Friday, November 11, 2011

Rhyme or not to rhyme

The following paragraph (pg 163) comes from Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled, a marvellous book looking at the technical aspects of poetry, which Fry infiltrates and invigorates with his daft and witty sense of humour.   At this point he's just spent quite some time discussing rhyme, and by dint of using the terrible disastrous William McGonagall poem on the disaster on the Tay Bridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins' Wreck of the Deutschland (Hopkins is obviously a poet he admires a good deal), Hardy's 'The Convergence of the Twain' (on the sinking of the Titanic) and Tennyson's superb (if all too familiar) 'Charge of the Light Brigade' has shown how difficult it is to use good rhyme in a poem intended to commemorate a disaster.  

It may strike you as trivial or even unsettling to discuss rhyming options in such detail.   I know exactly how you feel and we should address this: we must be honest about the undoubted embarrassment attendant upon the whole business of rhyming.  Whatever we may feel about rhymed poetry [Fry enjoys it when it's done well]  it is somehow shaming to talk about our search for rhyming words.  It is so banal, so mechanistic, so vulgar to catch oneself chanting 'ace, race, chase, space, face, case, grace, base, brace, dace, lace...' when surely a proper poet should be thinking high pure thoughts, nailing objective correlatives, pondering metaphysical insights, observing delicate nuances in nature and the human heart, sifting gold from grit in the swift-running waters of language and soliciting the Muse on the upper slopes of Parnassus.  Well, yes.  But a rhyme is a rhyme and won't come unless searched for.  Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Milton and Yeats, Auden and Chaucer have all been there before us, screwing up their faces as they recite words that only share that sound, that chime, that rhyme.  To search for a rhyme is no more demeaning than to search for a harmony at the piano by flattening this note or that and no more vulgar than mixing paints on a palette before applying them to the canvas.  It is one of the things we do.

This paragraph resonates with me, of course, because much of my time in the last year has been spent finding that elusive note or chord for the musical I've been writing - Grimhilda! - and trying to find rhymes that make sense, fit and don't take the verse off in a direction that has nothing to do with the plot.


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