Tag Archives: why rhyme pleases

Night Office – an experiment in reading

Simon Jarvis’ remarkable new poem is now published and for sale at Enitharmon. I’m about to try something which may benefit from an explanation. I’m of the view that this is a work which deserves the widest possible readership and I am concerned that some readers will be deterred by the length of the poem and by the density of its subject matter. I therefore thought about writing one of those old-fashioned book things with the view of encouraging readers to engage with this and a few other equally complex works (The Odes, Slow Light, Kazoo Dreamboats, Casebook sprang immediately to mind). It could be argued that this is, in part, what this blog is ‘about’ but I wanted a greater sense of immediacy and a more realistic sketch of my readerly experience. I’ve therefore made a start with a few poems and what follows is the very early stages of my involvement with ‘Night Office’. As usual this is a provisional, subjective but hopefully honest account of paying attention to the first few pages of the poem:

You open it, it’s over 200 pages of rhyming 8-line stanzas. You put it down. You consider yourself to be a Jarvis completist and congratulate yourself (frequently) that you’ve read all of his even longer ‘The Unconditional’. Twice. This wasn’t an easy experience but you persevered through the endless digressions because you recognised that something important was going on and you liked what it did to your head.

The prospect of a few months of obsessive reading and re-reading isn’t that appealing, you know that your concentration will be tested and that much coffee will be drunk, you worry that you’ve stopped smoking since ‘The Unconditional’ and that staying mentally alert enough may be more of a problem. It’s not a complete leap in the dark, you’ve read the extract published in Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ and you’re therefore aware of the initial premise and the fact that there’s a level of lyrical beauty that’s quite spellbinding. You pick it up again and flick through the pages and are pleased to find that this tone seems to be sustained. You begin to read:


Every last person in this book is dead,-
including me. I'm talking to you, yes,
thanks to my poet: he, thanks to me; my head
shakes and reverberates, while, less and less,
the waves of sound diminish, and instead,
a lasting silence fills me and I rest.

You smile because there appears to be some satisfying complexity going on that’s reasonably audacious and doesn’t involve digression. The direct address to the reader is normally a device that you find heavy handed and contrived but this is done with an aggression that’s quite startling, the sort of thing that’s said prior to fight in the local pub. In the first three lines it is established that we are among the dead and it is these beings that will be brought to ‘life’ by the interaction between this speaker and his poet. All of this you find intriguing and now look forward to see how this is maintained over two hundred pages. This is also where you start to have harder thoughts concerning this reciprocity between a writer and his subject, You consider the accuracy of the view that characters take on a life of their own. You’ve had a few half-hearted attempts to write novels and some of your characters do seem to acquire some kind of separate existence in your head and there’s characters in ‘The Faerie Queene’ that seem to be especially real (Britomart, Arthur, Artegall). You wonder whether ‘my poet’ is going to be referred to again. Of course the effect of this address is to remind you that what follows is a fabrication. that you’re not expected to immerse yourself in the world of the poem but to remain a bit removed from it even though you may have to accept the premise that the dead may speak to us.

Most of the above is reasonably clear but then you notice the semi-colon problem. Things would be much easier if there was a full stop after ‘thanks to me’ but there isn’t and you’re left wondering how the shaking of the head is connected to the relationship that’s just been alluded to / described. You then decide that you’re probably thinking too hard and read on.

It’s snowing, it transpires that our dead talker is in a block of empty flats and it is snowing outside. This event is described with such care that you think that it may well allude to something else, that the action of the snow may have something to do with our mortality:


Then, just as surely, these determined blacks
are filled by flake and flake, until the light
unthinking action of the snow conceals
every last record and the gazer lacks
all means to know their having been. The night
welcomes and hides them: what each thinks or feels

is as obliterated as a name
drawn in the soft sand when repeated waves
delete at one stroke its uncertain fame,
leaving these empty flats. The corner where one shaves
is still invisible. The mirror in its frame
glimmers more darkly, where its pool just saves 
the snow’s dim lights into its silver, and 
they fall more slowly over by the stand.

So, the snow is obliterating the ground, the surface of the earth and the initial flakes create a pattern of white and black patches. These ‘blacks’ are said to be ‘determined’ which may or may not be referring to baseline theology on whether or not we have complete freedom of action our our fate is predetermined by God. The snow covers everything up and in doing so obliterates all trace/memory of their existence. In the ‘ordinary’ world things don’t happen like this, traces are left, things and people are remembered so this snow must be especially destructive because it can effortlessly wipe out this fame or memory. What is being described however is not a blizzard but something that falls ‘flake by flake’ which doesn’t have those notions of hazard and destruction.

‘Mirrors’ and ‘darkly’ immediately produce the quote from Corinthians 1 in your head even if you’ve never fully understood it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I also am known.” Of course, it’s even less certain that this possible ‘connection’ is the right one but it’s something that can be tested and revised as you go through the poem.

Then you think some more about snow, as in real snow, and you realise that a thin layer of snow does not obliterate all trace of what’s underneath- a flat surface like this black ground might change colour and texture but it will still be recognisably flat just as a slope will still be discernible. The other significant property of snow is that it eventually melts revealing what lies beneath. You read this again and notice that what is obliterated is not the blacks themselves but what they think or feel. This really doesn’t help, neither does the odd observation that the ‘snow’s dim lights’ appear to change the rate of fall depending on where they are.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you are already over-reading, that you’re trying to find things that aren’t actually there, that you should accept the fact that there’s this dead person inside this empty block of flats and that it’s gently snowing outside.

You then realise that the use of rhyme appears to be ‘working’ in that it isn’t getting in the way of your reading and does appear to add an injection of ‘flow’ to each stanza. This is odd because you normally get annoyed by the rhyme constraint as it invariably feels both contrived and (technical term) clunky. You remind yourself to read the Jarvis ‘Why Rhymes Pleases’ essay because you remember arguing with it at the time. You also admonish yourself for deriding the Jarvis view that formal constraint can enhance Big Thought Poetry.

You proceed slowly, you know from his previous work that Jarvis rewards attention to every aspect of what is going on. You enjoy this level of concentration, reading and re-reading a few lines at a time until things become apparent but this use of rhyme does, surprisingly, seem to make things more evocative and more beautiful. You think about this for a while and realise that beauty is a rare event in your reading of poetry, you can only recall brief moments of beauty in Celan, Hill and David Jones and none of these are bound by any kind of formal constraint. You then start to think about poems that describe beautiful things and those that deal with love and this isn’t the kind of beauty that you’re thinking of, it is a group of words or lines that are beautiful in themselves regardless of subject matter. You’re beginning to think / hope that ‘Night Office’ might be beautiful.

From the snow and its effects, things move onto the dead and three stanzas that seem to set out the ‘frame’ of what is to follow:



“Dead, every one, and gone beneath the snow.
I search the past for them, but miss their faces.
They are where all the happy dead must go.
Only, in this dark room, I cannot know
their quietness, their sleep; my head replaces
each one precisely in his life, and so 
they walk again from lungs to teeth,
escaping painfully from sweet relief.

Each bears his rhythm like an inner star:
each is walked through by some one line of stress
not chosen or invented, though they are
not accidental either, since they test,
for each imprinted pattern, where the bar
is lightly crossed, or halted at. My chest
rises and falls beneath my shirt, as each
treads slowly through me his peculiar speech,

sending me soft dumbnesses, impressions
left in the surface of my slow tongue, which
shifts shape a little each time. Dreams, depressions,
pass through my face from inside. In this rich,
yet monochrome, design, these curls, recessions,
vaults and returns speak, soundlessly, dip, pitch
their friendly spirit voices through my sight
and out into the European Night,

So things start to get a bit odder, the dead person who is still talking to us is the mouthpiece of these friendly spirits who are already where the ‘happy dead must go’. You’re not keen on this turn of events, your failure to believe in a god also entails rejecting any notion of the after- life. You also view the ide that the dead use living people to speak on their behalf one of the most cruel forms of quackery. Of course, this may not be what Jarvis means but you cn’t immediately think of another reading of “as each / treads slowly through me his peculiar speech”. Whether this is the case or not there are a few questions that need to be answered:

  • Does searching the past simply mean ‘trying to remember’ or does it mean that the past is a physical thing, like an archive, that can be searched?
  • Do all the happy dead go to heaven or is this referring to some other state / place?
  • Are the happy dead happy because they’re in heaven or were they happy before they got there?
  • Why is being dead described as ‘sweet relief’?
  • Is the ‘not chosen, invented nor accidental’ conundrum a riff on theological understandings of free will and determinism or is some other kind of paradox been alluded to?
  • Why are impressions left in the tongue rather than on the tongue?
  • How, exactly, are these spirit voices pitched through his sight?
  • Why is the night specifically European?

You hope that some of these will be resolved as you move through the rest of the poem but there is niggling doubt that some of this might be clever for the sake of being clever. It may be that ‘my slow tongue’ refers to language or speech rather than the physical object and that ‘in’ would make a little more sense, but not much.

The other worry is whether or not the chosen / invented rigmarole is overly contrived leading to a degree of clunkiness. If it does refer to God’s foreknowledge then why not be a little less oblique? If it refers to something else then it simply sounds portentous without meaning very much- this is one of the most common poetic mistakes but it’s not one that Jarvis usually makes.

Then you decide to look at ‘curls, recessions, / vaults, and returns’ that ‘speak soundlessly’. The first thing that strikes you is church architecture with regard to the first three and a kind of roundedness that can be applied to vaults and curls and then you get hung up on the discovery that a recession is also a feature of the church service “the withdrawing procession of the clergy and choir to the vestry at the close of the service” together with ‘return’ as a noun can also mean ‘paroussia’ which apparently is the Second Coming or ‘an event comparable to the Second Coming; a Messianic of apocalyptic appearance’. At this point your brain starts to hurt because the primary ‘sense’ is the dead, these “friendly spirits” are going to speak through our narrator – who is also dead. Things become complex when you start to think about things withdrawing or turning in on themselves or being covered by round arches or by returning as part of the End of Time. You don’t think for one second that any such return at any time is at all possible and that this cynicism may be preventing a clearer understanding.

You’re also struck by things that “pass through my face from the inside” and you decide to think about this some more. Is this inside the contents of the skull or is it the fleshy structure of the face itself? You are going for the former because this is where dreams and depressions lurk. This passing through implies that these ‘states’ are on there way to somewhere else or is this just a clever way of saying that these things leave their mark or trace on their way out into the world?

As ever, any kind of feedback- especially with regard to the way things are said – would be very much appreciated.

Hill, Jarvis, Muldoon and rhyme.

I’m about to announce a bit of a conversion but I need to give some background first.  In 2010 Geoffrey Hill produced “Oraclau |  Oracles”,  Simon Jarvis produced “Erlkonig” and “Dinner” whilst Paul Muldoon published “Maggott”.  Much to my surprise, “Oraclau” uses rhyme and does so in a perplexing way, the Jarvis poems rhyme (which is less surprising) whilst Muldoon is known, at least in my head, for flaunting his ability in this department.

At some stage during December, I came across an essay by Jarvis entitled “Why rhyme pleases” which some kind soul had uploaded to the AAAAARG site (which now contains an impressive collection of his criticism) and have now read it.

Since early adolescence I’ve been against rhyme for personal reasons and also because it seems to trivialise the materialise the material in bringing it too close to song.  Reading “Oraclau” has provoked a mixed response in me. The rhymes Hill uses are, for the most part, half rhymes functioning as a nod in the direction of ‘like sounds’ but not quite getting there. The overall theme is clear enough (Hill’s Welsh ancestry and most things Welsh) as is the structure (144 nine-line stanzas, some of which form longer (and titled) poems. The “voice” is clearly Hill’s and there is less God than usual but the rhymes don’t seem to work and in some cases operate against the sense of what’s being said (being Hill, this could be the point).

Jarvis uses rhyme in some parts of the defiantly metrical “The Unconditional” so it’s not surprising that the two subsequent and shorter poems should use it throughout. I’m less impressed with “Dinner” than I am with “Erlkonig” although they are meant to be related.  This may be due to insufficient attention on my part so I’ll read it a few more times before arriving at a view.

So, I decided that I needed to take rhyme a bit more seriously and then recalled a Muldoon Poem called “The Old Country” from ‘Horse Latitudes’ which I found impressive and read this again.  I wasn’t entirely clear why this particular poem should ‘work’ for me in a way that most rhyming verse doesn’t but the re-reading confirmed my initial reaction.

Simon Jarvis is a man on a mission, the UK’s major hardcore advocate of prosody in all its forms and someone who is clearly not afraid to reinforce his critical argument in his poetry. He also writes very well – even when he’s wrong. “Why rhyme pleases” operates on several levels, Jarvis starts with 18th century critics of rhyme – “Yet rhyme is also a toy, a bawble, a gewgaw, a trifle; it jingles, it tinkles, it rattles and babbles. In short, it is something of absolutely no importance whatever, which must therefore be destroyed without further delay, because it is so deeply evil”. The “deeply evil” aspect is attributed to the protestant view of rhyme as essentially papist. This is juxtaposed with an extended paraphrase of Viktor Zhirmunksy’s untranslated ‘Rhyme: its history and theory’ published in 1923 and described by Jarvis as the most important book on rhyme that has ever been written. Both Prynne and Zhirmunksy are cited as critics who view rhyme as something that either stimulates or cocoons- a view that Jarvis wishes to dispel. He sets out his stall by invoking Adorno in stating that

….technique is the way art thinks. The second is the argument that art thinks historically, and that what it knows, when it thinks well, is natural-historical experience. So called ‘form’ becomes in Adorno’s account a kind of inexplicit mimesis, a mimesis which is not of individual objects in the world, but of those features of natural-historical experience which are at once the most elusive and amongst the most important: of structural shifts in the texture of experience itself which are too painful, or too blissful, directly to be thematized. No art is about itself. So technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff.

I must confess that I have yet to read ‘Aesthetic Theory’ but my usual response to Adorno is one of unabiding scepticism. Nevertheless the idea that art uses its technique to ‘think’ is impressive- leaving aside the question of how something as abstract as art can be said to think at all and whether you really can have form as a ‘mimesis’ of ‘structural shifts in the texture of experience itself’.
Jarvis quotes Prynne’s ‘Ariestas, in Seven Years’ to make a point about the differing ways that rhyme might be identified. He then looks at the way rhymes by Wallace Stevens and Louis Aragon have been viewed by critics before looking at detail at a longish passage from Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ in which he equates Pope’s virtuosity with Barthes’ description of the seduction of the unknown reader.
For me rhyme only works when it doesn’t get in the way of the poem. I find that when I’m reading some poems that rhyme I tend to scan ahead looking for the rhyme words/sounds which is very distracting and reduces any pleasure I might get from the verse.
I’d now like to compare the use of rhyme in these three poets to indicate why rhyme is beginning to please me and also to point out my ongoing concerns about the Jarvis argument.
Here’s the first two stanzas from the ‘Hiraeth’ sequence in ‘Oraclau’:

119: Hiraeth (1)
I would do gratefully what others claim
They could not: relive my adolescence
If I were granted a special licence
To learn Welsh and love you. Great shame
I cannot speak or sing
This language of my late awakening
Nor ask you pardon, Beloved, nor bring
You, my bride into the feasting house
Of first desire, dazed by your wedding dress

120: Hiraeth (II)
Tell me, what is my sense of abiding.
Ah, love, are we to labour over these
Mechanic etymologies
Who encountered blank forbidding
Before we gave much thought
To language – touching was vivid sight
Our fingers talked, we were illiterate.
Abide does not hit home as does inure:
I who have swum in love words, shore to shore!

(In each stanza lines three and four should be indented by two characters and line five should be indented by six characters.)
I recognise that this requires a much fuller read than the one it’s about to get but I want to use it to demonstrate the problem that I have with rhyme. This centres around the last line of each stanza and whether or not ‘shore’ is an adequate rhyme for ‘inure’ and if allowing the ‘like’ sound to be a consonant is a case of having your cake and eating it. My first reaction to house/dress was that it didn’t rhyme and then (after reading Jarvis) I realised that the same consonant was being substituted quite frequently for the vowel so the last stanza in Hiraeth ends on whelped/scalped.
Because I tend to avoid rhyming verse, I don’t know if this is a long-standing technique with an illustrious pedigree or whether this is a Hill innovation. What I would like to point out is that the last line of the first stanza isn’t very good and the absence of a vowel rhyme makes it worse. Perhaps it’s just the unromantic part of me that thinks that being ‘dazed’ by a wedding dress isn’t very poetic and more than a little banal in this context. The absence of a vowel rhyme to my mind just brings more attention to the fact that the line lets down the rest of the stanza. I don’t think this is saved by the bride / desire rhyme half way along but perhaps others would disagree. Reading this aloud and trying different approaches seems to confirm the wrongness of the last line.
The second stanza is better in terms of what’s being expressed but in my head ‘shore’ is never going to rhyme with ‘inure’ even though the ‘re’ ending is identical. There’s also a midway rhyme going on with ‘home’ and ‘swum’ which almost works.
I do hope that regular readers will appreciate that I continue to hold Hill in high regard and the disappointment expressed here is due to a mixture of my own prejudices and some ongoing doubts about whether you can be too idiosyncratic for your own good. As ever with Hill, I’d far rather think about what is being said than the method of delivery.
We now come to Jarvis and ‘Dinner’ which rhymes throughout and is successful in carrying the reader along without drawing too much attention to the nature of the rhyme. Here’s two stanzas that exemplify this:

A disassembled personality:
a legal concept, whose recursive shape
will offer no intentionality
to be detected by lips or tape
but distributes its known reality
throughout its assets where they fold or gape:
a holding company, a nest of links.
Was this his inside? As he frowns, she thinks,

it hardly could be anyone’s, still less
that owner of the most persuasive grin
she had known twenty years ago, unless
instead of speaking, as she’d thought to win
no points but merely in a fine undress
the unforced force of wit’s adventures in
their very musculature, wit instead
ruled like an errant gene the vacant head?

This is both very clever and well put together and shows why we need to take Jarvis seriously as a poet and a critic. The points are being made in a complex and lateral way to add further layers to the portrait of a man consumed by scratchy disaffection whilst affecting to play the bourgeois game. The rhymes are precise, don’t feel forced and contribute to the strength of these two stanzas. I’m also beginning to see the point of using rhyme as an off-setting device as in ‘lips or tape’ and ‘fold or gape’. The only minor qualm is that if you’re using rhyme in the sense of similar vowel sounds then this intensifies the need for the rest of your word choice to fit and ‘musculature’ doesn’t – it draws attention to itself with the repeated vowel and the dearth of hard consonants but it isn’t strong enough as an image and simply indicates its own weakness when compared with the rest.
After four or five readings I still don’t like ‘Dinner’ but I find that I’m having productive arguments with it which is always a good thing.
I want to finish this rhyming trio with an excerpt from Muldoon’s ‘The Old Country’ which is successful because it manages to be technically accomplished and thematically astute without ramming either of these facts down the reader’s throat.
‘The Old Country’ consists of thirteen sections each or which runs into the next, the last line of a section forms the first line of the next. Each section has two four line and two three line stanzas and the rhyming scheme is uniform throughout. This is the seventh section:

Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle.
Every whitrack was a whitterick.
Everyone was in a right kerfuffle

when from his hob some hobbledehoy
would venture the whitterick was a curlew.
Every wall was a wall of Troy
and every hunt a hunt in a purlieu

of a demesne so out of bounds
every hound might have been a hellhound.
At every lane end stood a milk churn

whose every dent was a sign of indenture
to some pig wormer or cattle drencher.
Every point was a point of no return.

This works on a number of levels, the ‘Old Country’ of the title refers to Ulster and this is a clear exposition of Muldoon’s view of a number of complex threads pertaining to the place of his birth. Instead of drawing these out I’d like to concentrate on the rhymes and repetitions and what they bring to the poem as a whole.
The rhymes are clear and direct with the very minor exception of ‘bounds’ and ‘hellhound’ and repetition occurs on the second line of the first and third stanzas- as well as the repetition of the last line mentioned above. Normally this level of structure would annoy me to death but I get immersed in it because these devices are an important element in underpinning the strength of the message. I have yet to work out why this might be the case but I do know that it’s a poem that I re-read on a regular basis because of the pleasure to be had in this degree of accomplishment.
I’m aware that there is a view that Muldoon is too clever for his own good and that he has somehow squandered his talent. I can see that this might be accurate and I continue to dither about whether his work as a whole is any good but nevertheless feel that this may be one example of why this jingling gegaw can ‘please’.