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A Case For Elastic Rhyme by J. Chester Johnson
Let me propose an additional instrument to the array we poets already enjoy at our disposal when we put our poems together. I call it “elastic rhyme,” and I’ve been using it here and there for years. Simply put, elastic rhyme, which is especially suited for prose-leaning styles that characterize much current poetry, supplies a flexible order for the writing of verse; while rhyme occurs systematically, the point at which it actually occurs varies – thus, the term, elastic rhyme. Rhyme can be magic – frequently, subtle magic – that beguiles readers and listeners even today and seduced their forebears from the time poetry enticed early devotees and an audience around a fire to be word-comforted. So, I’d certainly not suggest a terminal scuttling of rhyme, but I would espouse an emendation to soften overtness of hard rhyme – mitigating, if not removing, monotonous,singsongy instances that can repel poets and readers or listeners alike. Rhyme in elastic rhyme will normally strike, but not always, between alternate lines. One can choose from a vast assemblage of applications – use of measured feet (i.e., pentameter, trimeter, etc.), blank verse, free verse – in combination with elastic rhyme. For example, a poet may assign a certain number of words per line – with variation, if preferred, per line throughout the poem even to that number – depending on the tautness desired, and then select any one of the first few words in every other line to rhyme with any one of the last few words in each succeeding line. The approach could be modified to substitute a syllabic scheme for the word system, just described. At present, some verse continues to rely on rhyming techniques at the end of lines, utilizing sonnet, sestina, terza rima, or other style arrangements. Elastic rhyme can break the line ending adherence and foster more diversity in rhyme composition. In much earlier verse, poets often found the use of shorter lines more effective, but, over time, extended lines were enlisted; elastic rhyme builds on this liberalization without rejecting order or rhyme altogether. Steadfast fidelity to tight and repetitive elements in poetic form is a scary regimen for most of us – we’ve learned to be dutifully chary of devotion to such methods, for they become more than a bit boring to the poet, and, even more to the point, they contribute to disinterest, if not to downright agitation, by the audience in the midst of oppressive monotony. For generations, poets supported, by their practice, the thesis that lines of verse are joined, solidified or emphasized at the moment rhyme is finalized. In responding to one of my longer poems, which employs elastic rhyme, the poet, Molly Peacock, made a separate and quite discriminating observation when she concluded that elastic rhyme can actually serve the purpose of “stretching and contracting language.” She thus underscores the benefit that by adjusting rhyme completion away from traditional placement, the poet can, through elastic rhyme, actually stretch and contract signal moments of verse.
Posted Oct 12, 2012 at
The Best American Poetry
Return of The Epic by J. Chester Johnson
We should not suppose this return connotes a literary topography akin to PARADISE LOST, BHAGAVAD GITA of the MAHABHARATA, or THE ILIAD. Of course, we don’t think of ourselves as poets engaged in preserving, in verse, traditional epic contests with warrior battles, supernal interventions, or topical armageddon between conspicuous forces of good and evil. Rather, a more modern epic form of poetic relevance establishes a consequential context for the events explored and also reflects the values of the particular time and place. There are recent longer poems or collected series of poems that capture the values of an age, which values often oppose each other within the poem, and do so through an unusual telling of remarkable, singular events. Examples that immediately come to mind are C. D. Wright’s ONE WITH OTHERS and Cornelius Eady’s BRUTAL IMAGINATION. Wright wrote this book-length poem about the way a mentor and others conducted themselves in the midst of civil rights events, more particularly, the 1969 March Against Fear (from West Memphis, AR to Little Rock, AR). In the work, we learn much about complicity without redemption and courage with redemption. Previously in ONE BIG SELF, Wright relied on a similar approach (accompanied by photographs – applied, in an adjacent style, by James Agee and Walker Evans for LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN) to communicate life in the Louisiana prison system. With a different structure, Eady employed a long cycle of related poems that discover and explain the environment in which a white mind invokes an imagined black man to cover up a murder; the cycle conveys, among other things, the perspective as shown through the eyes of that fictitious black man whom Susan Smith tried to blame for the killing of her two sons in South Carolina. Both of these longer works qualify as epic pieces, not simply for the length of each, but also for the considerable examination into the complex and extensive worlds that produced the events on which these poets relied. It would be incorrect, however, to surmise that Eady and Wright are working alone in this new epic verse mode. Several other American poets have claimed it in their own discrete styles. Kindred examples include: Nicole Cooley in BREACH, which examines in a cycle of numerous poems the immediate effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans (Cooley’s hometown) and the concomitant aftermath; and Van Brock’s UNSPEAKABLE STRANGERS, a book-length set of poems “about and related to the Holocaust, its causes, and the persistence of its causes and effects” – in the words of Brock. Some poets, on the other hand, alter the epic mode through intriguing and surprising methods to produce a unique slant. Kimiko Hahn in TOXIC FLORA probes science (actually, articles on science that appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES) as the underlying universe for a long set of inter-connected poems. At the same time, Davis McCombs chooses in ULTIMA THULE the interiors of a network of caves, located in south central Kentucky, to extrapolate into...
Posted Oct 11, 2012 at
The Best American Poetry
The Double Life For Poets by J. Chester Johnson
Is there reason to be especially concerned should, for economic or other reasons, the number of available teaching jobs in creative writing be increasingly inadequate to accommodate new MFA graduates with a concentration in poetry? Let me suggest this outcome will not be an entirely dire circumstance for the future state of poetry or for the poetic future of those most affected, when we take a retrospective look at the output and careers of poets who have lived the double life – that is, those who wrote verse at the same time they held down non-poetry occupations. The double life has served many poets quite well. Emily Dickinson helped maintain the Dickinson household in Amherst and did the baking for the family. Walt Whitman wrote copy and editorial commentary for newspapers; he and C. P. Cavafy worked as government employees. There was William Carlos Williams, who practiced medicine, and, for eight years, T. S. Eliot chose to be a banker. Marianne Moore and Edna St. Vincent Millay were employed in various, unrelated positions while still writing. Pablo Neruda, a diplomat and politician; Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, farmers. I’m judging that young poets do not need to get hung up on teaching as the narrow means open to them for a successful poetry career. Indeed, Wallace Stevens felt strongly the lessons he learned in business – he ran the surety claims department for the Hartford Insurance Company – improved his verse. When offered a poetry chair at Harvard, he turned it down in favor of the double life. Is the Wallace Stevens precedent counterintuitive? I think not, and not because he didn’t care deeply about the part of his life that dealt with poetry. No, there is a more subtle reason. Most serious poets write poems for those surprises through which verse should always lead. Why would it therefore be confusing that someone who constantly traveled someplace unusual through the venue of his verse could also behold the other side of his double life being both surprising and inviting as well? After all, we do not merely leave who we are on the page; rather, we bring who we are to the page. It’s often not a freedom of choice to adopt a double life, for many poets must accept that path before a career break or an accumulation of breaks occurs. Today, there are known poets who have, along the way, been an accountant, a biologist, an administrator, a musician; in fact, there are still others, including this author, who permanently choose a double life. If this course seems necessary or opportune, I offer a few guidelines. First, let your poetic side help you select a non-poetic job. You can’t go home at night with verse on the agenda and be befuddled or burdened by an unhealthy and severe day at work. Second, pick a job that will not wear you out physically. Have energy remaining to respond affirmatively to the siren call of your verse. Third, make sure...
Posted Oct 10, 2012 at
The Best American Poetry
Writing Verse About 9/11 by J. Chester Johnson
On the afternoon of September 10th, 2011, seven poets participated in a reading, held for the 10th commemoration of 9/11 and sponsored by Poets House, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Trinity Wall Street. The reading, convened in the cavernous sanctuary of Trinity Church at Wall and Broadway, two blocks south of Ground Zero, attracted approximately 300 persons. Poems of grief, remembrance and reconciliation were presented by the poets. During their readings that day, both Cornelius Eady and Mark Doty referred to difficulties they each had faced in writing about the 9/11 experience. I believe the obstacles they confronted in writing about the event spoke for many poets, who had dealt with similar demons in the aftermath of 9/11. The impediments are patent. Instinctively, we know words cannot and do not supplant reality; words, even if crafted well, can only make damnable reality more understandable. Subtlety is, as a matter of course, the mother’s milk of a poet’s craft; and those immediate and uncorrectable 9/11 experiences of inescapability, unconditioned desperation, palpable incomprehension, and uncompromising exposure, whether one were actually present that day in downtown New York City or not, simply countervail and explode a poet’s natural field of responsive behavior. The veins and nerves are torn. One cannot be subtle in the face of impossible violence and destruction, which immediately rip away at words attempting to make meaning out of meaninglessness. The events were too much with and part of us – words could not compete with the visions and imaginings we all had of both Ground Zero and those whose partial remains created the indescribable personality of the Pit, the Pile. The most notable verse to surface on the subject of 9/11 came from the marvelous poet, Galway Kinnell, whose poem, “When The Towers Fell,” was published in September, 2002 by THE NEW YORKER. The verse put the events elegantly, evocatively and soberly in a context of something larger than the moment and its specific characteristics; rather, the poem put 9/11 seriatim in a long line of indiscriminate horror and violence that have too often proven to be humanity’s bedfellows over millennia. We seven poets ended the program with a reciting of the poem – each of us taking a part of “When The Towers Fell.” Reading this work alone or together with other poets, I could not help but recall Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” and Whitman’s Civil War poetry. My own poetic attempts fell principally to a piece, albeit an important piece, of the 9/11 story. St. Paul’s Chapel, located within yards of the North Tower site, served as the 24/7 relief center – a respite of peace and refuge – for the recovery workers, who toiled in the savage Pit during the nine-month, clean-up phase. I volunteered part-time there, sometimes during a day, but mostly overnight on a weekend. This experience translated into a poem I wrote, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” which has been, for the last ten years, the memento card for the approximately 30,000 visitors who come...
Posted Oct 9, 2012 at
The Best American Poetry
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