This is no. 27 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.
It snowed last night. Not much. Just an inch or two. But this morning there’s a strange fog in the air. It isn’t like a spring fog, thick in the vision, obscuring the trees and houses across the small field. It must be frozen crystals in the air, some breath the dormant grass gathered and sighed out, or the wedding dress a cloud took off and let drop down to the ground—a dress that is no more than texture in the air. It faintly glows, like it’s holding light inside of it, like it’s slowing light down. It’s morning when I get to see what it is to see.
I’d also like to hear what it is to hear, to listen in on listening.
Over the course of many years of working on the page as best I could, reading wherever it was bliss took me, writing to catch up to those glimmers other poems taught me to see by, I began to distrust that divide I grew up being schooled in: tradition vs. experiment, conservative or “quiet” poetry vs. the avant-garde. Reading George Herbert, John Donne, and John Keats; reading Emily Dickinson, Sappho, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; reading Homer, Virgil, and the Greek pastoral traditions; reading anonymous poems for graves and for fields—all made me think that tradition might root itself down in the very humus of experiment. And, as humus and human are cognate, I began to suspect that the age-old tropes by which poetry functions—image, metaphor, metonymy, symbol; line, meter, music, rhyme—radically include us in that tradition of experiment that poetry might be described as. Trope, after all, comes from the Greek tropos, and means a turn, direction, a course, a way; but it also means the character of a person, the peculiar temper that makes one who one is; it also means the way the strong wind might move through a pine tree; it also means the way a winter morning’s fog might pause even the speed of light. I mean to suggest a simple thing, though I’ve learned the simple is often bewilderment’s own maze, that the tropes by which a poem moves through itself are not the musty pedantries of literary dictionaries, but are themselves fundamental forms of consciousness, the very means by which a poem comes to know itself, and by extension, the very means by which we come to know ourselves as well. The trope can wake us in the way the eye open wakes us—suddenly, there is light, and the first step of the day is into vision: an image. Or, take rhyme: Rhyme can make of the mind a wind-chime.
I have no verifiable proof, just a sense from twenty years of teaching, more of reading and writing, that rhyme has become one of those aspects of tradition most easily derided. I can understand how it happened. Teaching now a lower-level poetry-writing workshop, I notice how often the weakest poems are strongest in rhyme, and the first advice, to not let the end sound of the line drive everything the line must do, inevitably makes the poem better. One of the unintended consequences of the workshop model may well be a drift away from the power of traditional tropes. The pressure put upon a single poem to achieve itself most successfully diminishes the larger work of thinking about what the work of poetry is—a work that requires the very failures, poem by poem, that necessitate thinking across the entire span of one’s efforts. The push, or the desire, to be “original,” to have a “voice,” to “make it new,” might deafen us to the latent, collective, anonymous consciousness that resides in something as simple-seeming as rhyme. There is something in rhyme—I think I can hear it, though it’s hard to describe—that speaks to the ongoing crisis of the human condition from the dawn of mind to now. It’s like an echo. But unlike that echo in stairwell or tunnel, in cave or gorge, it doesn’t get quieter as it moves through time. In rhyme, the echo gets louder.
So it is I often rhyme my poems, though it might not be obvious. I’ve come to trust there’s something in the ear’s own intelligence that leaps ahead of the conscious, analytic mind in a poem that rhymes, as if the hidden promise of a chiming sound sets forth in the poem a fate-like assurance that what is to come, though yet unseen, will welcome you. So quietly, but so familiarly, rhyme suggests that to move forward, as one must, into what one doesn’t know, will be okay. If so, rhyme offers itself as some form of existential assurance, is tuned in, and so attunes us, to fears and hopes so entwined with the human condition, we forget we even need to speak of them: that in what feels to be the chaos of the blank future, there is a cosmos, an order, into which we’ll fit. It is not exactly a means of survival, but a trust one will survive.
Rhyme also works within and against time. I can imagine in a poem heavily end-rhymed—say a Petrarchan sonnet with its octave of ABBAABBA, or Dante’s lovely, enveloping terza rima of ABA BCB CDC—that the surety of those sounds counters the awful, inevitable flow of mortal life in one direction. Then the poem that makes its claims about love’s immortality, or memory’s eternity, is no cloying euphemism, but an enacted audacity in the poem’s very fiber. That rhyme works as does mythic time, returning us ever again to a point we’ve never truly left—the day that is all one day, world’s onset, the syllable now, sun’s instant of light—even as, line by line, we recognize too that we do not get to remain in that golden light of origin. We can hear in the poem that mythic life of eternal return, and in hearing it, live within it, even as the poem accompanies us in that other recognition, that line by line we move to what end is ours. Rhyme puts a delay in time. It makes us understand what otherwise would feel an impossible paradox: that we live in time, and time doesn’t exist. And though I’m not exactly a religious man, it gives me one version of how heaven could work. It’s just a poem, just a rhyme, a single-syllable that, scanned, has no stress and rhymes AAAAAAAA…forever.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).