Posts filed under “Poetry”

CELEBRATE YOUR RHYME-RICH LANGUAGE.

In this week’s issue of the New Yorker we find “The End of the Line” by Adam Gopnik, ostensibly a review of a book about rap lyrics, but really a meditation on the nature and utility of rhyme. Most of the article is quite good, and you probably want to read it.

Dr. Boli would like to quibble with something that is almost incidental to Mr. Gopnik’s argument. Mr. Gopnik repeats a notion that comes up so often that it must be a cliché of poetic criticism in English: “the impoverished rhyming resources of English…the scarcity of rhyme in English…” Like everyone else who brings up this subject, he compares our poverty with the rhyming richness of French or Italian.

This is exactly backwards. French and Italian are the rhyme-poor languages. They could never have produced an Ogden Nash or a W. S. Gilbert. A French or Italian poet has to look hard for rhymes that are interesting, because everything rhymes with everything else. Obligato, ostinato, moderato, pizzicato, agitato—just try writing an interesting poem about music in Italian. Look at a libretto for an average Italian opera—not a really good one, like the ones by Da Ponte, but an average one—and see how quickly the rhymes without the music put you to sleep. French is just as bad. Émergé, parlé, enseigné, pensé—almost every single past participle in the French language rhymes with every other past participle in the French language, and the few that don’t mostly form a club of rhymes in ‑u or ‑i. Rhyming in French is ridiculously easy, even with what would seem like a rarish rhyme, like ‑oi: doit, Benoit, fois, Québécois, roi, toi, crois.

Ma foi !
Le loi,
C’est moi !

—cried the French judge in a poem Dr. Boli just made up, slaving over it for fifteen seconds. Well, that’s an exaggeration.

The point is that making rhyme interesting in French takes all the talent of a Molière or a Baudelaire. In English, a rhymed poem is an adventure. Yes, rhyming correctly is harder in English, in the same way that a Boucher painting is more work than a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle. But that makes rhyming itself—even rhyming badly—a richer experience, in the same way that even painting a bad painting is a richer experience than putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

In The Mikado, when Ko-Ko starts to tell his life story, we feel as though we are watching a tight-rope walk between two skyscrapers. He can’t do it, we think. He can’t get through an entire song on the same two rhymes. But he does.

Taken from the county jail
By a set of curious chances;
Liberated then on bail,
On my own recognizances;
Wafted by a favouring gale
As one sometimes is in trances,
To a height that few can scale,
Save by long and weary dances;
Surely, never had a male
Under such like circumstances
So adventurous a tale,
Which may rank with most romances.

Now, if you had tried this trick in French, the jaded French audience would have said, “Et alors ?” That is because French is a language rich in rhymes in the same way that the desert is an environment rich in sand.

The next time you read a poem in English and notice that the poet has taken the trouble to make the lines rhyme, think of what an accomplishment that is. Think what an incomparably rich forest of rhyming possibilities we have in English. And spare a tear for the poor French and Italians, who have to make do with the resources they can scrounge from a rhyming desert.

A SONG OF PARSLEY,

By Irving Vanderblock-Wheedle.

I sing a song of words,
A song of adjectives and pronouns and O! the interjections!
A song in which verbs do verb things, and nouns just sit there,
A song in which adverbs lie in wait for the verbs, and sometimes waylay the adjectives and shake them down for their lunch money,
A song taped and stapled together with prepositions and conjunctions,
A song in which I delve deep into the unconscious part of my brain for words, and the only word I can come up with is “parsley.”

Have you heard a song of parsley before?
I have not.
I do not know how to sing about parsley.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, and they talked about parsley,
But they did not sing, and the parsley they talked about sounded suspiciously like cilantro.
I sit and hope for inspiration;
I sit and hear my own respiration,
My inspiration and outspiration,
And after a while my perspiration.
Someone said “conspiration,” but I hit him.
I sit and wait for a thought, but the only thought that comes is about parsley.

I would sing of space and time,
Of eternity and paternity,
Of the stars and the seas and the blazing beaming blustering sun,
Of the things that are and the things that are not,
But all I can think about now is parsley,
Parsley parsley parsley parsley parsley parsley parsley,
Filthy rotten stinking parsley.
I guess I am not meant to sing about anything else.
I guess I am not meant to sing at all.
I guess I will have to try free verse instead.

I THINK THAT I SHALL NEVER SEE,

by Irving Vanderblock-Wheedle.

Westward the willows whisper;
     Southward the sycamore;
Eastward the elms grow crisper;
     Northward the banyans roar.

Upward the birch-tree reaches;
     Downward the cypress digs;
Leftward is loud with beeches;
     Rightward is fraught with figs.

Inward the linden grumbles;
     Outward the locust flails;
Softly the sago stumbles;
     Hardly the hemlock hails.

Often the dogwood stammers;
     Seldom the cypress bends;
Always the hornbeam hammers;
     Never the redwood ends.

THINGS WE SIMPLY CANNOT IMPROVE.

Dr. Boli has attempted in the past to explain the principles of rhyme. These fits of pedantry are usually brought on by finding some site—an on-line dictionary by Merriam-Webster, for example—that lists rhymes for a certain word, and finding that none of the supposed rhymes rhyme.

Henceforth, however, there will be no need to explain the principles of rhyme again. We have found an explanation of those principles so concise and yet so complete that it can probably never be improved. It comes from the book Rhymes and Meters by Horatio Winslow, most famous as a prolific writer of magazine stories. Here is all you will ever have to know about rhyme.

The rhyme most commonly used in verse is the single rhyme—the rhyme of one syllable. A single rhyme is perfect when the rhymed syllables are accented; when the vowel sounds and the following consonant sounds are identical and when the preceding consonant sounds are different.

“Less” rhymes with “mess” and “caress” but not with “unless,” because in this last case the preceding consonant sounds are the same. It will rhyme with “bless” because the “b” and “l” are so joined that the combined sound differs from the simple “l” of “less.” “Less” does not rhyme with “best” because the “t” makes the concluding consonant sounds unlike. Nor does it rhyme with “abbess” because the accent in this word falls on the first syllable.

A double or triple rhyme follows in construction the rules laid down for the single rhyme. The accents must be alike; the preceding consonants must differ and the vowels and the remaining syllables of the words be identical. “Double” goes perfectly with “trouble” and “bubble,” while “charity,” “clarity” and “rarity” all rhyme.

The spelling of a word does not affect its rhyming use. It is rhymed as it is pronounced. “Move” and “prove” do not rhyme with “love”—all the poets in Christendom to the contrary. Neither does “come” rhyme with “home.” The pronunciation is all in all and that must be decided not by local usage but by some standard authority.

A VALENTINE.

I bring you this bouquet, my dear,
     I place it in your hand.
I think you’re A-okay, my dear.
     I think you’re really grand.
You’re swell, just peachy keen, my dear,
     And adjectives like that.
I tell you what I mean, my dear:
     You really knock me flat.
If I were to describe your kiss,
     I’d say “like vintage wine.”
Which brings me to the point of this:
     Please be my valentine.