“Rhyme, along with other intelligible repetitions of sounds, is often the symptom or indication that the poem is quickening.”
—Susan Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom
Modernist poetry especially in America places a high value, perhaps the supreme value, on originality. Influenced by the highly expressive visual arts of early and mid-century, some poets began to see the page as a field or canvas. The poems become gorgeous, full-blooded stallions and mares, the poets, mounted cavalry. Here’s an example by the wonderful A.R. Ammons in a poem called “Play.”
Nothing’s going to become of anyone
therefore: it’s okay
the grave accommodates
swell rambunctiousness &
compromised by magnificence:
that cut-off point
liberates us to the
common disaster: so
pick a perch—
apple branch for example in bloom—
drill imagination right through necessity:
it’s all right:
it’s been taken care of:
is allowed, considering
The repetitions of rhyme and meter would be utterly lost here, trampled underfoot. In our foray into formal work, we are the foot soldiers. There could be no contest between cavalry and foot soldiers! We may cringe at stale rhymes, the rhymes of old greeting cards, but still find freshness—originality!– in subtleties of rhyme and meter; we delight in half rhymes, slant rhymes, rhymes by consonant or vowel or end syllable, internal and end rhymes. We notice our poems come alive in voice and speech, our sound sensitivities awake (and visa versa). We delight, too, in exploring the nuances and flexibilities of various forms and meters.
At any rate, this is my experience. In 2011, I published in the Evansville Review a small poem called “Billy Gawain” that had these final lines:
He had no kin, so he was buried
with our own, the only name he bore
the name we gave him and had chiseled
on his headstone at the spring solstice:
“Bill Gawain, A Stranger to Us.”
It was a turning point in my struggle to find an authentic voice and tell my story. Working in rhyme and meter, I got down from my horse and walked. I have only the rhythms, muscular power, and skeletal awareness of my own body to carry me in and through the poem-making. In the best circumstances, I’m flexible, subtle, delft; my creative motions are small, but precise and well-aimed. In the best circumstances, I give long thought to my approach, and to the means I will use to slay the foes– incoherence or silence or miscomprehension– that threaten to besiege me. For these proceedings must begin with foe. We are not about sauntering into the back garden and idly strolling back and forth; we are tense, posed, alert. There is a question, a challenge, a danger. That is why we marshal pen and paper, notebook and pencil, keyboard and mind.
We ‘ll begin with trimeter poems, and 4-34-3 ballad measures. Further on, you’ll find some examples from my library, though I’m sure you have your own. Mine are poems written mostly in 3-beat lines by Philip Larkin, James Merrill, and W.B. Yeats. These poems give us possibilities for composing your own three-beat or ballad quatrain poems. Each possibility varies by rhyme scheme and my stanza length and variation in line. But the poems also vary in terms of what they seek to accomplish, whether lyric expression or story-telling narrative.
First, compare Ammons’ “Play” with another poem about a child’s toy, “Tops,” by Philip Larkin. Notice the restraint and reserve in the measured lines, formed into 6 quatrains, rhymed abab, cdcd, etcetera, until the final stanza, rhymed abba, in an embracing line that gives closure. The line length is unusual for Larkin, who most often wrote in a much longer line; this may explain why he chose not to break the stanzas into quatrains. Perhaps, too, he was thinking of the visual effect created by the long, skinny poem, suggesting perhaps a spinning top.
By Philip Larkin
Tops heel and yaw,
Sent newly spinning:
Squirm round the floor
At the beginning,
Then draw gravely up
Like candle-flames, till
They are soundless, asleep,
Moving, yet still.
So they run on,
Until, with a falter,
A flicker—soon gone—
Their pace starts to alter:
As if hopelessly tired
They wobble, and then
The poise we admired
Reels, clatters and sprawls,
–And what most appals
Is that tiny first shiver,
That stumble, whereby
We know beyond doubt
They have almost run out
And are starting to die.
I appreciate the skill of Larkin’s rhymes, which seem to flow effortlessly, partly from his dexterity with syntax. As an example, the second sentence in the poem reads this way as prose, and skillfully so! —
“So they run on, until, with a falter, a flicker—soon gone—their pace starts to alter: Heeling again, as if hopelessly tired they wobble, and then the poise we admired reels, clatters and sprawls, pathetically over.”
Notice, too, that though the ostensible subject is a child’s toy, the lines are stately. The trimeter is, after all, half a hexameter, the meter of epics and memorial poems, and some of that quality lingers:
Tops heel and yaw, sent newly spinning:
Squirm round the floor at the beginning,
Then draw gravely up like candle-flames, till
They are soundless, asleep, moving, yet still.
Larkin uses the line skillfully to tell a story, the life-line of the top, as it were. But the line can also be used to express lyric content, of course, as we can see in “Paul Valery: Palme” a poem by Valery translated by James Merrill. The first two stanzas of Merrill’s poem are below. The poem uses an unusual, inventive rhyme scheme. As you can see, each 10-line stanza is essentially two quatrains with a couplet embedded in the middle. The first quatrain rhymes abab, followed by a couplet, cc, followed by a second quatrain rhymed cddc. The latter rhyme scheme is sometimes called an embrace, as if the ‘c’ endings were embracing the dd couplet. Couplets are said to compel the reader to follow them, more insistently than an abab rhyme. (Maybe that explains why some readers and some poets don’t care for them!)
Paul Valery: Palme
Veiling, barely, his dread
Beauty and its blaze,
An angle sets warm bread
And cool milk at my place.
His eyelids make the sign
Of prayer; I lower mine,
Words interleaving vision:
–Calm, calm, be ever calm!
Feel the whole weight a palm
Bears upright in profusion.
However its boughs yield
Beneath abundance, it
Is formally fulfilled
In bondage to thick fruit,
Wonder and see it grow!
One fiber, vibrant, slow,
Cleaving the hour fanwise,
Becomes a golden rule
To tell apart earth’s pull
From heaven’s gravities.
Merrill, too, mostly wrote in a longer line. W.B. Yeats, in contrast, often wrote in the three-beat in; as Helen Vendler has taught us, he was perhaps the first English language poet to explore the possibilities of this line for story-telling and lyric, and in his hands it became a more versatile, flexible form than ever before.
In “The Wild Swans at Coole,” in the stunning first stanza, he adds two rhyming 4-3 lines (a couplet) to the usual four-line, 4-3-4-3 ballad quatrain.
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
This famous stanza beings rhyming abab, so we are draw into it without pressure; there’s an enjambment between the third line and the fourth, and the final two lines, which Vendler finds “soothing” (such a good word!) rhyme as a couplet and so close the scene. I like to compare Yeats’ inventive ballad with an anonymous ballad from around Shakespeare’s time, one that Harold Bloom is fond of discussing. Here’s just the first stanza—well, two quatrains 4-3-4-3, rhyming abab, plus a refrain:
Tom o’Bedlam’s Song (opening stanza)
From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
The spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons defend ye,
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken
Nor wander from yourselves, with Tom,
Abroad to beg your bacon.
While I do sing “Any food, any feeding
Feeding, drink or clothing?”
Come dame or maid, be not afraid:
Poor Tom will injure nothing.
After almost 30 years of working with “his enormous tenacity and his unremitting inventiveness” (Vendler), Yeats wrote “Easter 1916,” his great poem of the Irish uprising in the Time of Troubles. Below are the first two stanzas. Vendler calls the poem a ballad, the only ballad of Yeats to become a part of the popular imagination in Ireland (though Yeats had hoped for more of his poems to by “sung” by the people there); but it is not in traditional ballad form. Vendler asks us to listen for the “missing” foot that brings a slight pause to the end of each successive line. I would like to look at these stanzas to appreciate the sheer detail and variety of narrative information in the second stanza, as well as extra-human revery of the third stanza and the searching philosophical reasoning in the final stanza. Not to mention the power of the refrain, “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wing`ed horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part,
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDongah and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Anyone who has read the news and reflected on the heroism or insanity of acts of ultimate sacrifice in the name of an ideal we may not—cannot—share, will be moved, must be moved, by “Easter 1916”.
None of the poems here, with the exception of Tom o’Bedlam’s ballad, uses the traditional quatrain form, or a traditional ballad form. These are just some possibilities for a three beat or a 4-3-4-3 ballad line, devising our own stanza and rhyme schemes within those beat patterns. I haven’t discussed rhyming here. If you don’t have a rhyming dictionary—Oxford U. Press has a good one—you can find a serviceable on-line dictionary of rhymes.
You may be wondering why no relevant work by our contemporaries, work published in any number of literary journals, is included here. Our contemporaries may distract us from our true goals by inserting a powerful, sometimes irresistible intermediate goal, that of shining–even out-shining!–our peers. In this way we can be lead—I would say “mislead”—into being poets and creating poems simply for the sake of Being Poets and enacting that ideal. A more worthy goal, and our own hearts’ desire, is to bring meaning into our lives and the lives of our readers, and to illuminate a small corner of the human condition and predicament.