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Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon: An Extended Letter for the Print Magazine which I’ll Just Post Here
Until I read A.E. Stallings’ recent piece on rhyme for the print magazine – a future-classic-of-poetics-masquerading-as-mock-manifesto? – I was living, unbeknownst to me, a slightly complacent life. I now realize I was prepared to let the American songwriter Jimmy Webb enjoy the last word on a tired rhyme – moon/June/spoon – a rhyme I assumed had long since seized up, succumbed to rigor mortis. Webb, a savvy lyricist, takes up the rhyme in his song “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon” – performed by The Three Degrees in the The French Connection – which assures the listener that, yes, “it’s customary in songs like this to use a word like spoon.” And it is customary. And yet it doesn’t matter. Self-reflexivity saves Webb’s song – is, indeed, the song’s whole gimmick.
But wait: even though I appreciate Webb’s solution to the problem of using a tired rhyme, the problem is only a problem if you believe that tired rhymes exist. Here’s A.E. Stallings, a regular around these parts, putting a brilliant torch to the straw man of the tired rhyme:
“There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.”
I can’t imagine what these “great poems ahead” look like – if I could I would write them – but Stallings’ (to my mind) counterintuitive point lightens the mind (my mind) considerably. And by “lightens the mind” I mean heaves overboard some of the clutter a mind accumulates, clutter that cancels the helium and drags a poet down. And by “clutter” I mean the unofficial rules and no-nos a mind can collect, ruling rhymes like love/of off-limits. A few years ago, Helen Vendler’s review of Elizabeth Bishop’s unpublished scraps gave me pause – or, rather, pressed pause on the production of a poem of mine. I had been working on a villanelle that used the rhyme love/of, among others. But then I read Vendler on Bishop’s sonnet “Washington as a Surveyor”:
“[I]ts tired end-words include ‘love,’ ‘of,’ ‘move,’ and ‘enough,’ and the rhymes, except for ‘enough’ and ‘unlined,’ are all monosyllabic (the easiest kind for a novice to make).”
Shit, I thought, looking at my villanelle and its monosyllabic rhymes. (But no more of that pessimism! suggests Stallings’ piece.)
Perhaps, though, this point about tired rhyme – that it doesn’t exist – can be extended to the straw man of tired language in general. Perhaps there are no tired words or tired phrases, only tired poets, poets who don’t have the energy to pinch a cliché’s nose and breathe some life into it, who don’t have the breath to give in the first place, the courage to confront an apparent dead-end and stride into it. (Kay Ryan, for one, has called herself a rehabilitator of cliches.) Everybody gets to go to the moon, or, at least, gets to use whichever moony words and rhymes they wish, as long as the use of such words and rhymes isn’t predictable. There are no dead-ends in language, only vanishing points. A cliché is just a corpse you haven’t yet resuscitated.