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Helping Poetry Sing Again: Two books that inspire music in poetry

Rhyme’s Rooms: The architecture of poetry, by Brad Leithauser, Knopf, 2022

The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, by Ellen Bryant Voigt, Graywolf Press, 2009

“As a piece of music, a poem suffers the unshakeable burden of having to carry meaning. Though this meaning may well be conventional and predicatable…, it is hardly expendable.” —Brad Leithauser, from Rhyme’s Rooms

Over the years poetry has come to enthusiastically embrace its most common approach, known as “free verse.” Poets enjoy “free verse” because quite simply it frees them of old models of formal poetry which require them to follow rules. Honestly, who wants to follow rules? From day one in our lives we are pummeled with rules on how to do anything and everything “properly.” Poetry that conforms to rules can appear stale and confounding, unnecessarily obtuse and indirect.

Crafting something we could call “a poem” without the constraints of formal approaches was enormously freeing for the modern poet. This freedom led to an explosion of poets and poetry over the last half a century or more. And this is a wonderful thing! One has to ask, however, why these formalities were introduced in the first place, and from that we might understand what the writer loses by completely abandoning formality in poetry.

Haiku, a very seemingly simple form, as an example, has a set of rules most poets on occasion are willing to constrain to. We start a haiku with the western translation of the form with its 5-7-5 syllabic line structure, and learn that there are usually thematic elements relating to nature, and a turn somewhere in the three lines. Later, when we understand the nature of haiku a little better, we might free ourselves from the 5-7-5 structure, and embrace simply a short line, followed by a longer, line, followed by a shorter line. Japanese haiku, the argument for this goes, did not rely on syllabic counting, but the counting of emphases and pauses unknown in English.

One of the primary elements of poetry that distinguishes it from prose has always been a rhythmic pattern, which includes syllabic structures, and the ways we emphasize some syllables over others.

But there is something to be learned by the syllabic constraint. It forces the poet to pay much more attention to word choice. When a line count requires a two-syllable word and not the single syllable one we originally chose, we must engage more deeply in the craft of poetry. We ask ourselves how we can say the same thing differently and conform to the haiku requirements. Engaging the poem in this way, the poet will often find they come up with a better poem than they would have if it were “free.” Poets who attempt other formal structures will also experience this increased engagement with craft.

One of the primary elements of poetry that distinguishes it from prose has always been a rhythmic pattern, which includes syllabic structures, and the ways we emphasize some syllables over others. Narrative poetry from many hundreds of years back, separate from the novelistic prose that developed, relied on a pattern of beats and pauses. And before that, in ancient Greece, poetry was sung. Iambic pentameter in playwriting during Shakespearian times was a way to appeal to the ears of people in the audience and make sense of what was being said, and variations in speech patterns helped to determine dramatic character.

Free verse deemphasizes rhythm, but as Brad Leithauser reminds us in Rhyme’s Rooms: The architecture of poetry, the simple structuring of a poem into stanzas imposes a rhythmic pattern. “Even staunch free verse advocates, who shun rhyme and meter,” he writes, “are quick to break language into similar-size clusters of lines.” He mentions William Carlos Williams as a poet who rarely works in meter or rhyme but “adored the business of fashioning stanzas.” Enjambment, which Leithauser describes as a defining factor of free verse as opposed to prose, the means by which the poet (not the word processor) decides what happens in the right margin, introduces a rhythm to a poem. “Line breaks are a procedure for manipulating space,” he continues.

They create a frame—a frame of air—around the poem. This frame has a visual component, shaping and isolating the poem in the mind’s eye, but also a temporal element: It requests of the reader various curbs in the proceedings.

The syncopation created through enjambment Leithauser describes as “another way of bringing jazz into the poolroom.”

For poems to appear on a page they must have some kind of structure...

The creation of poetry, according to Leithauser and others, inherently involves rhythm. “The triumph of free verse in our time—much the dominant mode—,” concludes Leithauser, “illustrates the notion that it’s often easier to eliminate pattern than to replace it.” He relates this to “patterns of expectation” formed in childhood. For example, it’s hard to replace the patter and pattern of a nursery rhyme with a form as evocative (though meaningless) as, he uses the example, “Hey diddle diddle,/ The cat and the fiddle…”

The question for poets who refrain from following a prescribed form has been how to structure a poem in a way that brings content and form together. For poems to appear on a page they must have some kind of structure, which can range from simple poetic prose (which pays no attention to right margin management, but might incorporate extreme metaphor) to a complicated form from the past, such as a sestina.

In The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, Ellen Bryant Voigt engages the reader with these questions about how a poet arranges words in ways that both embrace the vernacular syntax, and also break free from it. Syntax is the way we organize words to make sense and it changes over time. While basic syntax of subject-verb-object has not changed since before Chaucer’s time, poetic flourishes of syntax make even Shakespeare, 200-300 years after Chaucer, a challenge to comprehend on first reading. Voigt presents us with “Sonnet 29,” which begins, “When, in disgrace with fortune in men’s eyes,/ I all alone beweep my outcast state.” She goes into great detail about the complex structuring and meter of this particular sonnet. Where Leithauser details the effects on the reader of various punctuation beyond the simple line breaks —

The question mark typically produces the greatest pause. It enjoins the reader to stop, to ponder, to formulate an answer. The ellipsis probably comes next, each of its three dots a miniature stop sign. The exclamation mark would follow; its breathlessness invites the reader to take a breath. After which would arrive the period, and then (in jumbled, shifting fashion) the semicolon, the dash, the colon, and the comma. Finally would appear the hyphen, which hardly slows the reader. Indeed, with its promise of completion just around the bend, it might even speed her along.

Voigt analyzes “Sonnet 29” and other poems, going over specific punctuation and how the application of it affects the rhythm and “song” of the poems. She even includes examples of free verse from poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Donald Justice and reveals how they are less “free” than they appear to be on first reading.

With all her in-depth analysis, Voigt admits that in some of these cases it’s unclear how the apparent structures present in a poem were intentional.

After detailed analysis of a poem, someone usually asks whether all that has been pointed to—or any of it, for that matter—was intended by the poet. The truthful answer seems weaselly: yes and no. It’s probably not often an authentic poem of “felt thought” emerges solely from a willfulness intent on all the effects I have identified, any more than studying your feet as they move will help you down the stairs. But the mirrors in the ballet studio have a purpose: neither a first-position plié nor a skillful iambic pentameter occurs spontaneously in the human animal.

Whether intentional or not, the effects on the human brain of a well crafted poem are clear.

Both of these books read together helped remind me of the importance of rhythm in poetry, whether formal or “free.” Line breaks do matter. Punctuation does matter. In a way, writing poetry is like creating an experience for the reader. Do we want the long pause of a question mark at the end of a line, or simply a comma, or none at all indicating no break in the rhythm? Yes, there are those poets who say they don’t write for the reader, but only to release the inner most thoughts that must come out. But most poets write to express something deeper and more meaningful than standard prose can communicate. They accomplish this task by paying close attention to syntax, careful word choice, rhyme, and rhythm, thereby evoking in the reader an understanding of something they might otherwise overlook.

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