An appeal to would-be rhymers – think first

by Robert Dalvean

Twinkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

There’s a perfectly successful quatrain. It succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to be anything more than it is, a children’s rhyme.

Here’s a parody of it.

Twinkle, twinkle little bat,
How I wonder what you’re at,
Up above the world so high,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.

That’s from Alice in Wonderland and we call it a parody, but it isn’t, really. It’s impossible to parody humility. Parody is reserved for the pompous, the overreaching, the ambitious. Lewis Carroll is merely pointing out that Alice isn’t quite herself. Later in the same book, he mercilessly savages Father William, a popular poem of his day that reeked of moral uplift.

You are old, Father William, the young man said,
And your hair has become very white,
And yet you continue to stand on your head,
Do you think at your age it is right?

We remember Carroll’s parody. We remember the original Twinkle, twinkle little star. We have completely forgotten the original Father William, if we ever knew it.

Why do we smile at verse parodies?

I believe there’s a simple explanation. For six centuries we users of English have been trying to write verse as if English were a Romance language (such as French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese). In these languages, rhymes abound, so many rhymes that French and Italian poets often have to be careful NOT to rhyme. Since there are millions of rhymes in French and – especially – Italian, the continental poet has to tread carefully, whereas in English there are so few rhymes that we must strain our stanzas into unnatural forms to accommodate them.

Can you think of a rhyme for orange.

You could if you were French. There it’s pronounced differently and there are thousands of rhymes for it. In Italian it’s arancia – again, no shortage of rhymes. Think of Manana – Spanish. In English you can rhyme it with lantana or banana. In Spanish you can find a million rhymes. This is because English tends to the monosyllabic. Romance languages, or even Teutonic languages like German, have many feminine rhymes – those that jingle with more than one syllable.

But if you use feminine rhymes in English, the result usually turns out to be comic.

Here’s Byron in Don Juan:

But say, ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?

The trouble goes back 600 years, at least to Geoffrey Chaucer, who was complaining even then about the lack of rhymes in English. Chaucer, like many another English poet of his day, looked to Europe for models and found mainly Petrarch and Dante.

Dante could turn out lines like:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita.

He wrote his great work La Divina Commedia – in this form, and many English translators have been trying to follow him ever since – without marked success.

Here’s Dorothy Sayers:

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Pretty bad, but she isn’t the worst. The actual sense can be expressed, in prose, as briefly as Dante expressed it: Half way along life’s road, I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.
To torture this into Dante’s terza rima, Sayers has, by my count, to add seven words to Dante’s 19 – not to mention what she does to the syntax so as to fit the rhymes in.

Chaucer knew Dante. He knew Petrarch and Boccaccio even better, but even a poetic genius like Chaucer couldn’t really rhyme in English without mucking about with the word order.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures swote
The droght of Mersh hath perced to the rote
And bathed everich veyne in swich licour
By whyche vertu engendred is the flour.

The literal meaning is: When April with his sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every leaf in the liquid that has power to germinate the flower . . .

But what do we find here? Chaucer needs a rhyme for swote (sweet), so he has to force the words “swote shoures” into the unnatural “shoures swote”. Then he needs a rhyme for licour, so he turns “the flour is engendered” into “engendered is the flour”.

So here we are, at the very beginning of the adventure known as English Lit, and already we’re in trouble.

But, you may say, thousands of rhyming lines exist, and regular metrics, so why shouldn’t we go on regularly scanning and rhyming? For the same reason we can’t climb up onto the concert platform and charge people eighty dollars a seat to hear us play Beethoven – we aren’t good enough, and never will be.

Have you ever noticed how few the great poems in English are? The Norton Anthology takes us from ‘Sumer is icumen in’ (14th Century) to the present in 1500 pages. An awful lot of verse? Try dividing it by 650 (years, that is), and you get 2.15 pages a year. Divide that by 365 and you have 0.006 pages per day. At that rate, it has taken, over the centuries, a hundred days to generate a little more than half a page, and there aren’t many anthologies larger than the Norton.

So why are we humble poets still trying to write in regular metre and rhyme? Certainly Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson did it, but their major works were written in blank verse.

I won’t quote Shakespeare because he’s too familiar.
But here’s Marlowe. When Dr Faustus asks the demon how he got out of hell, the demon replies:

Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

You can’t do better than that merely by rhyming.

And Milton: from Paradise Lost

How comely it is and how reviving
To the spirits of just men long oppressed
When God into the hands of their delivererPuts invincible might . . .

Now that makes my scalp contract, and I’m not even a believer.

Browning?

For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man’s wife: and my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.

These were the greats, ah but there were lesser lights: Robert Southey, pilloried by Byron; Colley Cibber, eaten alive by Pope, Mrs Felicia Hemans (“The boy stood on the burning deck”), parodied by everyone and Spike Milligan’s favourite awful poet, William McGonigle.

And now I’ll make my daring statement: If you and I persist in trying to write verse that scans and rhymes, we’ll almost certainly put ourselves into the second camp – the also-rans. We’ll be the kind of dunces that Alexander Pope lacerated in The Dunciad.

Of course there are great poets who have written in our age and written brilliantly in regular forms: the Welsh poets Dylan Thomas and R. S. Thomas, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, W. H. Auden (and in Australia A. D. Hope and James McAuley). But quite apart from their greatness, there is, I believe, one great difference between these and the earlier poets. These later poets wrote verse to be spoken. I am convinced that the earlier lot wrote verse to be bellowed.

There exists a wax cylinder of Tennyson reading from his own works. It was damaged by heat soon after it was made and the words can hardly be made out, but through the noise you can hear the tone – the tone of a Nineteenth Century politician addressing a crowd – no microphones, no amplifiers. If Tennyson were alive today and read his works in that way, we’d all fall about laughing.

Which is pretty much what we did when I was at school and our teachers insisted we learn poetry. It was supposed to be good for us – trained the memory, exercised the lungs and vocal chords. But my fellow schoolkids thought it was a load of crap. Whenever we had to memorise a poem, we’d gather together to make a parody of it:

Captain Cook, the red-arsed chook
Went sailing down the river.
He struck a rock
And bruised his . . .

Well, you can guess the rest.

I was just as barbaric as the rest of them. But I had a secret. I actually liked poetry. I couldn’t, of course, admit to this – not if I wanted to come home with my teeth intact. I wanted to play football and cricket and get into fights, but there was a difficulty. I was as blind as a bat. I’ve never quite been able to see a ball in flight. The only way I could mark a football was to wait for it to hit me in the face. But I wanted to be in with everybody else, so I laughed with them and agreed that poetry was crap. When we all left school vowing never to open any publication in future unless it had nudies or footballers in it, I swaggered with them, while secretly buying the Penguin poets.

Yet I believe boys really like verse, as long as it shows energy and wit and spirit. Think of the two rude poems often attributed to Henry Lawson – The Good Ship Venus and The Leader of the Push (based on Lawson’s less outrageous The Captain of the Push).

From The Good Ship Venus:

The cabin boy’s name was Skipper,
A crafty little nipper,
He lined his arse
With broken glass,
And circumcised the skipper.

From The Leader of the Push:

Shall we knock him down and kick ’im?
Said the leader of the push.
We’ll knock him down and fuck ’im,
Said the bastard from the bush.

Lovely stuff. It still appeals to me (which may tell you a lot about my cultural limitations).

Back to the Penguin Poets. Reading them, I eventually acquired what used to be (somewhat pretentiously) called a florilegium, a kind of ideal anthology carried in the head. (Florilegium is Latin, Anthology Greek; they both originally meant a collection of flowers.) And this is precisely what all the great poets did. (I need italics here so that you won’t be under the impression that I consider myself great – or, for that matter, a poet.) Milton spent years acquiring his poets in half-a-dozen languages. Keats was a walking, talking anthology when he died in his early twenties. W.H. Auden and Robert Graves both advised young poets to memorise thousands of lines as part of their training.

It’s as true today as it was 600 years ago that the only way to learn the craft of verse is to study the great originals until you know all their tricks, then you can forge your own style. If you do this, you may come to the conclusion (as I have) that the gods did not intend you to be a poet. This is a good thing. It means you won’t make an idiot of yourself in public. Consider this perfectly sincere and deeply felt death notice.

God seen that you was weary,
Worn out by all your trouble and strife,
So he done the right thing by you,
And took away your life.

The saddest thing about this verse is that we laugh at it – surely not the author’s intention. His grief was genuine, but he was out of favour with: his muse.

Scansion and metrics also give writers of English verse trouble. Usually one finds either a slavish correctness, the iambs going ker-thump, ker thump, ker thump  . . . or the would-be poet reveals a total innocence of metrics.

A poet there was from Japan
Whose verses would rhyme but not scan
When told it was so
He replied ‘Yes, I know
But I always like to get as many words in the last line as I possibly can.’

And:

There was a young man from St Bees
Who got stung on the arm by a wasp
When asked ‘Does it hurt?’
He replied ‘No, it doesn’t
But I’m glad that it wasn’t a hornet.’

Nothing I’ve said here is meant to apply to light verse, comic verse or songs. Writers like W. S. Gilbert, Ogden Nash, even Henry Lawson and A.B. Paterson in their comic modes, are treasures. And we couldn’t really do without robust bush verses like The man from Snowy River and The lights of Cobb and Co which, although not originally written as songs seem to demand a singing voice.

As for the song-writers, consider this:

They asked me how I knew my true love was true.
I of course replied something here inside
Cannot be denied

They said someday I’d find
All who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire, you must realise
Smoke gets in your eyes.

So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed
To think they could doubt my love,
Yet today, my love is far away,
I am without my love.

Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide.
Still I smile and say, as this lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes.

Support those lyrics (by Otto Harbach) with the music of Jerome Kern and you’ll produce something that lasts more than 80 years.

And now a poem that doesn’t quite make it.

Writing never seen and not enjoyed
Is like a painting that is locked away;
The work, the skill, the motives – all are void
Of purpose, when there is no display.
So while the act of writing is a pleasure,
It isn’t quite enough; we must be heard –
For the happy reader is the measure
Of our worth as wielders of the word.
Given this chance to speak, we take our pens
In hand, or assault our keyboards, with the aim
Of entertaining. And our recompense
Comes from the reader’s joining in our game –
The game of words and phrases. For we write
To bring ourselves (and you, we trust) delight.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing much, except for the rhyming of recompense with pens. It’s a sonnet that uses the form Shakespeare used. It’s compact, rhymes fairly well, scans properly – but oh, isn’t it all too neat? Its rhymes and rhythms form a design, but that design is so dominant that there’s very little room left for emotion. To write such verse requires the kind of skill you need to solve crosswords. It’s all wordplay. Crosswords are easy for some, yet have no great significance. They’re diversions, like this poem, not to be taken seriously. And isn’t the thing shockingly genteel? [All right, I’ll admit it: I wrote it.]

Let me quote the words of a poet I knew who died of AIDS some years ago.

On The Cross

Just get on the cross
All you have to do
Is: Be there
Hang There
Suffer there
Why you’re there
How you got there
Doesn’t matter
It will all take care of itself
Your dying is real
As if the first real thing
Is your dying
And afterwards
Will see to itself
As well

And this is one: Stigmata

What constitutes a rash-
Two spots or three?
And a lesion –
Is it like the mark of death?
Am I dying
Slowly dying
From last year’s kiss?

These are two poems to make a tax-gatherer weep, but would they be improved by rhyming?
I’ve said so much about rhyme and meter, and I’ve quoted the same great poets everyone else quotes, but who are the poets you can use as models without making a twit of yourself?
I don’t know, but I can tell you two I like.

Here’s Charles Bukowski, who was a lifelong drunk and a bum, yet somehow managed to reach 74 before dying a few years ago. He’s writing of himself as a hitchhiker who insists on talking about poetry to a truck driver:

. . . in fact, he said, this is as far as we go.
So I let him have it; old withered whore of time
Your breasts taste the sour cream of dreaming . . .

He let me out
In the middle of the desert;

To die is to die is to die,

Old phonographs in cellars,
Joe di Maggio,
Magazines in with the onions . . .

An old Ford picked me up
45 minutes later
and, this time,
I kept my mouth shut.

And here is Raymond Carver, better known for his short stories . . .

The Attic

Her brain is an attic where things
Were stored over the years.
From time to time her face appears
In the little windows near the top of the house.
The sad face of someone who has been locked up
And forgotten about.

And yet where would we be without aspiration, without the urge to reach beyond what might appear to be limitations imposed on us by fate? Am I saying that those who cannot compete with, say, T. S. Eliot should shut their mouths and stay away from their keyboards? Not at all. What I am saying is that the writer should treat the business of writing verse with respect, and rhyme only with care. It’s a craft worth learning.