Saturday, 21 February 2009
Rhymes Against Humanity
In contemporary page poetry, rhyme occupies an uncertain position in the technique hierarchy. If you're a performance poet, it's pretty much indispensible.
That's not to say that every poem you write need be in pat, metrically-tight couplets, but even if you're delivering a prosey monologue, if you want it to flow satisfyingly you'll need to be aware of internal rhymes and half-rhymes. I think this is one of the reasons I enjoy performance poetry a lot more than page poetry - there's a greater appreciation of rhyme in performance poetry, and, as a writer, you've got far more latitude when it comes to using both subtle rhymes and big, audacious, multisyllabic hip-hop style rhymes.
But when it comes to choosing rhymes, performance poets tread a narrow and oftentimes smudgy line. On the one hand, there's little point in trotting out the hackneyed usual suspects like night/light, love/above, heart/fart, but on the other, one man's witty, original feminine rhyme is another's 'what the fuck that is the shittiest piece of poetry ever'. Elaborate, unusual rhymes can be like farts - you enjoy your own, and wrinkle your nose at other people's.
I still feel rather pleased with some of the rhymes from one of my oldest poems, Cameo Hundesser: Style Consultant To The Wicked, particularly incognito/Hirohito, virtuoso/oh-so, and trifle/rifle/stifle, but it's precisely this sort of palpable smugness at one's own ingenuity that puts people off tricksy techniques in the first place. It's really hard to pull off a decent run of feminine rhymes or a big multisyllabic couplet without jettisoning most of your content in service of the form - your poem ends up as Macbeth's 'tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.' Of course, if you're going for sound and fury, or trying to tell an idiotic tale, then dense rhyme patterns may be exactly what the physician prescribed. They can help you impress an audience with scattergun lyrical showboating, emphatically hammer home a broad emotion like anger, or make people laugh with goofily convoluted sentences.
Context is key. Take this example from John Cooper Clarke's Psycle Sluts:
on a bsa with two bald tires
you drove a million miles
you cut your hair with rusty pliers
and you suffer with the pillion piles
Admittedly, the metre looks a bit fudgey on the page (that's why it's a performance piece - it needs JCC as an intermediary) but, for my money, that triple rhyme of 'million miles' and 'pillion piles' is a classic. It combines an elaborate, original rhyme (where both phrases are alliterative) with a funny, specific image, and doesn't require any 'dead' lines to set it up or finish it off.
The great thing about using rhymes is that they often force you to discard your first and second choices for a next line, and present a totally different set of words for your perusal. Your brain is then left to work out how one of those words might logically fit into the story you're trying to tell - often the result is a progression of surprising, entertaining images that keep the audience on their toes.
However, if you're not going for humour, feminine rhymes can be perilous. This couplet, from John Clare's Song: 'She Tied Up Her Few Things', is borderline, for me:
'Twas Michaelmas Season;
They'd got corn and peas in
It's not just the ever-so-slightly forced feel of 'peas in' that makes this, for me, unintentionally funny - I think it's also the disconnect between the 'high' tone of 'twas Michaelmas' and the mundanity of 'corn and peas'. For some reason, it reminds me of Florence Page Jacques' poem There Once Was A Puffin, which has some lovely, intentionally funny feminine rhymes:
But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn't play nothin',
For he hadn't anybody
To play with at all.
So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.
Since we're on the subject of bad rhymes and tragic birds, I might as well crowbar in an extract from a poem by John Skelton called Philip Sparrow. The dexterous wordsmith Paul McJoyce first alerted me to this lament over a sparrow killed by a cat. It's written in a form known as Skeltonic Verse, which uses short, irregular lines and multiple rhymes. In many ways, Skelton's sixteenth century work prefigures contemporary hip-hop rhyme patterns, which - as Paul McJoyce pointed out - is rather appropriate for someone who hailed from Diss. However, before we get too carried away with hailing him as a visionary, it's worth noting that John Skelton is fucking awful. Here's an excerpt from Philip Sparrow, where the narrator shares fond memories of the pet bird:
Sometime he would gasp
When he saw a wasp;
A fly or a gnat,
He would fly at that;
And prettily he would pant
When he saw an ant.
Lord, how he would pry
After the butterfly!
Lord, how he would hop
After the gressop!
And when I said, ‘Phip, Phip!’
Then he would leap and skip,
And take me by the lip.
Alas, it will me slo
That Philip is gone me fro!
But for all his inadequacies as a tragedian, there's something to be said for John Skelton's line in scabrous barbs. Take his pithily-titled How the Doughty Duke of Albany like a Coward Knight ran away shamefully with an Hundred Thousand Tratling Scots and Fainthearted Frenchmen, beside the Water of Tweed. What he lacks in nuance, he makes up for in gusto:
We shall break thy bones
And hang you upon poles
And burn you all to coals,
With twit, Scot, twit, Scot, twit.
Walk, Scot, go beg a bit
Skelton's godawful rhymes matter less when his tone is one of crowing triumphalism - it's almost as if the very crapness of the rhyme serves to rub in his contempt, like back in 2001 when Derby County fans used to sing: 'We've got Fabrizio / You've got fuck all-io' to this tune.
But when it comes to truly miserable rhymes, one man takes the crown... then attempts to rhyme it with 'gone'.
Here's the opening couplet from Andrew Motion's bitingly satiritical 2005 piece, Regime Change:
Advancing down the road from Nineveh
Death paused a while and said 'Now listen here.
I mean, sweet creeping Jesus. The man's just life support for an anus. He's so criminally poor that criticising him feels akin to strapping on a pair of steel toecapped boots and kicking an aged, disease-ridden shirehorse to death - i.e. necessary and satisfying. People talk about abolishing the laureateship after his disasterous tenure, but I fear even abolishing the monarchy won't be enough to contain the infection. Let's nuke Great Britain from space - it's the only way to be sure.