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Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon: An Extended Letter for the Print Magazine which I’ll Just Post Here

By Jason Guriel

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 A few years ago, Helen Vendler’s review of Elizabeth Bishop’s unpublished scraps gave me pause – or, rather, pressed pause on the production of a poem of mine.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.

Comments (27)

  • On March 12, 2009 at 10:52 am Bobby wrote:

    >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.
    Well, okay, but what does that mean for your lament about “the lack of game-changing metaphors” in John Poch’s book (and “most of the collections which smart, well-meaning editors, even now, are FedExing to their rosters of reviewers”) this month in the print magazine?
    I’m hoping it means you’ve changed your mind. I didn’t like that lament when you first made it: I love a good surprising metaphor or rhyme as much as anyone, but to use the lack of such to condemn a poem or a book seems a pretty lazy form of criticism. (I felt the same about your habit of judging a book, ah-hem, by it’s cover–or at least by the blurbs shouting out from the cover.) If what you’re suggesting now is that we ought to judge poems as poems and not as collections of candidates for Bartlett’s, then yes, by all means, let’s. But isn’t that what we ought to have been doing all along?
    And I know that Kay Ryan thinks she’s terribly clever in her rehabilitation efforts, but isn’t turning a cliché on its head a pretty basic skill for a serious writer? So basic, in fact, that it can very easily become formulaic–as I’d say it does in Ryan’s work–and thus a kind of second-order cliché?

  • On March 12, 2009 at 10:57 am Bobby wrote:

    And before Michael Robbins gets to me: for “it’s” in that second parenthesis read “its”–Bolivian keyboards have an odd habit of inserting inappropriate apostrophes.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 11:30 am Jason Guriel wrote:

    Bobby, thanks for your comments. But if you continue my quote, one sentence more, you will find: “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.” The key word is “predictable” and I found Poch’s use of language occasionally “predictable”. But I thought one of his metaphors, quoted in my original review, brilliant. So I haven’t changed my mind. If poems don’t use language in an unpredictable way I don’t want to read them. And I think “turning a cliche on its head” is harder than it looks, even for serious writers.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 11:46 am Michael Theune wrote:

    >And I know that Kay Ryan thinks she’s terribly clever in her rehabilitation efforts, but isn’t turning a cliché on its head a pretty basic skill for a serious writer? So basic, in fact, that it can very easily become formulaic–as I’d say it does in Ryan’s work–and thus a kind of second-order cliché?
    Turning a cliche on it’s head certainly is a basic skill for a serious writer, Bobby–but I’m not so sure that I’d call all such overturnings second-order cliches. Some pretty great, inventive poems try to overturn cliches, including John Davies’s “Some blaze the precious beauties of their loves…,” Whitman’s “Death’s Valley,” Staceyann Chin’s “I Don’t Want to Slam,” Zbigniew Herbert’s “I Would Like to Describe,” and even Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” (If you want links to many of these poems, go to http://structureandsurprise.wordpress.com and click on “The Cliche-and-Critique Structure.”) Rather than a first or second-order undertaking, the critique of cliches is a tool for, a method, an approach to poem-making–it certainly can be used to make formulaic work, but it also can be used powerfully, movingly.
    Mike

  • On March 12, 2009 at 12:14 pm Michael Theune wrote:

    I also wrote “it’s” where I intended “its”–the Bolivian keyboard virus is spreading!

  • On March 12, 2009 at 12:40 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Jason,
    I loved Stallings’ manifesto.
    As for Vendler,
    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).”
    All I can say is this:
    Rhyme has a moral dimension.
    The dour do not like it. The dogmatic would police it.
    As music, the Blues is far narrower than if there were a poetry that only rhymed with moon–and the Blues delights us not a whit less for that reason.
    The Vendlers of the world, never having vied with Down In The Valley on a xylophone, much less Mozart on a violin, object to music as a puritan would, with principled vigor—and utter ignorance.
    Thomas

  • On March 12, 2009 at 1:31 pm Bobby wrote:

    >”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.”
    Sorry, but I don’t understand why this is supposed to be clarifying.
    Vendler’s beef against a predictable rhyme like “love/of” is that it’s, well, predictable. We read “of” in the first line of a villanelle and we get—surprise!—”love” in line three. No amount of genius is going to make that rhyme pair (qua rhyme pair) unpredictable, but you and I and Stallings like to imagine that there are cases in which it might lend itself to a larger surprise generated by the context of the line or the poem.
    Nor would I quarrel with this, which doesn’t quite capture my own feelings but comes close enough:
    > “If poems don’t use language in an unpredictable way I don’t want to read them.”
    What I object to is the way your review narrowly construes “us[ing] language in an unpredictable way” with the generation of game-changing metaphors–a standard that shows in your reviews of Mead and Powell as well, albeit with slight variations. (As when you contrast whatever Mead’s doing with the “specific, vivid images” of Ormsby.) The world of contemporary poetry is just too various for this kind of criterion to be much use.
    Call it a difference of taste if you like, but I don’t think that lets you off the hook, especially if you’re going to criticize, as you did, “most” of the books of poetry being published today. In a completely different context, Wyatt Mason wrote recently:

    I would submit that these categoricals, and the kinds of reviewers who hold such proscriptive aesthetic points of view, are diminishing: some kinds of narrowness are narrowing.

    Let the negative review flourish, by all means, but let’s put it in the service of broadening our aesthetic sensitivity, not restricting it. Your post here moves significantly in that direction, which is why I was happily surprised by it; I’d think it sad if this were just a momentary lapse.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 1:45 pm Bobby wrote:

    Michael, sure: given I just wrote, I absolutely wouldn’t want to say (and didn’t) that clichés can’t be turned to impressive effect. They are all the time. My completely banal point is that it’s not just language but also poetic moves that can become formulaic–predictable–which is demonstrated fairly well by the fact that that you can name them as neatly as you do on your blog. Like Jason, I want poems to surprise me; it’s been a long time since one of Kay Ryan’s has.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 3:30 pm Michael Theune wrote:

    Thanks for the clarifications, Bobby! Yes, agreed: indeed, we largely learn poems’ forms, shapes, patterns, structures, tendencies, tics, so that we might better avoid the formulaic, and (so)create surprise.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 4:50 pm Paul Squires wrote:

    It seems to me there is a gradual acknowledgement that the way forward for contemporary poetry is a return to a more overt musicality. The best thing about that is that you can fake it. Either you can hear the music in language or you can’t. Of course, this will be accompanied by the sneerings of the intelligensia and accusations of populism.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 4:51 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Bobby, if you perceive a shift in my thinking, and are “happily surprised” by it, then I’m glad. The perceived shift may just be a momentary lapse, though. Still, I appreciate your comments.
    Thomas, I love Stallings’ manifesto, too, which was the main reason for the post. And Vendler’s words did not have too lasting an impact, though I never did finish the villanelle; but I remain a sucker for rhyme, even the monosyllabic kind, though I know some poets who are quite wary of it.
    I’m curious what others think about Stallings’ manifesto….

  • On March 12, 2009 at 6:23 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    maybe it’s Stallings’ manifesto that’s occasioned me to publish a selection of my rhymed poems, a book
    which can be downloaded (in pdf) for free——
    see “The Trespass and Other End-Rhymed Poems / A Selection from 1968-2008″
    at:
    http://stores.lulu.com/store.php?fAcctID=2254674
    ….

  • On March 12, 2009 at 11:31 pm J Diego Frey wrote:

    Three cheers for Stallings, and two points about the issue of cliched or “tired” rhymes:
    2. As to rehabilitating cliches: whatever else, Americans love a comeback story. You can’t go wrong with a good comeback story. I think maybe the only people who love this more are the Brits.
    1. Sometimes a poet finds himself needing to rhyme on a word that has very few rhyming analogues. “Heaven” is a good example. (Don’t laugh–there’s no reason why a good poem can’t be written about heaven.) I think that the poet that starts with the moon and flies past it on a spoon and pulls me effectively and enthusiastically along–that’s a good poet.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 11:35 pm Tyrone Williams wrote:

    Never thought I’d see one of my songwriting heroes–Jimmy Webb–show up on this site. Thanks Jason!
    Tyrone
    p.s.–the definitive version of the song is Thelma Houston’s on her underappreciated debut, Sunshower.

  • On March 13, 2009 at 8:00 am thomas brady wrote:

    Jason,
    What’s wrong with a little predictability?
    Does *everything* HAVE to be one giant SURPRISE? Many a poet has been wrecked upon that rock.
    OK, here’s “of” and now I know “love” is coming…but…it might come in an interesting way…so bring it on…bring on the “love.” It’s not going to kill me as a reader to know it’s coming.
    Obviously we want the original and not the stale, but the original, as people have been pointing out, invariably uses the old…
    Thomas

  • On March 13, 2009 at 12:52 pm Chip Corwin wrote:

    I know Shakespeare ends his sonnets with a rhymed couplet. That’s predictable. What generates surprise is how he does it. I think that’s what you’re getting at, Thomas, with the love/of and stale/original examples. But note that predictability and surprise are two unrelated things. An increase in one does not mean a decrease in the other. Better opposites for “surprising” may be “bloodless,” “dead,” “inert,” or “boring.”

  • On March 13, 2009 at 1:47 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Chip,
    ‘Better opposites for “surprising” may be “bloodless,” “dead,” “inert,” or “boring.” ‘
    I don’t know about that. The “dead” may surprise the hell out of us.
    But seriously, I do think the predictable and the surprising are related, but I think what you’re getting at is if you *raise* the predictability factor you are then *raising* the potential for surprise–is that what you mean?
    Yea, so we know a Shakespeare sonnet is going to end with a rhyming couplet, and that part is predictable, but that has nothing to do with how surprising/or not the end of Shakespeare’s sonnet is going to be. I think this is the point you are making, and I agree.
    I suppose if Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets which all ended with an of/love rhyme, we could still be pleasantly surprised by all of them.
    But we might say to ourselves, ‘why is S. creating such a difficult challenge for himself? Of/love 154 times?? Is the guy bonkers?’
    Yet why not apply this to writing 154 poems that all need to follow the rules of a sonnet? Why would a genius like S. confine himself so, when no law says he must? Surely his genius would speak out better if it were less confined?
    Did S. do so because of the law of surprise/predictability, or was he merely writing sonnets because other poets at the time were also writing sonnets and he was proving his skill in this area?
    Thomas

  • On March 13, 2009 at 2:11 pm Chip Corwin wrote:

    Thomas,
    I would argue that predictability and surprise are not *necessarily* related in the same way that, say, the volume of an object and its fluid displacement are related. I guess I’m saying there is no “law of surprise/predictability” because they don’t have that cause/effect relationship.
    I think we are generally in agreement; I just think your examples were mixed. In your first post that I responded to, you set up two opposites: surprise/predictability and stale/original. I would say that those would be better stated as surprising/stale and predictable/original.
    Chip

  • On March 13, 2009 at 2:30 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Reasonable points, Thomas. Thanks for them. I’m not suggesting poems need to have a “giant SURPRISE,” and I’m not suggesting poets be reckless for the sake of novelty. Still, if a poem is going to use “love” and “of” it helps if the rhyme is arrived at, as you suggest, in an “interesting way,” which seems to be Stallings’ point. I think Chip’s clarification helps.
    Thanks, Bill, for the link.
    Paul and J Diego Frey, thanks for the comments. I love the point about comebacks.
    Tyrone, thanks. Houston’s album is great, isn’t it? A friend of mine contends that her “Jumping Jack Flash” is the definitive, and he may be right.

  • On March 13, 2009 at 4:21 pm Cathy Halley wrote:

    Gentle reminder: When you leave comments, please include your name and email address. It is our policy not publish anonymous comments.

  • On March 14, 2009 at 11:24 am Michael Martin wrote:

    I can dig it.
    Spent my whole earl development writing prose which sole aim was to turn cliches on their heads like breakdancers baby. But then, like you said, those unofficial rules crept in. Not sure when it happened, or why, how. But it did.
    I think that rule of “no tired rhymes” was a way to spur writers into new unfound directions. And to go down that route using those rhymes would be more difficult than abandoning them, calling condemned, pushed the writer into that new territory.
    But the problem is — you called it — we don’t go back to that old territory and reclaim, rebuild what we left behind. We see all this new stuff and we’re excited and we forget.
    Hey, moon and doom can rhyme. We even used it. And it was ‘cool’.
    And just ’cause it was cool then doesn’t mean it can’t be now.

  • On March 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    I am also a big fan of Stallings’ manifesto. And I agree that cliched rhymes have no limit. On the other hand, I wouldn’t make that claim ahistoricallly. We are receptive to this idea nowadays exactly because such cliches have been scrupulously avoided for so long in serious poetry (just about a century) that by now they can become fresh and surprising again.
    Annie

  • On March 15, 2009 at 1:31 am dwayne wrote:

    Jason,
    I thought the AE Stallings manifesto was dope. And, what people haven’t seemed to speak on, in regards to rhyme, is that the rhyme is only going to be as strong as the the words that precede it. So while “of” may seem to be predictably followed by “love” it is the words that precede both “of” and “love” that make the poem.
    Also, I just realize that I’ve repeated your last point. But, I guess it serves repeating, because here, as with most places, discussions of rhyme seem to focus just on the rhyme and not what precedes it.

  • On March 15, 2009 at 8:55 am Ange Mlinko wrote:

    I love just about everything the elegant A.E. writes, but for a fuller picture of the “rhyming wars,” at least in Britain, check out the estimable Ruth Padel on the subject:
    http://www.ruthpadel.com/pages/rhyming_wars.htm
    It’s edifying.

  • On March 15, 2009 at 4:12 pm Matt wrote:

    Once again: there is no “war on Christmas”.

  • On March 16, 2009 at 7:56 am thomas brady wrote:

    A sentence is parsed and meter is scanned.
    Rhyme aids the ear in noting the meter.
    Readers prefer poetry that is closer to prose, with the line that is seen, not heard.
    Singers prefer poetry closer to verse, with a line that is heard, not seen.
    The greater skill is saying prose-like things with the added coloration of meter and rhyme.
    The sort of contemplation that goes with reading silently and seeing lines as opposed to hearing them cannot be ignored, certainly, but the best poetry, even the best verse, can welcome this sort of contemplation. But this sort of contemplation bereft of poetry adds nothing else, really.
    Thus my sympathy is with the singers.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 7:06 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Thanks to those who have kept this thread going, including Matt and Thomas.
    Michael and Dwayne, I appreciate your thoughts.
    Annie, good point. Ange, good link.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, March 12th, 2009 by Jason Guriel.