Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gillian Beer on rhyme

I enjoyed Gillian Beer's article "The End of the Line" from The Guardian.

Beer uses the awful word "suggest" to make her claim; I would say that she "points out" that rhyme has two effects beyond helping us memorize: "rhyme makes experience from within the body and so can produce unreasoned intimacy; rhyme destabilises the hierarchies of sense and so lends itself to radicalism."

She goes on to argue that rhyme is "retrospective": "It is not until the second term appears, and it draws us back to what has gone before with a new thrill of connection. Thereafter it is janus-faced, leading the eye and particularly the ear forward to seek the chime, but with a ballast of sonorities generated in the poem's past. Rhyme makes memory within the poem. It practises recollection. It may also bring things back, uncannily changed."

Rhyme also serves to establish one of the basic facts of poetry: it functions "not as argument, but as experience - whether as fulfilment or entrapment - vouched for by the human ear."

But perhaps her finest point has to do with the "essentially destabilising" quality of rhyme, which she discusses near the end of her article: rhyme's arbitrariness, of course, but also its disregard for the niceties of language that are captured in the linguistic concept of "register."


Nicholas Manning said...

"Rhyme destabilises the hierarchies of sense and so lends itself to radicalism."

Hmmmm . . . Seems strange to me to associate rhyme with either radicalism or conservatism: I can think of poets representing both eponymous sects. Example: rhyme is perhaps very often "radical" (i.e. destabilising) in Wordsworth, Shakespeare even, but not really so in Thom Gunn or New Formalism. Perhaps a middle-way, but I would tend to think that rhyme "destabilises" or "stabilises" sensual or other hierarchies entirely depending on its usage.

Andrew Shields said...

I agree; now that you have drawn my attention to it, I find Beer's use of "radicalism" inappropriate here. The destablization part is the important part. Rhyme should both harmonize and destabilize (though not always at the same time).

Donald Brown said...

"Rhyme destabilises the hierarchies of sense and so lends itself to radicalism."

What overdetermined language! The awful ear of academic jargon attempts to discourse on the subtleties of rhyme, jeeze. "Rhyme destabilises ... and so lends itself to nonsense." Rhyme, to me, always veers toward sound over sense and so is inherently playful -- which is why children love it, and Dr. Seuss exploits it, so well. To say that rhyme is "radical" is one of those moves that tries to recover what has become "conservative" (i.e. form) and spin it the other way. The bit about the body in the quotation from Beer is similar; the entire passage strikes me as rather hamstrung by what Zappa would call "its conceptual continuity" (i.e., imposing a conceptual language on a technical practice).

Rhyme and radicalism? Yes, in Blake...

Andrew Shields said...

Again, I did not read the word "radicalism" in that sense, but simply in terms of the disruptive power of rhyme (as in the "anchor / wanker" example from Tony Harrison in Beer's article). But the potential for misreading the term is great, and Beer made a poor choice in using it.