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"Out in the bush is silence now: Savannah seas have islands now"

Jane Holland has an interesting short post on rhyme on her blog at the moment, and it got me thinking about rhyme being this really transformative element in a poem, something, as she puts it, 'which launches the poem off into space', and, when used to its fullest potential, can make a poem truly moving, provocative and memorable. And it also made me think about Mick Imlah's work, something I'm writing a piece on currently, and how for all of the wit, ingenuity and syntactical invention in his narrative poems and dramatic monologues, for all of the impressive scope and surprising shifts in the ambitious pieces in his new collection, the poem of his that always astounds me is the first one in his first book: 'Tusking' from Birthmarks.

It's a really incredible poem (a meditation on colonialism via an imagined elephant hunt) with so many layers to it and a beautifully executed rhyme scheme, the sort that you feel really lives up to the whole 'best words in the best order' idea, without a single one wasted. And I'm clearly not alone in my thoughts of this poem being great, as I read something by Bernard O'Donoghue a while back describing the poem as one which should be in the running for the best poem of the past twenty five years. If you haven't read it, it's worth picking up a second-hand copy of Birthmarks for it alone. To give you a taste, here's a couple of stanzas:

'But if, one night
As you stroll the verandah
Observing with wonder
The place of the white
Stars in the universe,
Brilliant, and clear,
Sipping your whisky
And pissed with fear

You happen to hear
Over the tinkle of Schubert
A sawing - a drilling -
The bellow and trump
Of a vast pain -
Pity the hulks!
Play it again!'

Oh, and after two blog posts in a row on Imlah, I'll be sure to post about something different next time, promise...


Holland's didactic post on rhyme leaves little room for a contrary argument.

There are many contrary theories littering the history of the Tradition in which she seeks to situate herself.

The problem I have is when she states that without rhyme: "nothing ascends. Nothing transcends."

If this were the case, then we have to dismiss several canons of poetry in which rhyme plays little or no part. Much alliterative verse and many a modernist piece would not pass the Holland inspection, and be cast into a limbo world to await conferral by a more convincing critical intelligence than Ms Holland's.

The argument she uses, that rhyme acts as a simulteaneous seal of sense and pointer to "a dark glimmering barely glimpsed or understood before the poem began to take shape..." sounds poetic enough, but beneath the surface, lacks the clarity she seeks to impose in the first half of the clause - that rhyme puts: "its finger on significant meaning.."

This significance is not articulated, only the second half of the equation, the uncertainty, is dwelt on, which indicates, (to me at least) a confusion rather than certitude. It would be interesting to hear Ms Holland recite her poetry, in order to guage further this creed of binary division. There is a lack of critical light in her assertion, and until we hear her in person, we're unable to judge fully this philosophy.

Move the focus onto the divide between the page and the performative aspect of her wider practice as a poet on fire, perhaps? The problem with her position is, it is only opinion until we hear her speak.

Until the voice is measured, we cannot fully trust what is being said, as the voice re-enforces whilst re-inventing whatever image we hold of Holland in our heads, as potential students, critics and consumers of what she produces.

She weaves the lingo well enough in prose, but to go beyond this into the realm where rhyme and reality collide and conquer the mind of a reader - this: this is the nub of it I think.
Carrie Etter said…
To take this thread in another direction, after re-reading my manuscript and particularly the few poems in rhyme, I'm surprisingly keen to do more with it, along the lines of a very playful piece therein that uses a fair bit of repetition.

Repetition itself--as anaphora or something more subtle--is an element I'm increasingly interested in. I recently read Zoe Brigley's The Secret and admired the assurance and skill with which she used repetition--again, making me think that's something I want to play with again.

How about you, Ben?
Ben Wilkinson said…
Hi BA and Carrie - thanks for posting.

As far as my own feelings about rhyme go and what I think it can achieve within poems, I've always found that the poetry I most enjoy usually impresses me with its rhyming panache and inventiveness first - I agree with you, BA, when you say that poems do not require rhyme to 'ascend', as Jane puts it in her piece, but it is certainly, when put to subtle and original use, one of the most successful stylistic devices in grabbing the reader's attention and persuading them round to the poem's way of thinking and approaching of subject matter.

I also find that rhyme can give a poem real momentum and energy, something which, for me, made much of Armitage and Maxwell's early work such a wonderful reading experience. Of course, rhyme can be put to dull and deadened use too, which is why you don't see people writing in heroic-couplets or the like much anymore. Ultimately though, while I appreciate a great deal of poetry which doesn't use much rhyme, I've always been drawn to, and most admired, the stuff which does - I tend to enjoy the poem without thirsting after sense and meaning when rhyme (along with rhythm, assonance and alliteration) works its 'magic'. This is the sort of thing I try to achieve in my own poems, as well as using rhyme as a way of linking seemingly disparate ideas and objects - one branch of this obviously being Muldoon's free association.

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