Wednesday, November 17, 2010

`Write What You Like'

If a poem doesn’t rhyme it’s not necessarily a bad one but the poet has to work harder to make it a good one. An unrhymed poem must compensate by drawing on other resources – of language and music, thought and emotion – if it's not to fade into mere prose, and probably not very good prose. Without rhyme and the other creative restraints of form, the poet is tempted to say something, to make a point at the expense of making a poem. Like every other work of art, each poem must prove itself to each reader, and by doing so prove it’s a poem.

The presence of “manifesto” in its title virtually guarantees I won’t read something, whether or not it’s modified by “Communist,” but I’ve made an exception for “Presto Manifesto!” by the American poet A.E. Stallings. She demolishes the notion that rhyme inherently hobbles “creativity.” In fact, she makes you wonder why a poet would choose not to rhyme. Here’s a witty and common-sensical sample:

“There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.”

Apropos of poets “making a point,” Stallings says tersely:

“Rhyme frees the poet from what he wants to say.”

Consider “Turtle” (Flamingo Watching, 1994) by Kay Ryan, one of the best, subtlest and funniest rhymers around:

“Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she's often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.”

“Graceless” and “places.” “Slope” and “hopes.” “Lottery” and “pottery.” “Wings” and “things.” Ryan’s poems are sound-tapestries, and rhyme is only the most obvious of her threads. As Stallings says: “There are no forbidden rhymes.”

In another essay, “Crooked Roads Without Improvement: Some Thoughts on Formal Verse,” Stallings defends what she calls “artifice,” which she convincingly argues makes art “effective and direct,” hardly news to Jonson, Pope and Cunningham. She refers to “…another little adage of mine, which is, don’t write what you know (I think this is better suited for prose writers) [sometimes], write what you like, the sort of stuff you actually enjoy reading, fashionable or not.”

This too seems like common sense, doubly unexpected coming from a poet. Why do writers choose to write according to a blueprint that inevitably results in dreariness? They can’t possibly enjoy reading (or writing) the stuff. Stallings speculates on the worship of tedium:

“Why, by the way, is the sense of pleasure in the arts so little valued by our intellectuals? Sure, it is easy to poke fun at the (perhaps disingenuous) `I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.’ But how much sadder the phrase, `I know volumes about art, but I don’t know what I like.’ Any criticism not based, at some level, on `This work pleases me because . . .’ or `I find this work distasteful on account of . . .’ should be viewed with suspicion. It is of no practical value, and possibly dishonest.”

No comments: