Rhyme's Reason

I have to try, again, to teach my students to scan poetry tomorrow. I am terrible at it and love it and want to get it right, so I’ve been working on a worksheet (horrible word), which leads me back to one of my most precious books, John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason. I discovered it thanks to high school friends, each a poet’s son, and I bought it as a sixteen-year-old and read it over and over again, trying to lay down the tracks of those rhythms in my head. I don’t write poetry anymore except satiric occasional verse (for a friend’s 40th, my nephew’s 3rd birthdays), but the book has a special spot on my shelf and is the only book I own that is always in a special book jacket (some lovely Hmong embroidery, another high school gift). Hollander remains an intellectual hero after all these years I am still dazzled by him and this.

To Keats’s call, How many bards gild the lapses of time, Hollander answers Read this as dactyls and then it will rhyme.

It’s probably, sad to say, my favorite couplet in English. Tonight, I read this with fresh delight:

“A book” is an iamb; so is “the book”; but what we write as “the book” (and pronounced as something like “thee book”) promotes the unstressed syllable, in emphatic contrast, to something having more of the power of “this book” or “that book.” Thus we might, iambically,

Observe the whore outside the store.

But if we mean to single out the allegorical figure of Revelation 17 then she may become trochaic, when

Babylon we mean here—
the whore
(Not some hooker by the seashore).
(Hollander 10)

The word whore, faintly embarrassing, quaint, and ordinary, is terrific. The Joycean range—from streetscape to Bible, from whore on the wharf, a temptress of Stephen Dedalus, we move straight to Revelation. I have some hope that my students may remember their prosody a bit better starting tomorrow.