What's your favorite rhyme ever? Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Cole Porter...It's a one-way question, she said, so don't answer, what's yours?
I guess the best questions are impossible to answer.
Give me the impossible.

This is from new fiction by Stuart Dybek in the January issue of Poetry. That's right - new fiction! We've loosened up our format for the very first time to publish a story called "Pink Ocean." Dybek, who was just awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, is both a fiction and poetry writer, and his work bridges any gap that might exist between the genres. His writing, the MacArthur folks recognized, "dramatizes how a new storytelling tradition takes shape." "Pink Ocean" arises from the sort of dream state that often generates poems and stories alike; it begins:
"I dreamed in negative exposure, of a room where night and light sound nothing alike and so are not balanced in opposition. A room expelled from a children's story because its clock won't go ticktock and there's no hat for cat nor a spoon to reflect the moon. The only illumination, a levitating dress, a handkerchief bidding farewell from a steamer, the gossamer curtain suspended on the thermal of a hissing radiator."
Dybek's prose here has the imagery and rhythmical language of poetry, but the story is also in many ways about poetry. The narrator recalls, as if in a fog, a time when he and a woman were "trading dreams in a Jeep Cherokee that smelled of hay":
"I was teaching Your Life As Poetry—not a title I'd chosen—at a community center for seniors. My students all wanted to know whatever became of rhyme. She taught riding to the blind, the friend told me, and lived on a horse farm. I don't know what I expected—cowboy poetry, greeting card verse about horses running free? At the very least her poems were the work of a sophisticated reader, written in a current style: free verse in which the poet addressed herself as you. Their subject, besides you, was abandoned barns—a sequence that explored old barns as photographers do, but the barns in her poems could have only been constructed out of language. Barns the horizon showed through, composed more of slatted light, motes, and cobwebs than warped siding, their tattered roofs askew beneath the frown of crows; barns like beds unmade by tornadoes, weather vanes still dizzy; washed-up barns, driftwood gray, flotsamed with rusted, mysterious tools; barns shingled in license plates, their only history a progression of dates—different colors, same state: decay. Unhinged doors gaping shadow and must, recurring hints about divorce and childlessness—a few would make it to the pages of literary magazines."
They sip Lipton tea in a place wistfully called The Chalet, and eventually, the woman asks him about his favorite rhyme, as above. They go to a Monet exhibition. She poses for an illicit photo beside an uncastrated Apollo. And here the story turns to the ways in which language used to be connected to looking. There are ghosts, barns, dreams, animals - and poetry - all through the story. And at one point, this bit of musing:
"You must change your life.
Says who?"
The best questions are impossible to answer.

Originally Published: January 4th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. January 4, 2008
     Andrew Shields

    The one that jumps to mind immediately is "sniff/terrif" (as in "terrif-ically") from "I Get a Kick out of You," and in German:
    Die schönsten Verse des Menschen, ... sind die Gottfried Bennschen
    (Peter Rühmkorf)

  2. January 4, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    ...................................the play's the thing
    Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
    Rilke called rhyme "a goddess of secret and ancient coincidences...she comes as happiness comes, hands filled with an achievement that is already in flower."

  3. January 4, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Wow. Mary Meriam hit the bull's eye there, in my book.
    It's a simple rhyme, but it clicks shut like a jewel-box, or mousetrap. On a weighty pair of lines. Yet their coupling is couched in that offhand, English-understated style; so the rhyme's simplicity rhymes with the phrase's colloquialism. Sort of a proportional proposition.
    Somewhere in the library there's a scholarly study of Hamlet (the play) as a parable of covenantal religion : when Hamlet re-seals (re-written) the letter (to the King of England, authorizing his execution), on board ship, with his father's signet ring - then, & thus, Hamlet keeps faith with his ghostly father.
    Elizabethan drama began with the Mystery plays - local yokels re-enacting the basic liturgical stories, on a parochial stage, wherein the players captured the conscience of the village...
    This couplet is the summa of that project.
    & behind the simple rhyme of the colloquial phrase of the subtle thought of the mystery play... stands the vague shape of something even more obscure, profound : the master Play of Plays or Song of Songs. The 4th (?) level of that proportion or analogy (anagogical?).
    To understand this, check out theologian Urs von Balthasar's interpretation of History as Drama.

  4. January 6, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    My favorite couplet is also from the Bard:
    Golden lads and girls all must,
    As chimney sweepers, come to dust.
    It seems to me all of Housman hangs off that.
    For individual rimes, it is hard to beat Byron (intellectual/ hen pecked you all). But my favorite contemporary rime pair is from Lyle Lovett:
    And I love anything that rimes or slant-rimes with river.

  5. January 6, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Henry! I came back to post another rhyme and saw your kind words. Thanks so much for all your fine thoughts. It's a pleasure to study what you wrote here. Where is your favorite rhyme? And everyone else's? Rhyme is not so serious that we have to swear this is my absolute favorite of all time forever and ever rhyme, is it? Or is it uncool to like rhyme? Well, I love it.
    But I have that within which passeth show;
    These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

  6. January 7, 2008
     Henry Gould

    My favorite rhyme (for the moment) :
    & Hamlet yes comes home, & it is no dream
    Ophelia is singing in the stream.

  7. January 9, 2008
     Andrew Shields

    Another one I came across again in the past few days:
    Hey there mister brontosaurus
    don't you have a lesson for us.
    That's from "Walking in Your Footsteps," by The Police, whom I have been rediscovering with my son Miles recently.