Thursday, 3 March 2011

Writing Poetry

A friend quoted to me a remark of Emerson's on the difficulties of writing rhymed poetry. Emerson spoke of a poet who had thought up a "beautiful line" about stars, only to find he couldn't think of any good rhyme for "stars", with the result that his poem had to be abandoned.
I do not accept Emerson's difficulty in finding a rhyme for "stars" (see end), though his point is a fair one.Of course, the problem can always be avoided by writing "vers libre", with neither rhymes nor scansion (what one literary critic described to me as "prose that doesn't reach the right-hand margin"), but it is obvious that any clumsy, contrived or unsuitable rhyme kills a serious poem stone-dead: bathos is fatal. Even great poets are guilty of dreadful lapses at times. Consider the following from the first verse of Wordworth's "Simon Lee", about an aged man:-

"Of years he has upon his back
No doubt a burden weighty
He says he is three score and ten
But others say he's eighty"

This can hardly fail to raise a smile, and as a result the serious message of the poem, which is intended to evoke sympathy for the old man's difficulties, is irretrievably lost.

In writing comic verse, by contrast, the more improbable or contrived the rhymes, the better, since ridiculous rhymes can add greatly to the humorous effect. For Exhibit 2, here is the opening of "Lord Roehampton", by Hilaire Belloc:-

"During the late election, Lord
Roehampton strained a vocal chord
By shouting very loud and high
To lots and lots of people, why
The Budget, in his own opin-
-ion should not be allowed to win"

You can't get much more contrived than this, but as comic writing it is highly effective. Furthermore, the scansion is perfect and the poet is clearly in total command of his material: he has composed it al lquite deliberately.

One doesn't need to be a great poet to know the answer to Emerson's problem, which is simply this: if a line is going to end in a weak or contrived rhyme, then the weak line must be placed first, not second. We don't have to investigate major literary works to find that natural poets know this by instinct. Take the example of this anonymous Border Ballad from the 15th century, which tells of how Henry Percy of Northumberland (Shakespeare's Harry Hotspur) rides forth from his stronghold at Newcastle to challenge the Scots raiders under Earl Douglas:-

"But oh, how pale his lady looked
Frae off the castle wall
When down before the Scottish spears
She saw proud Percy fall"

The second line is actually rather weak, but you don't notice, because the verse builds up to a climax with the word "fall". If you recite it out, as would originally have been the case, then you can anticipate the final word coming, with sinister effect.

Take an example from pop music. There are few really striking rhymes for "bridge", but Chuck Berry had no problem coping with this in "Memphis Tennessee":-

"Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge,
Round a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge"

Nobody would pretend that this is great poetry, but think how feeble and contrived it would be if "ridge" had been used in the second line of the couplet rather than the first!

The use of proper nouns can be effective if they fit naturally and provide a suitable climax at the end of a line. As an example, here is the chorus of an old Scottish song about the whaling ships of the 19th century, operating out of ports like Peterhead and Dundee:-

"The wind is in the quarter, the engine's burning free,
There's not another whaler that saild out from Dundee
Can beat the old "Balaena"; she needs no trial runs,
And will challenge all, both great and small,
From Dundee to St. John's."

Here we have two rather weak rhymes, concealed by each being placed first, with two place-names used to provide a climax. ("St. John's" comes as a surprise: it was the port in Newfoundland where the whalers called in on their way up to the icy waters west of Greenland)

To finally illustrate the point, and refute Emerson's case of the lack of any really good rhyme for "stars", I offer the following two and a half line of impromptu, meaning nothing in particular:-

"..... and still she hears
In distant echo through her prison bars
Ancient eternal music of the stars"

"Bars" remains a weak rhyme for "stars", but its weakness has been concealed.

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