Rhyme’s Crimes

/ /

Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry
by Brad Leithauser
(Knopf, 2022, 368 pp., $30/hardcover)

Initially associated with the New Formalists of the 1980s, Brad Leithauser has enjoyed a prolific career writing in genres other than poetry. As novelist, scholar, anthologist, and critic, he has authored or edited over a dozen books, the most recent of which is The Promise of Elsewhere (2019): a tragi-comic novel that follows the exploits of a midwestern art-historian who embarks on a quest to see the world’s finest architectural achievements before he succumbs to blindness. Leithauser’s range reflects a dizzying eclecticism; his extra-literary interests include international law, chess, Norse myth, strip mining, tennis, and the occult. This catholic sensibility manifests itself in Leithauser’s writing through a formal restlessness that continues to galvanize his poetry and prose. Perhaps his most versatile book is Darlington’s Fall (2002), a compelling novel-in-verse, which presents forty years in the life of an early twentieth-century naturalist. Leithauser renders this life in variously rhyming dizains of loose iambic pentameter. So loose, in fact, that an abundance of variations (“his HEART | like a | MOUSE-trap | WAIT-ing”) causes one to question whether regular meter is the poem’s exception or its rule.

For his work in all genres, Leithauser has amassed a stockpile of awards and accolades ranging from a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship (1983) to membership in Iceland’s Order of the Falcon (2005). Yet Leithauser keeps edging into new territory: serving on the board of The Common, publishing two collections of light verse (2004, 2007), editing The Norton Book of Ghost Stories (1994). Like many writers of his generation, Leithauser has also worked as a professor, holding such coveted positions as the Emily Dickinson Senior Lectureship in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke College, a post he shared with his former wife (fellow New Formalist Mary Jo Salter) and, most recently, Chair of the MA program in The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.

One wonders what’s left to do. After forty years of workhorse productivity, Leithauser has published his first field guide to poetry. It’s a tricky genre, a kind of how-to manual not for specialists (the poet, the teacher, the critic), but aimed, as Leithauser notes in his foreword, at “the reader who loves words and literature but maybe feels some trepidation, and a little nervous resentment, as well as various unvoiced cravings, on confronting a poem on a page.” Leithauser intends to alleviate this anxiety by offering “a modest dose of medicine” to those who might not always appreciate poetry for what it does, how it functions, why it means. Though one puzzles at how “modest” a three-hundred-and-seventy-page tome on prosody might be, the author’s commitment to craft and his depth of knowledge about literary history sustain the most vigorous guzzle or timorous sip.

Perhaps “tome” is hyperbolic. After all, the most well-received, recently published examples of this genre still in print average about two-hundred-and-seventy pages. Yet briefer titles like The Poet’s Companion (1997) by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux or Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999) feel more cluttered and diffuse. Stephanie Burt’s Don’t Read Poetry (2019) consists of two-hundred-and-eighty-four pages of commentary vaguely organized around fuzzy abstractions such as “Feelings,” “Wisdom,” and “Community.” At two-hundred-and-thirty pages, Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry (2017) cuts the slenderest figure. But Zapruder’s book seems too reliant on oddball observations and idiosyncratic tastes to capture the broad audience Leithauser seeks. Several passages of Why Poetry, for example, discuss the enigmatic practice of “conceptual rhyme” (end-words linked through thought rather than sound), as if it were standard operating procedure to consider as rhyme pairs the words “tart” and “blackberry” or “foot” and “sock.” Perhaps the bigger problem, though, is that Zapruder, in his typically rambling stichic free-verse poems, can’t actually pull off this sort of trick—in a way that a far more formally protean poet like A. E. Stallings can.

Though Leithauser’s subtopics range from poetry’s “essential radicalism” (a chapter about empathy) to rhythmical expression in the Cole Porter songbook, Rhyme’s Rooms remains remarkably focused on the auditory pleasures of poetry. Written during an age in which most practitioners perceive meter and rhyme as at best quaintly old-fashioned and at worst politically repressive (“Nowadays,” Zapruder folksily condescends, “there’s no way to rhyme in poetry and not sound a bit out of time”), Leithauser takes several opportunities to fire prosodic counteroffensives against those legions of contemporaries limited—by fashion, ignorance, or inadequacy—to churning out unrhymed (and unmusical) free-verse. Leithauser claims that “the heart of my book” is “the marriage of meter and rhyme.” If this marriage forms his project’s heart, its spleen is the deprecation of meter and rhyme among contemporary writers.

To this end, Rhyme’s Rooms excels at turning the caustic apothegm and biting gibe. A personal favorite occurs in the chapter on the terminology of versification (“Defining and Redefining”). Disparaging what happens when poets “observe a message so pressing that they needn’t worry about the music,” Leithauser quips: “And the message of most message poems, often undetected by the author himself, is This is not a poem.” Unlike many free-verse poets extruded from the meatgrinder of common practice, Leithauser understands that poetry makes its most fundamental and powerful impressions through music, not ideas—and that this music involves, more often than not, meter and rhyme. Leithauser shares Housman’s conviction that “Poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it.” With Rhyme’s Rooms, Leithauser serves as the reader’s Virgilian guide through this way.

In terms of aesthetic convictions, Rhyme’s Rooms more closely aligns with poetry craft books that pursue rather than eschew prosodic proficiency. Such titles occupy a niche within a niche. A shortlist of the best titles for a generalized reader would include Timothy Steele’s All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing (1999), Mary Kinsey’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry (2013), and Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Ear (2013), the latter of which introduces immensely useful definitions of six types of free verse. The prosodic intermediate would benefit from adding Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures (1990), James McAuley’s Versification (1996), and Robert B. Shaw’s Blank Verse (2007). The specialist would hasten to recommend John Thompson’s The Founding of English Metre (1989), George T. Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (1991), and Robert Wallace’s posthumously published The Orbit of Meter (2023).

While Rhyme’s Rooms offers delights for all three, the beginner and intermediate would profit most from this book. For these readers, Rhymes Rooms provides practical advice on how to develop and deepen one’s enjoyment of formal verse—an essential stop on the apprentice’s long slog toward mastery. Leithauser’s early chapter on “Poetic Architecture,” for example, rehashes the idea that poetic structures share an affinity with physiological functions and actions such as breathing and walking, heartbeats and sex. Though the specialist might yawn especially at the hackneyed cardiac association masquerading as a raison d’etre (an iamb goes “lub-DUB”), Leithauser refreshes this figure by cranking up his diction. Arguing that while one enjoys from time to time a quickening of the pulse, Leithauser reminds us that too much irregularity can be disastrous: “That’s called fibrillation or tachycardia, and we recoil from it.” In the same chapter, Leithauser also posits a precise, mathematical explanation for the necessary structural imbalance found in some English-language forms ranging from ballad stanzas to Miltonic sonnets (“You might say that what the golden mean is to architecture, the 4:3 ratio is to our poetry”) while also dispelling another commonly misapplied analogy: “the music of poetry diverges significantly from the music of music.” Such aphorisms throb throughout Rhyme’s Rooms as regularly as the chirps of an EKG.

Several useful passages for beginners and intermediates can be found in the book’s five chapters about meter and three about rhyme. The most engaging of these pertains to “Rhyme and Rhyme Decay.” In addition to reviewing the basics (off rhyme, rhyme riche, feminine rhyme), this chapter also elucidates rhyme’s fragility, the way the rightness of a rhyme can diminish across borders. To illustrate, Leithauser cites the later, American Auden disparaging the earlier, British Auden for his rhyming of “saw” with “corridor”: a paring that any Yorkshireman would hear but that most Yanks would miss. Another species of rhyme decay happens with the passage of time. Did the words “shall” and “fall,” or “have” and “grave,” which modern readers hear as slant rhymes, actually constitute true rhymes when William Habington first paired them in his otherwise true-rhyming poem “Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam” (1634)? The answer, Leithauser laments, has been lost through four centuries of shifting speech sounds.

Even for the specialist, Rhyme’s Rooms bursts with local pleasures. Leithauser delivers the most delicious of these in the form of metaphors—all amusing, many brilliant—that refigure familiar aspects of poetry in novel ways. In the chapter “The Prosodic Contract,” a term Leithauser coined in a 1987 New Criterion article to describe the relationship between formal poet and reader, Leithauser responds to Louis Simpson’s subsequent derision of the phrase as reducing poetry to the language of a “predictable and sound investment.” (Simpson loved his sonic puns.) Leithauser must’ve had in mind John Hollander’s term “metrical contract” (1965), as he must’ve considered in homage Hollander’s seminal Rhyme’s Reason (1981) when titling Rhyme’s Rooms. At any rate, Leithauser reminds us—and a posthumous Simpson—that the modern poet, unlike most artists, doesn’t even have the opportunity to “sell-out”; even the apprentice’s mother knows there’s no money in poetry. Leithauser continues:

In fact, the bartering between poet and reader is less like something taking place at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange than what goes on in a weekend singles bar. Money isn’t the chief mode or object of commerce; it’s affection, a hunger for love, or something approximating love.

Though a term like “commerce” might cause one to compare the feud between Leithauser and Simpson with Pound’s grudging “truce” with Whitman (“A Pact”), Leithauser’s extended metaphor illustrates the complicated interchange between writer and reader by correlating this “contract” with an act of half-drunken seduction. “My place or yours?” the poet asks. The reader has the choice to eye-roll or grab their coat.

The flip side of this impulse for novel comparisons, however, is that such figures can become belabored. Though Leithauser’s style remains primarily concise, he tends to risk redundancy with unnecessary elaboration. This habit might stem from his desire to reach the enthusiastic non-expert; by attempting to dazzle the reader with the flashiest lure, Leithauser can scare them away or blind them with bling. Such passages, essentially, explain the joke. When describing poetic expectations, for example, Leithauser discusses the poet’s responsibility to the reader as being similar to that of the writer/reader of genre fiction; poetry, like a Raymond Chandler detective mystery, also has conventions:

The author of a vampire novel promises bloodstained pages. A Western will set the reader on horseback. A technothriller will click and clank with dazzling gadgetry, chapter after chapter. The concluding pages of a Harlequin Romance will not find the heroine in bed with a malodourous and unshaven buffoon. . . .

Though the initial idea effectively shakes Poesy down from its lofty height, Leithauser’s catalogue starts to feel like one of those overlong passages of haywire anaphora in Leaves of Grass. One wishes that Leithauser would have a little more faith in even his most novice reader who, presumably, can follow how A relates to B without needing the further elucidation of X, Y, Z.

A similar flaw in Rhyme’s Rooms pertains to the most protracted metaphor in the book. From the first chapter, Leithauser introduces the Funesians: a fictional Andean tribe unremarkable in every way except that they are “the finest readers of poetry in the world.” Though Leithauser never states this explicitly, the Funesians might be considered inhabitants of some made-up land of Fune (from the Latin funis for “rope”). The Funesians serve as a kind of Platonic anti-ideal, a foil against poetic pedantry. Leithauser derives this tribal name from Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” (1942), a short story about a Uruguayan boy suddenly possessed with total recall after being thrown by a horse. Within the world of Rhyme’s Rooms, these superhuman readers “notice everything” about a poem, a talent that reveals even the most sensitive non-Funesian to be a hack by comparison. If we recall that “metaphor” stems from the Greek metapherein (to transfer), Leithauser’s Funesians (rope people) become a metaphor for metaphor itself.

Initially, Leithauser’s conceit works with a funicular’s precarious efficiency, allowing the author to point out some of poetry’s formal devices so esoteric, so quiet, that only a Funesian would notice. The first example concerns Dylan Thomas’s late poem “Prologue” (1952). This poem consists of two stanzas of fifty-one lines each that employ a kind of unfurling, mirror-image rhyme. This slippery scheme pairs lines fifty-one and fifty-two, fifty and fifty-three, forty-nine and fifty-four—all the way down the second stanza and up the first until the last and first lines “rhyme” with the same word (“now”). As Leithauser explains, only Funesians, with their bat-like ears, would notice such a diluted, muted design. This is why, Leithauser argues, rhymes in English are more often “proximate.” Otherwise, we readers with our insufficient lug-holes would never hear such faint effects; the chime of rhyme, in such instances, hardly seems the point.

Around the middle of Rhyme’s Rooms, however, Leithauser’s conceit begins to wobble, become strained, like a chore he’d begun and felt duty-bound to finish. This makes for occasional dull moments, simply because the reader starts anticipating each Funesian reference. When speculating about reasons for “the hegemony of the irrepressible iamb” (Lewis Turco noted in the 1970s that roughly three-quarters of all English-language poetry is blank verse), one almost hears Leithauser sarcastically urging Wait for it. . . . Then, Leithauser delivers: “But eleven-word lines (and, still more so, nineteen-word lines) are something that we—unlike the Funesians—can’t easily digest.” These latter Funesian appearances are less like cameos than weekend guests who’ve overstayed. Such lapses, though, are minor, and increasingly rare.

Leithauser is particularly good when discussing the advantages, challenges, and limitations of rhyme. After an uproarious derision of “Poet Voice” (that whimpering intonation that many contemporary poets affect when reading their work aloud), Leithauser asks a penetrating question: “How closely does or should poetry live to workaday speech?” In spite of any democratic, Wordsworthian commitment to using “the real language of men,” poetry’s relationship to speech is only approximate. In diction, syntax, tone, and formal arrangement, poetry utilizes spoken language, but it does so in a uniquely artificial way, never forgetting the “art” in “artifice.” How strange it would be to hear a man saying to another man, “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” Similarly, Leithauser explores the perils and benefits of rhyme: that most ostentatious of poetry’s beautiful contrivances. He dons his craftsman’s cap when he admits, “Any indiscriminate blending of petals and medals, pedals and metals strikes me as irresponsible and sloppy.” A sympathetic reader can only wonder, wistfully, what American poetry would sound like if more poets bothered to make such distinctions.

In the final chapter of Rhyme’s Rooms, Leithauser states conclusively what “the primary goal” of reading ought to be: “Our task is to connect meaningfully with lives as remote as possible from our own.” The author qualifies “remote” with a tripartite configuration: geography (“Buenos Aires or the Japanese Alps”), identity (differences in “gender or race or religion”) and, most fundamental to Leithauser, time (“crossing temporal thresholds”). Literature in general, and poetry in particular, urges us not only to undertake such border crossings but to acknowledge that these boundaries might not be as stable or imposing as they appear.

Throughout Rhyme’s Rooms, Leithauser’s job as pathfinder is to facilitate this experience for a reader who has not been formally trained to read poems across cultures, civilizations, and centuries. From his initial advice to “Slow down,” to his final affirmation that poetry challenges us to become better than we are, Leithauser leads us through the delights of this craft or sullen art and helps us navigate its formal intricacies, proving in the process that poetry “is our purest call to what is purest within us.” Rhyme’s Rooms tunes readers’ ears to heed this call.