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 précis 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. 

Friday, November 08, 2013

The German Self, The German Soul: Notes on Ambiguity and Translation

One of the things I like about teaching at a liberal arts college is the way the small scale of the place throws me together with people from other departments.  The things I've learned about communications theory and intellectual history from such encountershave always felt like the secret weapons in my critical arsenal. Alvin Gouldner, for example, may be one of the heroes of communications, but hardly anyone in literary studies cites him, and I was able to import his insights into my own field and land an article in a very fancy journal indeed.

Recently, I've been privy to a discussion between a colleague of mine in Asian Studies and a professor of German about the words "soul" and "self" in Hilda Rosner's translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha.  My Germanist colleague, Richard Fisher, was kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his comments on the meaning of various German words that might be translated as self and soul—comments that go beyond mere issues of translation to get at the language, and linguistic technique, of German philosophical and theological writings.  Here is how the tremendously learned Fisher addressed the question:

[This is] a perenially interesting and vexed question, as many German concepts are a bit slippery in English, that is they can be ambiguous or ambivalent. This is because these concepts are already multi-valent in German, being lexically 'diverse' and for precise connotation depending a lot on specific context. To communicate intention, connotation and the penumbra of meanings is part of the translator's job, but this will always involve choices and, likely, compromise to render into English. So, atman will be mediated at least twice before appearing in an English context as self or soul.
The German word for soul is 'Seele'; the word for self is das 'Selbst' or 'das Ich' (ego). When it comes to palingenesis [reincarnation] or anything metaphysical, the terms, contexts and meanings are all over the place, depending in part on which aspect is stressed. The word 'Geist' is a good example: it can mean mind (as in the Greek noos or nous), spirit, intellect, sense, ghost, anything numinous or epiphenomenal or paranormal; but, with a bit of literary leeway, it might also mean 'the mind's eye' or 'soul' or 'self' or 'character' or 'inner life' etc. 
This polyvalency is dear to Hesse, and all German writers, because very often more than one meaning is intended, but which particular set of meanings is not linguistically specified--so the term retains, intentionally, a flexible range of meanings not strictly delimited--that's part of what Geist means--but all these meaning explicitly also contain and imply not being their opposites: matter, materiality, corporeality, substance, tangibility, concreteness, sensual reality etc. Importantly, Seele and Geist are also seen as modes of perception or apperception.
All Germans are dialecticians, so das Ich or das Selbst also implicate, by negation, the non-self or not-Self. And these slippery terms and pairings are, of course, everywhere in Hesse, notably among the novels also in Narziss and Goldmund, his medieval incarnation of the spirit-matter dichotomy or polarity. 
As with Hegel and Kant, translators make it easier for non-German readers by making the choice among denotations, and reserving the discussion of ambiguities for learned footnotes. In a way, the German terms do not want to be pinned down (Goethe uses the term 'bephählen' or hitting the bull's eye when talking about Schiller) making the suggestiveness richer, more complex, and less determinate; in English we seem to think and visualize more concretely, and find this cloud of extra meanings a bit vague and unclear, whereas for German readers this haze is part of exactly a not-unclear but multi-dimensional set of references. Seele or Geist immediately confront a reader with the entire metaphysical panoply of existence--a bit like quantum mechanics--but in English the terms are more circumscribed, more on the order of organs in the body or the abstract regions of an otherwise tangible-concrete or substantive hierarchy. 
So yes, the meanings of soul and self in German can often spill over into each other, but the contexts can render the degree or direction of this overlapping quite variously. Specifically Christian meanings can usually be detected by context, and in fact represent a narrowing of the otherwise amorphous, even aniconic use of the term in poetry and philosophy or speculation. For Hesse, the soul is not only that reflective part, capable of transcendence or salvation or communion with the divine, but also an autonomous entity partaking in the dynamic of all existence, phenomenal and numinous, spiritual and corporeal--and the same for the self. These are, a priori, epistemological terms in German, and not static states or entities. 
Some English readers will share this expansive, delimiting German understanding; others will find the terms fuzzy or messy.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

They Call it "Grunge": Mid-90s Time Capsule

Rooting around for some documents, I ran across a journal I kept from 1993-1996, when I was in my twenties, living in Chicago and commuting out to Notre Dame a couple of times a week to teach a course and meet with my doctoral committee.  A lot of the journal is wince-making to me now, but I couldn't stop reading it, since it seemed like such a perfect time capsule.  Here are a few excerpts from the first month covered in of the text.  Thrill as our protagonist discovers something called 'grunge,' stare in fascination as he confronts the New Historicism, gasp as neo-traditionalism in jazz makes an appearance on the streets of Chicago!


11 August 93

So there I was, flipping through a paperback selection of T.S. Eliot's criticism, soaking in the immense claw-and-ball bathtub that is one of the new apartment's finest features, when it occurred to me—if one wants, perhaps perversely, to swim against the flow, one could say that despite the mantra of diversity and plurality and the petit récit, there is within postmodernity a kind of return to what Eliot laments as the lost "unified sensibility," the cultural code held in common by the thinking courtly wits and the feeling orange-hawkers down in the pit.  For Eliot, this common code is both desirable and lost, a kind of Eden… In Eliot's view the modern condition is that of speaking difficultly, to a few, while the vulgar world takes no heed, neither able nor willing to understand the cryptic, wise, and morbid few.  Such is the curse of democracy, grumbles the possum, watching for fires over London in the nights of the blitz.  In postmodernity, though, the triumph of the vulgarity of the many brings about a new common culture, a new union of sensibility even while we're trumpeting diversity and polyvocality (Babel rises, a single tower).  The oppositional nature of art-the-secret, art as a separate culture (what Helen Vendler rather nauseatingly called the "golden robe" of modernism) is largely gone, and the vocabulary of art, its code, becomes that of the vulgar.  Jeff Koons' artistic vocabulary is that of Las Vegas and porn, the painter John Wesley's is that of the comic strips—which is not to say that they operate without sophistication).  In the detective story as literary novel, in Frederic Tuten's psychological novel of Tintin, or in Gus Van Sant's road movies, we see a knitting together of artistic and popular sensibility, a mending of the rift Eliot lamented, but a reunion he would never recognize or legitimate.  The irony some see and some don't in Brady Bunch art may separate the wits from the orange hawkers in a new way, but the cultural referents are held in common.

13 August 93

I think my mentor J.M. is right: put a number into the title of your course description, your dissertation title, or the title of your book, and no one will ask you any annoying questions about who you're leaving in and who you're leaving out: "Six Modern Poets," "Three Postcolonial Interventions," "23 Modernists."  Practical wisdom for the aspiring academic!

Undated (Summer 1993)

Sitting at a satisfyingly large and solid oak table in the coffee shop and listening in on the philosopher Alisdair Macintyre at the next table, as he explains the nature of understanding to an apostate physicist, who seems to want to make the leap into metaphysics, having concluded that empirical explanations will only get one so far.  Macintyre (who asked to look at my NYRB on the South Shore on the way in to Chicago for and never gave it back) says that most people feel that explaining something means reaching some kind of familiarity and comfort with it but that's not enough for him.  I wish I could have stuck around to eavesdrop more, but I had to run off.

19 August 93

Read an editorial by William Pfaff, who thinks that what we are seeing in Yugoslavia is the death of Europe, with Europe envisioned as bourgeois liberalism, capital, the democratic state, Magritte's man in the bowler hat, etc.

Sarajevo seems to be the place Europe goes to die.

1 September 93

Reading Brook Chandler's The New Historicism and Other Old Fashioned Topics and am pretty much over-awed.  He quotes Leo Spitzer on the historical study of literature that came into being in the late 1940s as potentially becoming "the gay sporting ground of incompetence," and that hits a bit close to home.  Thomas also talks about Spitzer's type of work as relying on the rhetoric of the synecdoche, where one can read from the part the whole of a society's codes or zerigeist.  I suppose this trusting of the text, especially the literary text, to speak for such a broad field is an element of greats like Auerbach, Curtius, and Cassirer as well—indeed, it is part of all of those giants Edward Said calls "idealist historians," those suns of historismus and great-grandsons of Hegel.  The synecdoche allows them to do things like write a history of mimesis in western civilization from a single trunk of books smuggled to Turkey from the Nazi's Germany.  It limits what you need to know to know it all.  Had to stop reading when a young guy on the El decided to ask me about my book.  He got to talking about Heavy Metal and the Loch Ness monster and getting chased down by skinheads.  Couldn't place his accent, so I asked him where he was from "Eng-u-land, actually" he said, "but mum's a Saudi.  Don't know who dad was."

September 5

Reading Tom Wolfe (The Purple Decades, The Painted Word).  He has a great Juvenalian sense of human vanity.  In a way his work anticipates much of what the New Historicism has been all about, but without the footnotes.  That is: he takes little anecdotes and turns them into general statements about the strange negotiations we all go through with forms of status and power.  Saw the results of some of those negotiations down at the Underground Café: M.V. was there, moping over a copy of Oscar Wilde, because St. Martin's had turned down his manuscript and he was no longer sure he was really a writer.

8 September 1993

Saddam Hussein accused of "crimes against humanity."  The phrase feels somehow old fashioned, like "blasphemy" or "heresy"—the notion of universality that undergirds it having been subjected to so much criticism for so long now.  But what other phrase has the same kind of utility and power anymore?

10 September 1993

A strong nostalgia for my teens, when all my laundry was done for me and there was always a stack of hardback Horizon magazines on the end table to browse in, the house silent in mid-morning except for the water boiling for coffee or tea.

In other news, I am suddenly fashionable: everywhere I look people are dressing the way I've been dressing for years: denim, flannel shirts, hiking boots, a palette of dark greens, grays, and blacks.  Like the man in Molière who realizes he's been speaking prose his whole life, I realize I have been dressing in a style.  They call it "grunge."

11 September 1993

Went out to see Spalding Gray last night in Gray's Anatomy. He calls himself a storyteller, not an actor or performance artist or writer, and that seems about right.  The story he told centered on his loss of eyesight and his attempts to cure it, which he knew all along were doomed to failure, but which were a way to avoid confronting the loss directly.  A great scream of HELP—an existential scream at the terrors of aging and death—is at the heart of the story, but the end comforts.  Having left behind the prohibitions and taboos and diets of the faith healers and health food freaks, Gray eats, drinks, smokes and otherwise partakes of "all the things that will make you blind."  D. and V. were there, later met with S. for music on the streets (the jazz fest is on).  A street band played an extended "Purple Haze" while a well-dressed Wynton Marsalis type looked on with disdain, muttering "fucking Hendrix, fucking Hen-drix…"