhymed verse.  It has also been notably present in rap, and some poets have taken up the form of rhyme found there—a form in reminiscent of the Romantic or late Byronic model.  Here, rhyme is meant to be noticed for newness and originality, and sometimes, too, for a semantic component that goes along with the sonic one.  Rap rhyme is (as Robert Strong, who spoke at a panel just before Madrid's, says) often most intensely original and attention-grabbing at moments of extreme praise or of denunciation.  Moon/june just won't cut it in this paradigm.  And since one can bend the spoken/rapped word to fit the rhyme one can create oral rhymes where none would have been expected, as Eminem famously did when he created full sonic rhymes between "four inch" "storage" and the supposedly unrhymable "orange."

In his paper (which cites Madrid) Robert Strong describes the virtuosity of rhyme in rap battles, where rappers denounce one another with displays of originality in rhyme.  "Imagine that happening again in poetry," he says—but I don't have to, since I've seen it in the poetry of Michael Robbins.  The title poem of Robbins' book Alien vs. Predator, for example, consists of a depiction of just such a rhyme battle between the protagonists of the movies Alien and Predator, and—as in so many of Robbins' poems— deploys rhymes in the Byronic mode (the Robbins rhyme that most sticks in my head, and is perhaps destined to be his "intellectual/hen-pecked you all" is "Rorschach blots/Arnold Horshack thoughts").

After a fine analysis of Robbins' rhymes, and what they owe to those of Frederick Seidel, Madrid speculated on the future of rhyme, on whether it will take up the hyper-clever and virtuosic rhymes that he, Robbins, and some others of his generation employ, or whether this revival, too, will drown in a sea of its own cleverness.  But I'd run out of room in my notebook, so we'll have to simply wait, read, listen, and see.