Robert Saxton, Poetry Website

Weak and Strong Rhyme / Crafting the Villanelle / The Inner Life of The Sonnet / Trees

All the following pieces were first published as ‘Close-Up’ articles in the Poetry Society’s Poetry News and are the copyright of the Poetry Society.

Weak and Strong Rhyme

A perfectionist approach to rhyme is difficult to sustain in English over any distance, or when you’re working with multiple rhyme, as in terza rima -- which rhymes aba bcb cdc etc. Yeats, choosing this form for ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, uses half-rhymes such as man/gone, head/blood, fall/still, shroud/afraid, can/slain. It’s a poem of mythic hallucination, and full rhymes would have made it less ghostly and dampened the impact of the ending, a startling transformation, clinched by the first full rhyme for thirteen lines:

They sang, but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before;

They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.

If you look back at my list of Yeats’s half-rhymes, you’ll see they differ in their degree of imperfection. Man is a long way from gone, but head is even further, I’d say, from blood. Shroud and afraid don’t seem so far apart because they’re a consonantal rhyme (r-d), and these are hard to come by, so we offer the pair our blessing, out of sympathy. Similarly, fall and still share two consonants, and can and slain have one vowel in common, if not quite a vowel sound.

Now let’s flash-forward to Larkin, who in ‘Sad Steps’, his mischievous yet melancholy take on Sidney’s sonnet ‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!’, also opts for triple rhyme. His rhymes are truer than Yeats’s, but he does something unexpected with them. Up to line 4 he conforms with terza rima: aba b … But then he follows lie (b) immediately with sky, whereas in terza rima you’d have a new rhyme; and his next rhyme word is this, which acts as a third a rhyme. In other words we get: aba bba … I wonder if Larkin judged his subversive first line -- ‘Groping back to bed after a piss’ -- to be so deliciously right that wild horses couldn’t have dragged it away from him? If so, what would his two consequent rhymes be? Well, the half-rhyming phrase ‘moon’s cleanliness’ works fine, bringing in a first hint of romanticism to counter the unblushing frankness. And ‘this’ is a workmanlike enjambment rhyme, but possibly Larkin couldn’t introduce it soon enough to sustain his original terza rima idea -- or perhaps he had planned something different all along. In any case, the poem turns out to be a variant of terza rima, with triple rhyme and three lines per stanza, but unorthodox in its positioning of rhymes. We ask ourselves, did the poet go to bed tipsy? -- that might also explain his over-the-top apostrophes: ‘O wolves of memory! Immensements!’ But, far from wobbling, he is in fact regular in his irregularity: aba bba cdc ddc etc is followed consistently to the end, by which time he’s shaken off any effects of alcohol and is able to come up with a moving reflection on ageing.

We have looked at the irregularities that prevent two rhyming poems from being too deadeningly polished -- too timidly or bureaucratically observant of the rulebook. To even the scales a little I’ll now offer five precepts about full rhyme (my examples of the first three are from another Larkin poem, ‘Vers de Societé’):

1) It’s effective to rhyme different parts of speech (craps/perhaps, swayed/afraid, alone/flown, repaid/blade);
2) Monosyllables work well with longer words (means/routines, church/research, remorse/course);
3) Adverbs offer good scope for rhyming (crudely/be, freely/company);
4) Pairing a syllable with a longer syllable that contains the first (as in rain and brain) is repetition, not rhyme;
5) It’s unattractive to pair a singular word (except one ending with an x) with a plural (that is, one made with an s) -- fox rhymes with locks but sing cannot rhyme with things, except in popular song under cover of music.

Finally, let’s relax by enjoying another rule-breaker, Thom Gunn, whose ‘My Sad Captains’, a poem I never tire of, brilliantly uses half-rhymes on weak enjambing words such as in and a but ends with a definitive (though still half-rhyming) resolution in the heavens, like a loveless version of the conclusion of Dante’s Paradiso:

True, they are not at rest yet,
but now they are indeed
apart, winnowed from failures,
they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.


Crafting the Villanelle – resonance and revision

Poets in our time have taken to the sestina more than the villanelle. This is unsurprising, not because the villanelle is technically tricky (so is the sestina), rather because the effort required might be deemed to yield questionable rewards. If the villanelle’s repetitions are musical, doesn’t that result in a lightness of content more suitable for the court than the poetry magazine? Possibly. But they can set up a music of sense as well as sound. And for any poet with a watchmaker temperament, who enjoys close tinkering to get the balances just so, the form offers exciting possibilities.

The rhyme scheme is aba aba aba aba aba abaa, with lines 1 and 3 alternately repeated (indicated in bold type). For the first end-word you need six rhymes, for the second, five, and you must be sure early on you’ll have enough rhymes available. (Tip: ‘-o/-ough’ and ‘-ite/-ight’ are exceptionally fertile). When Elizabeth Bishop uses ‘master’ and ‘disaster’ in ‘One Art’, she’s taking a risk: ‘faster’ and ‘vaster’ work well for her, but she knows she’ll probably have to drop in at a half-rhyme at some point; her ‘last or’ is a windfall. (Tip: list possible rhymes in advance, with an eye to the meanings they might release.)

How can the repetitions work with the sense of the poem? Well, they lend themselves to writing about processes (ageing, decay), recurrent experiences (emotions), or circumstances the poet has trouble accepting. One way to prevent them from becoming mechanical and deadening is to change the punctuation or a few of the words, or use some words differently. Marilyn Hacker in one villanelle has ‘separate’ at the end of one line as an intransitive verb, and in an echoing line as transitive, the object following. Tricksy variations like this can be an irritant in re-readings: I prefer the more holistic approach taken by Theodore Roethke in ‘The Waking’.

Roethke’s repeated lines -- indeed, most of his lines -- are saturated with resonance, stirring crosscurrents of ghost meanings and implications, which change with each repetition and each time you re-read. He works by a kind of semantic syncopation. This is how he begins:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

The first line suggests dying and savouring life while it lasts, but it’s the bed (morning and evening), not the grave, that impinges most. ‘I wake to sleep’ compresses time, so the rest of the line, in which time slows down, brings a contrast. Line 3 has good old-fashioned ambiguity: ‘ … by going where I have to go’/‘I learn … where I have to go.’ Roethke sustains multi-layered richness throughout. Textures become specific when they need to (‘The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair’), he has a modest variation in one of the repeats (‘And, lovely, learn by going where to go’), and there’s a beautiful line just before the final couplet: ‘What falls away is always. And is near.’ The ‘falls away’/‘always’ sound-play brings together the thing lost (eternity, life’s continuity) with its losing, making dying sound transcendental. ‘And is near’ harks back to an earlier line: ‘Of those so close beside me, which are you?’ (Surely he’s bed-bound? -- an interpretation supported by ‘shaking’ later; or could he be addressing one of his readers?) Always and near, time and space. Perhaps what falls away remains near? The poet faces a blessed annihilation: the last time we hear line 3 repeated, it’s the ‘going where I have to go’ we register. (Tip: resonate, syncopate.)

Bishop’s ‘One Art’, by contrast, captures the feel of speech within the form -- a challenge. She asserts the premise, ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master,’ with increasing strain as she considers the loss of objects, houses, places, and finally love. Her many drafts show her tirelessly pumping fresh life into residual spots of inertness. Rhymes get tested: she musters a list of losses, and lesser poets might have stopped there, but the revision is more alive: ‘the fluster/ of lost door keys, the hour badly spent’ (replacing ‘an hour’s good intent’). ‘Some realms I own’ suggests a more literal possession than ‘some realms of mine’, dampening the nuance of dominion. The over-decorative ‘eyes of the small wild aster’ gives way to ‘gesture’, a half-rhyme. The last line alters in almost every draft, with variants on ‘except for (Say it! Say it!) that disaster,’ until the more conflicted final version, ‘though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster,’ feelingly impromptu and beyond irony, hits the nerve. (Tip: have faith in the form, which will bestow transforming gifts as you work the poem to the limits of possibility.)


Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Anchor Books, New York 1975

Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, & Fragments, Carcanet, Manchester 2006

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1929-1979, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1984


The Inner Life of the Sonnet

How imaginative vitality can press thrillingly against formal structure

A good sonneteer can do some wonderful gardening within and around the formal trelliswork. Promising approaches include: thoughtful handling of rhyme; rhythms that break with iambic conformism; meanings that resonate beyond the explicit argument; particularity of milieu. Freshness of language also helps, and this may derive from modern or colloquial idiom – a radical example being Alan Jenkins’ ‘Murphy’s Law’, which quotes “graffiti from the Ark” in a pub lavatory: “Never mind the Sex Pistols, here’s the bollocks.” Who says a sonnet has to show anodyne timelessness?

The Petrarchan sonnet, rhyming abba abba cde cde, is made difficult in English bythe quadruple rhyme, and most poets today will opt for abba cddc instead – what’s lost is the ghost-like couplet bridging the two halves of the octave (aa), but that’s hardly indispensable. (Hybrids of Shakespearean and Petrarchan abound – especially abab cdcd efgefg. However, abba is, in my experience, more congenial to the poet than abab: you strive to get the couplet right, then work on the enclosing rhyme; whereas abab offers no clear sense of priorities.)

Writing about Robert Frost’s ‘Meeting and Parting’, which follows Petrarchan octave with Shakespearean sestet, Randall Jarrell said that the final couplet brought tears of delight to his eyes. A man and a woman, each walking alone, meet, talk and part – simply that. But the point is the very delicate sense of a changed future as they walk away again in opposite directions. Frost uses simple conversational idiom – in the first five lines only two of the forty-nine words are not monosyllables. The language flows freely, often across line-endings (enjambment). The volta (turn in the argument) occurs at the end of line 8, in the reference to the “parasol” with which the woman “pointed the decimal off”. These people are “less than two But more than one”, and it’s the woman who determines precisely where on this measure their relationship falls. Now let’s look at the couplet which so delighted Jarrell (me too):

Afterward I went past what you had passed

Before we met and you what I had passed.

To emphasize the equality of the pair, the likelihood that she is thinking about him as much as he is thinking about her, there’s no rhyme, only a repetition. And there’s a chiasmus, or inverted echo, turning upon “we”, the new reality: “”

This unusual spin on the Shakespearean couplet avoids an intrinsic pitfall: the rhyme that closes the sonnet too tightly, like an Augustan witticism. Concluding the couplet with a place-name (so there’s no semantic closure) is another way to dodge this trap. Auden does so chillingly in ‘Here war is simple like a monument’ (“Nanking; Dachau.”). Keats (though not within a couplet) mimicked the “wild surmise” of the conquistadors by a similar open-endedness: “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” More recently the place-name strategy is found in Carol Ann Duffy’s justly celebrated ‘Prayer’. Her milieu is a Midlands town, with a Larkinesque sadness about it – think Bleaney. The poem is highly structured – different sounds described in series, the parallelism of “Some days, although we…”/ “Some nights, although we…”, and the clear progressive logic, “So…then…then.” But across these fixities the poem flows freely, enjambing even more than the Frost. And within this order, too, the language is unruly with imaginative vitality. For example, the woman in the first quatrain lifts her head from “the sieve of her hands”, and alongside the allusion to housework we wonder what her sieve might have been filtering. In “minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift”, minims feels just right for birds, perhaps because it’s a bit like pipits. Here’s the ending:

Then dusk, and someone calls

a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

A great deal is going on here. Someone calling their child may be redolent of loss if the child turns out to be missing. Here the grief surely comes from the sense of exclusion in the listener, but the lost child registers as a possibility (this is a place of danger, like stormy seas). A lonely person might well take consolation from the shipping forecast – but in one sense what the programme is doing is bringing the “darkness” inside. The degree to which the forecast is a prayer, rather than a warning, is close to the central issue of the poem: the way in which faith is intuited as a possibility even by those who seem unable to experience it. Finally, consider the brilliance of this ending in relation to the overall form. “Prayer” repeats the rhyme-word in line 1, so that lines 1 to 13 form an overarching enclosure, from which the shipping forecast in the last line is excluded. The disembodied radio voice comes very much from outside the milieu of the poem – and from outside its structure. The implications of all this are inexhaustible.

The poems analysed or mentioned here all appear in The Oxford Book of Sonnets, edited by John Fuller, OUP, 2000.


Trees in Poetry

Poetry News Close-Up’ feature, Summer 2011

The ocean is a sprawling archetype of the unconscious – although poems on that subject often turn out to be meditations on light, immensity or depth. With a tree, however, you can have a one-to-one relationship. Imagine a ghost that is more robustly physical than the self it replicates. Such are trees, enacting our vulnerabilities as surrogates. In another way they resemble cartoon characters: you can inflict more damage on them than humans usually endure, yet they feel no pain.

Even a language-surfing deconstructivist like John Ashbery has felt their ancient pull. In his ‘Some Trees’ they arrange, like a psychic magnet, the scattered filings of a couple’s cluelessness. Finding that a stand of joined-up trees (separate trunks pushed up from the same root system) provides a waymark for their disorientated selves, the poet and his companion, Ashbery realises, are ‘what the trees try / To tell us we are.’ The message is: ‘We may touch, love, explain.’ Uncertainties soon reassert themselves in the poem, but for a time this thoroughly reasonable three-step programme for getting on with life is a beacon as clearly visible through the modernist mist as the trees themselves.

If, by contrast, Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ slips so effortlessly into our mind, that’s in part because it subtly dodges its own meaning. The concluding refrain leaves us thoughtless in a grove, listening to the swaying castlesof the tree canopies lyrically asserting their annual resurgence: ‘Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’ Winding back the logic of the poem, however, we find a deeper, more troubling idea. The truth is, trees are just as mortal as humans; and if the something that is ‘almost being said’ by the buds contradicts this, then undoubtedly they are deluded – as we are when we speak of fresh starts, believing that nothing has been lost. The poem subverts a metaphor of hope with a stealthy desperation.

Whereas Larkin’s is a classic nature poem, ostensibly about trees and nothing else, Paul Muldoon’s ‘Wind and Tree’ crashes through the frontier between subjective self and analogous nature, wreaking deliberate havoc. The starting point is branches swaying wildly in the wind, but the membrane between nature and humanity proves unstable, for the trees are behaving like lovers, one taking ‘Another in her arms’ and ‘grinding’ – with attrition rather than ‘fire’ (passion). Note the gender, her arms: the poet (still in his early 20s) is expressing anxieties about girls, which he could still resolve by avoidance. This is how the poem ends:

Often I think I should be like
The single tree, going nowhere,
Since my own arm could not and
would not
Break the other. Yet by my broken bones
I tell new weather.

Here, leaving trees behind, Muldoon wrenches himself into the realm of his own damage. However, the broken bones (real to start with, then finessed into metaphor) bring uncomfortable clairvoyance (of the storms that a relationship may involve?) rather than pointless suffering.

Trees in a lover’s torment also feature, less self-revealingly, in Don Paterson’s ‘Two Trees’, the first poem in Rain. Paterson tells a story that begins in the manner of a South American novelist, or maybe Louis de Berniéres: ‘One morning, Don Miguel got out of bed / With one idea rooted in his head: / To graft his orange to his lemon tree.’ The fusion bears fruit eventually, giving a double crop from intertwined boughs. Then a new owner takes an axe to the trees and replants them yards apart. The plain language of parable has us casting around for significance – especially when the trees’ initial unresponsiveness is attributed to shame or fright. Yet the lack of an obvious human parallel (at a stretch, a forced marriage that matures into love might qualify) encourages us to focus our sympathies on the trees. Everything about them that moves us is conveyed within Paterson’s insistence, building up to the last couplet, that ‘They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout. / And trees are all this poem is about.’ For example, each tree is conjured straining (or not straining, but the idea of straining has been implanted) ‘on its shackled root to face / The other’s empty, intricate embrace’ – which is brilliantly vivid in the way it equates branches and arms, with a faint echo of Muldoon, probably accidental.

Rooted in earth yet reaching to the heavens, the tree, like the lotus in Eastern symbology, is an image of our divided nature, but it’s the earthy side that most poets find inspiring. In ‘The Tree House’ Kathleen Jamie introduces us to a real tree, or at least one that’s realistically presented: an axis and viewpoint of a particular life in a particular place. The details are off-beat and slightly mystifying, for the poet is talking to a friend (or just possibly her partner), about other lives they might have led, and as eavesdroppers on a private conversation we have only pointers to work with. We assume that the person climbing the tree at the beginning is the poet as a child (‘Here I was unseeable’), but in the third stanza she morphs into being a mother, using the tree house as a retreat from family pressures. Perhaps making other life choices would still have brought them to this settlement ‘hitched tight beside the river’, where she and her friend (or partner) have knocked together of planks and packing chests

a dwelling of sorts; a gall
we’ve asked the tree to carry
of its own dead, and every spring
to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall.

This is an eloquent example of tree surrogacy, the burden of our ‘difficult / chthonic anchorage in the applesweetened earth’ visited upon the tree house, no doubt to prevent us from feeling sorry for ourselves.

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