Time to Rhyme? Sounds Link Lines and Meaning

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IN an essay that was originally published in the Turin, Italy, newspaper La Stampa in 1985, (and now available to English readers in "The Mirror Maker," Schoken Books) the Italian writer and poet Primo Levi predicted a "spontaneous return" to rhyming verse as a distinguishing quality of poetry.

First, however, he noted the reasons for the "oversupply" of poetry. This results, he said, because "poetry lives with us, like music and song," and also, more specifically for our time, because "classical metrics and prosody" have been abandoned. "This apparent freedom has flung open the doors to the army of born poets: and, as said before, all of us are born poets." The resultant noise has made it hard to pick out the authentic new voices, Levi said.

Now Primo Levi is one of the most beloved writers of our times. His death in 1986 made his work on the holocaust, his fables and essays, his poems, a unique treasure. But his prediction of a "spontaneous return" to rhyme does seem to be going against common sense.

His reasons for hoping for such a return are clearly set out in the essay. Rhyme unifies the line of verse; it connects verse to music; it underscores key words; it helps us memorize poetry; and, above all, it forces the poet to invent new combinations of words, to innovate. The rhyming poet leaves his stamp on his verse in no uncertain terms.

And this, I believe, is why modern poets avoid rhyme. In the early days of modernism, impersonality was important. In these latter days, the "oversupply" of poets may be embarrassed to try to rhyme. Depending on the language (Chinese poets avoid rhyme because it is too easy), bad rhymes are easy rhymes. One really has to know the language to rhyme effectively.

Nevertheless, Levi predicted a "spontaneous return" to verse. Looking through the volumes assembled for this book section, one finds little rhyme. Of the well-known poets, only Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott would bear out Levi's prediction. Donald Hall is more typical in that he rhymes occasionally when he wants a nostalgic or witty effect. Charles Gullans is an example of an unfashionable rhyming poet, and a very skilled one at that.

Rhyme has been rejected in modern times because it was perceived as traditional, classical - even though the classical Greek and Roman poets did not rhyme. A return to rhyme would occasion a renewal of interest in the classical discipline of poetry as set out by Horace, the Roman poet who lived during the time of Augustus. In the same year he published his essay on rhyme, Levi wrote an open letter to Horace in La Stampa, bringing him up to date on all the changes in the world but in the end stressing the continuities.

At the end of his life, Horace wrote some philosophical poems - he called them epistles - in which he defended his lifelong commitment to poetry as an art, a craft, a form of wisdom. These epistles are difficult reading, but now one can turn to Ross K. Kilpatrick's "The Poetry of Criticism" (The University of Alberta Press), by far the best book on the subject for the general reader. Translations of the poems are appended to the brief, sometimes obscure, discussion of the poems.

Horace's position is summed up in this rhetorical question (as translated by Kilpatrick): "Should I prefer the reputation of a wild and untrained writer (provided my bad work delights, or at least escapes me) to one of growling discernment?" The answer is, of course, yes: However antisocial, "growling discernment" is preferable to joining the "oversupply" of poets.

For Horace, art is a form of philosophy: Living well and writing well are two sides of the same coin. The discipline of art is one of the great themes of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. His new "Selected Poems" bears witness to the influence of rhyme. Heaney does not always use end rhymes: He has integrated rhyme into his concept of poetic order. …