November 29, 2013

The Relationship with Rhyme


Every poet must contemplate his or her relationship with rhyme.  Meter and rhyme are often identified as the elements that make a poem a poem.  I consider poetry to be a pattern language. The images, marks and appearance on the page are not random. The idea of pattern encompasses more than meter and rhyme.  Poems draw patterns with image, metaphor, myth, and music.  Within the term music, I want to recall the phrase "in time," in other words, being able to hold the beat or rhythm. Timing. Secondarily, poems can be both in time and out of time (referring to temporality) but their rhyme and meter are about timing.

My relationship with meter and rhyme is complicated. My mother grew up in a family of musicians. She loved to dance, and she tried to teach me to be in time with the music. In her arms, in step, I remember traveling across the dust rising from the wooden floor of the dance hall. Eventually my music became language, and it is sometimes syncopated, and my English inflected with the rhythms of her first language, Finnish. My grandparents did not speak English, and I didn't speak much Finnish. There existed a space in between the languages that I came to know very well, and often we were confronted by the barrier of language, trying to say the unsayable or sometimes merely the untranslatable. 

The old language was familiar (and meant "home"), but it was also incomprehensible and abstract to me, more akin to music than language.  I learned to listen deeply, not just to words, but to rhythm, inflection and gesture and context. English poetry rolls with iambic rhythms. Finnish language reverses the beat. When my parents spoke English with their accents, they did so with trochaic meter.  I was charmed by their English and (some people might have thought) hobbled by it. (A very endearing memory was of my father when he was looking for his wallet and called it his purse.) In this way, I became obsessed with words.

Consider this translated poem, chosen because it has one rhyme that will not distract from its other clear pattern:  

by Tomas Tranströmer 

2 am: moonlight. The train has stopped 
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town, 
flickering coldly at the horizon.

As when a man has gone into a dream so deep 
 he'll never remember having been there 
when he comes back to his room.

As when someone has gone into an illness so deep 
everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm, 
cold and tiny at the horizon.

The train is standing quite still.
2 am: bright moonlight, few stars.

                                             • Translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton

The poet or translator has been 'light-handed' with meter and rhyme. The train image, set against the landscape and sky, is both actual and metaphoric. Similes are introduced:  train as dream. Next, an illness is as a train, but this time around, the poet returns to the landscape and sky, "calling back" to these images, and now the landscape and sky are metaphor. Certain words are repeated: horizon, so deep, gone, flickering, 2 am, moonlight.  A man or someone is in stanzas 2 and 3, but not in stanzas 1 and 4.  The repetition (a slight variation of stopped: standing quite still) at the end of the poem encloses it.  We see the poem itself as a train, waiting to depart.   

Paul Valery described the difference between poetry and other kinds of writing as physiological.  By the use of the poetic line and its line and stanza breaks, meter, assonance, consonance, and rhyme, poetry works with our breath. Prose is different. Once the reader grasps the meaning in a novel, the words disappear. They are not necessarily meant to be memorable. A good poem enters us physically, engages our senses. Breath to breath, the poem functions like a delightful mechanism designed to create new meaning at each reading. 

Catherine Wagner in "The Politics of Meter: On Traditional Forms" writes an excellent analysis of the trends over the years. Traditional forms changed to free verse and avant- gard, and now a new formalism has risen. (It's no surprise of course. How long can a powerful tool of poetry be ignored?) She's drawn to exploring rhythm in her own writing, saying: 
Rhythm can induce trance states. Anyone who’s recited a rosary or been to a rave or drum circle knows this. In trance, your brain is in theta rhythm, dream rhythm, but you are not dreaming; you are conscious and acting, not simply being taken over. Poetic rhythm has been shown to change heart rate, and it’s not impossible that simply thinking in rhythm could induce changes in brainwaves. So I’ve been experimenting with using traditional poetic rhythms as a way to alter my consciousness while writing. The experimental English poet Tom Raworth, inventor of dozens of ingenious and provocative forms, has asked whether "form is a kind of quotation?" When I "quote" traditional forms, something outside and prior (a formal version of Jack Spicer’s Martians?) comes into me, something I can transform as it alters me.
Physiological, poetry!  Mention of the trance states brings to mind the cadences of the Kalevala and the beauty of spoken word and rap. Each poet, each voice, has a unique grasp on rhyme and meter, just as each poet has a unique fingerprint. The spoken word artists and "New Formalist" poets have rescued rhyme from its bad reputation as old fashioned, unskilled, even amateur. Too regular meter and end rhyme can dominate poems; a sing-song rhythm and obvious rhymes cause runaway trains.

Aside from inducing trance states or reverie, we are surrounded by the day's familiar rhythms. To ride a train is hypnotic. The sound of wheels on the tracks, the creaking of the car,and  the couplings between each car fill our ears and lulls the riders. The train smells of diesel fuel and grease, and sweaty hands grasp the chrome plated poles and railings. The experience engages all five senses. It transports us, and as a metaphor, transforms us.  

Trains are deep metaphors of rhythm and time. Consider their beautiful timetables that unfold in our hands. Notice the skill that Tranströmer uses:  he repeats 2 am, moonlight, horizon, gone, train. The standing still train brings to mind two journeys, one into dream, and the second into a long illness. He juxtaposes the time-bound train with the horizon and the moon with stars.  He is accesses several patterns: the constellations, the cycle of the moon, the train routes, the wake/sleep cycles, and the course of illness and recovery.  The little word swarm calls to mind a cloud of insects; it is slightly menacing--it could be hornets or biting ants. For the title, he chooses "Tracks" instead of "Train." Tracks are always there, and trains come and go upon them.  Perhaps the decision was made to avoid saying 'train' twice and changing the balance in a perfect construction. The words plain and train pulse, like lights blinking.  

Catherine Wagner mentions Tom Raworth's idea of form as a sort of quotation. It might be true. I think of it as a form of echo, a structural echo. A rhyme creates a sound echo. Literary allusion, symbol, metaphor also use visual echoes.  

The poem "Tracks" has places of fastening or mooring. The connection here is between train and plain, the object on its landscape; the poet captures the moment before turning, the poem is suspended between two journeys. The moorings must flex and expand, not bind but open.  At times they must hold and other times, release.  I am most drawn to internal rhyme and near rhyme. These offer ways to build structure, to call forward and back. I think of rhymes as points that function in ways similar to cleats or mooring points on a boat.  If poems are trains made of language, each rhyme can be a coupling or switch, a place of connection, a place of turning (or both).  Each pattern becomes a train- track for the poem.

Another possibility emerges and is held back in the following words: moonlight, light, light. This thrice repeated light calls attention to itself. The darkness is encompassing, but instead of the poet meeting that expectation with the use of the word 'night', the poet and/or  translator offers 2:00 am. twice. It falls in with the pattern of other repeated words. It's 2 am, so deeply night! But there are other kinds of darkness, the dreams and the going into illness. Night would not be able to hold all of it. We brush against the thought of this obvious rhyme, night; we are flooded with night (and yet light arrives three times).  These opposing forces and the expectation of a rhyme that is refused are full of tension, nearly erotic. 

The poem "Tracks"  is an excellent example of the possibilities of patterns.  As a metaphor, it is one that the reader understands richly; the actual and metaphoric train waits. It will have many destinations and arrivals.  Repetition and variation. Timing.  The poem balances on a fulcrum, one set of rhymed words.  If I have a train, I prefer not a runaway, but a Tranströmer train. 

Work Cited

Tranströmer, Tomas. "Tracks." New Collected Poems. Translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton. Bloodaxe Books. 2011.  Web. Retrieved 29 November 2013.

Wagner, Catherine.  "The Politics of Meter: On Traditional Forms." Academy of American Poets. Copyright 1997-2013.  Retrieved 29 November 2013.

Valery, Paul.  Selected Writings of Paul Valery.  New Directions Press. 1964. Print.

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