Syllabic Lineation: Part 3
One of the ways English poetry defines a line is through the use of rhyme. I suspect that rhyme is the most widespread mechanism for defining a line in English poetry, both in the past and in the present. I am including under ‘poetry’ song lyrics, in particular popular song.
It is my personal opinion that the rhyme is the most underutilized tool for lineation among those interested in syllabic forms in English. I mentioned in a previous post that most poets who become interested in English syllabic forms such as the Cinquain or Tetractys, etc., come to these forms from free verse. Again, as I mentioned previously, this is understandable since free verse tends to be dominant in many poetry societies and in many universities as well.
One of the consequences of this journey from free verse to syllabic verse is that the poet who makes this journey is slow to awaken to the unique features and demands of syllabic verse and how syllabic verse differs from free verse. One can observe this in the absence of rhyme among syllabic verse poets.
Modern free verse is not neutral about rhyme; it often openly rejects the use of rhyme. Is this an exaggeration? Consider these three stories. A British friend of mine who is a poet told me that a friend of his was named the judge in an open poetry competition. My British friend asked the judge how he sorted through the numerous entries. The judge responded, “The first thing I do is throw out all the poems that rhyme.”
A friend of mine who is a free verse poet once said to me, “When I see a poem that rhymes I feel like the poet caught a cold.” He went on to talk about how he systematically eliminated any rhyme that happened to appear in his poems.
Finally, at a Haiku discussion forum a participant (not me) raised the issue of rhyme; meaning whether or not it is OK to use rhyme in Haiku. What surprised me was how strongly the Haiku poets at that forum rejected rhyme. This extended to a rejection of rhyme even when it appeared naturally, as it often does in English.
The above stories are anecdotal; I haven’t taken a systematic survey. But I also believe they are illustrative of a general pressure on poets emanating from free verse practitioners to avoid rhyme in modern English poetry. The absence of rhyme in modern free verse is one of its distinctive features, contrasting with all previous types of English poetry and separating modern free verse from popular culture where rhyme is still admired and still abounds.
It took me a long time to see the virtue of rhyme in a syllabic context. Once again it was Emily Dickinson who showed me the way. It was Dickinson who taught me not to be afraid of rhyme. As I have mentioned, Dickinson is not a syllabic poet. But her poems are short and succinct, like most English Syllabic forms. And Dickinson’s use of rhyme is so natural and so efficacious that I found her approach to rhyme maps very well onto syllabic forms such as Tanka, Tetractys, Haiku, Etheree, etc. If I have one suggestion regarding rhyme for the English syllabic poet it is this: read Dickinson. She is your sure guide into the world of rhyme as a useful tool for defining a line.
The other source that pulled me in the direction of using more rhyme in my poetry was traditional Chinese poetry. I discovered that traditional Chinese poetry is rhymed syllabic verse. And in an intriguing way, Chinese and English share certain features which makes the use of rhyme in Chinese poetry applicable to English. I am referring in particular to the fact that the English language has a larger percentage of one syllable words than other European languages. This happened because English, for the most part, dropped the use of inflections. Inflections add syllables to a word; that’s how inflections work. When inflections are dropped, the syllable count of the average word in a language goes down.
Chinese is a monosyllabic language (with the exception of a small number of borrowed terms; mostly from Buddhist Sanskrit). Chinese is much more single syllable based than English; but, still there is an intriguing overlap here. Here is an example of a Quatrain I wrote which illustrates the overlap:
As the day draws to an end,
As the month comes to a close,
I turn to look at a vase,
Blue and gold with one white rose.
Notice that all the words are one-syllable words. The line count is the same as in one form of Chinese Quatrain; seven syllables per line. And the rhyme scheme mimics the standard rhyme scheme for Chinese Quatrains: A-B-C-B. Notice how the closing rhyme has a strongly cadential feel to it. There is also a musical quality to the structure of the Chinese Quatrain and traditionally many of these Quatrains were sung.
Traditional Chinese poetry is a great resource for showing the English syllabic poet how rhyme can be integrated into syllabic forms. But, in order to see this, the English syllabic poet will need to search out translations of traditional Chinese poetry that also contain a transliteration of the poems: a transliteration is essential for accessing the sonic dimension of traditional Chinese poetry. Unfortunately, such volumes are rare. It is more common for books of Chinese poetry in English to include the Chinese characters for the poem. But this is not helpful for the syllabic poet because Chinese characters do not help is to understand how the poem sounds.
In addition, I must stress, that if you find a translation of traditional Chinese poetry into English that looks like free verse, this also will not help you as a syllabic poet. English syllabic poets need to become aware that traditional Chinese poetry is formal verse and its norms are as far from modern free verse as could be. It is my hope that in the future there will be more translations of Chinese poetry into English that are more respectful of the tradition. Nevertheless, good volumes that contain the transliterations do exist and I have found them of great help in opening to the application of rhyme to English syllabic verse.
I do not think there is any more powerful definer of a line for English poetry than rhyme. It is so strong that it can override the suggestions previously made regarding lineation. For example, in the post on grammar I suggest not using run-on lines in syllabic verse as run-ons undermine the specific form of the syllabic verse. However, if the run-on line includes an end-rhyme, then it will still be heard by the listener as a kind of line-ending gesture. Here is an example from a syllabic sonnet I wrote:
Why I Go For a Walk at Dawn
I read somewhere that the sun is brighter
Now than it was millions of years ago.
I’m not a scientist, I do not know
The data, calculations, or reasons
Used to back up that determination.
Lines 1 & 2 are a continuous run-on sentence. Line 3 has an end-rhyme with Line 2: ago/not know. Line 3 runs-on into Line 4 non-stop, but the use of the end-rhyme at Line 3 suddenly brings clarity to the shape of the poem, defining the line length. So even though Line 3 is a grammatical run-on, the use of the end-rhyme overcomes the usually dissolving effect of run-ons and is sufficient in itself to define the line.
Here is another example, a Tanka:
I’ve seen this before,
It’s another total war,
You’d think they be bored
As hell doing this again,
Standing in a field of gore.
Lines 3 runs-on into Line 4; ‘bored as hell’ is a single grammatical unit. But because ‘bored’ end-rhymes with the two previous lines, the effect is to overcome the dissolving effect of the run-on, as the end-rhyme overcomes what would normally feel like a dissolution.
The use of end-rhyme can increase the contrapuntal texture of a poem. By ‘contrapuntal’ I mean that a line of a poem might end with both a grammatical unit and end-rhyme, or it might end with just a grammatical unit, or it might end with just an end-rhyme with the grammatical unit being a run-on. The syllabic poet needs to learn how these can interact and the effects that emerge from the playful interaction of these line defining strategies.
Here’s an example of this kind of interplay in a Tanka found in Yeshaya Rotbard’s “The Calligraphy of Clouds”:
To let go of fear
is to let go of something
I hold very near.
If I ever do let go –
will there still be someone here?
Lines 1, 3 and 5 rhyme. The rhyme of L3 concludes the first part of the Tanka. The last words of L2, ‘something’ is a kind of pivot; it could be the last word of a grammatical unit consisting of L2, or the first word of a unit that concludes in L3. This ambiguity is settled by the end-rhyme of L3. Notice also that the end-rhyme for L5 brings the second section to a close, emphasizing the cadential quality of the rhyme usage.
Here’s another example from Rotbard:
What Do You Own?
Though my home is small,
a dome of stars surrounds me.
Moon shines in my wine.
Out here, the winds play, bells chime,
trees sway. Half a world is mine.
Lines 1 & 2 give us the setting and each line is a grammatical unit. Lines 3, 4, & 5 rhyme, with the middle line, L4, a slant rhyme, but still clearly audible. L3 is a complete sentence, marked with a period. It starts off the rhyme sequence. L4 ends with a run-on that is part of a list, and this line continues into L5, concluding the list mid-line. L5 then concludes with a short sentence that increases the sense of closure by the true rhyme to L3 and the slant rhyme to L4. I think this is really elegant usage of rhyme here and is a good model for how to use rhyme in several ways in syllabic poetry.
It took me some time to realize the potential for rhyme in English syllabic verse. In closing I would like to suggest another resource for how to use rhyme in this context. That resource is popular song. As you are driving, listen to popular song and how rhyme is used. Or when you are in a coffee shop, do the same with the music being played there. I think you will be surprised at how many run-on lines are rhyme defined in popular song. Popular song also freely uses a broad field of rhyme that includes slant rhyme (I sometimes think that Emily Dickinson’s use of slant rhyme may have had origins in the popular songs of her time). Also note the emotional affect that rhyme produces in popular song: sometimes it is humorous, even childish. And sometimes it has a feeling of exaltation. And at still other times it seems to be like natural speech.
Rhyme is a wonderful poetic tool. People find it intrinsically enjoyable. Rhyme assists the memory and gives a poem a song-like quality. It is my hope that rhyme will become more and more a part of English syllabic verse.