Thursday, May 12, 2005

Pleasures of Rhythm, Chapter 2

Back to La Vendler (Poems, Poets, Poetry, chapter 3) on pleasures, specifically, the pleasures of rhythm!

"The first and most elementary pleasure in all poetry is rhythm," sayeth the Preacher. Hmmm... Is that right? It may be--that is, when my 6 year old recites poetry, whatever its form, her voice invariably stylizes what she's saying in order to draw out its rhythms, regular or not. Molly Peacock says somewhere that the line in poetry is like a frame placed around a set of words so that you can actually listen to them, attending to their sounds, although she includes assonance, consonance, rhyme in that close listening. When we listen, we start to notice little repetitions, and those repetitions--whether small scale and local, like the liilting, almost Irish four-syllable TUM ti-ti TUM that marks the start of the Howe I posted yesterday ("we that were wood / when that a wide wood was"), or large scale and pervasive, like an actual meter--give a certain immediate pleasure. We can then begin to connect them to thematic issues or literary history or local meanings which they "act out," and thus get a certain gratification from them, too.

Maybe Vendler should have said that the first and most elementary pleasure in all poetry is sound, and then moved on to focus on rhythm as part of that broader category? That would jibe with Zukofsky's claim that the test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection, and with my own sense that the poet's first duty is to get the thing to sound right. If it doesn't, it ain't likely to please--or to be much of a poem--but if it does, you can get away with just about anything! I think here of poems like Auden's "This Lunar Beauty," which dance away from paraphrasable meaning but sound so good I go back to them, over and over again, or of this one, by Alice Notley, the title poem from her wonderful book Margaret & Dusty, which I've doted on for years for its rhythm's sake:
Margaret and Dusty

Margaret wrote a letter
sealed it with her finger
put it in her pocket
for the Dusty Baker

Dusty was his hat
Dusty was his moustache
Dusty was Margaret's pocket
They both got all dusty

If I had a flower
If I had a trinket of gold
& silver & lapis
If I had a medal & a trophy
& a fullup sticker album
I'd rather be all dusty
Like those two friends of mine.
Just listen to how this poem shifts rhythmic gears from the innocent jump-rope rhythms of the first stanza into the sexy Western legato of "They both got all [pause] dusty," and from there into the pre-adolescent gush of that last stanza. There we have some of the more complex pleasures (or are they "gratifications"?) of rhythm in action. Sounds good to me.


Norman Finkelstein said...

Eric, you are aware, are you not, that the Notley poem you quote is based on a nursery rhyme? It ends something like this:

If I had my pockets
Filled with gold and siller [sic]
I would trade it all
For the dusty miller

E. M. Selinger said...

Oops! Um, no, actually, I didn't know that. Is it a Mother Goose rhyme? (Yes, sir, I'll go look it up.)