“I, too, dislike it.” Marianne Moore’s famous opening words in her poem “Poetry” might apply also to the designation of April as “Poetry Month.” The avowal of dislike comes with an implied “Yes, but …”
Poetry Month, some say, is a promotional vulgarity that lowers a great and fundamental art to the level of Domestic Cheese or Accident Prevention. Others respond, Poetry Month is a genial, harmless way of encouraging people to read poems and buy books of poetry.
Poetry, say some, is a private and personal art, best appreciated in deep chambers of the soul, not out in the public marketplace where it can be bought and sold like a hot dog or an entertainment center. But poetry, say others, makes art from words, the very stuff of the public agora where people meet and exchange words along with ideas, feelings, and goods.
Slate this month will continue its tradition of taking both sides of the issue by publishing each week a poem that derogates poetry itself or kvetches about bad poetry or denounces public taste in poetry.
In other words, we embrace both sides, fearlessly.
People sometimes say they are nostalgic for the days when all poems rhyme, or say darkly that “modern poetry is just prose.” Never mind that Milton and Wordsworth wrote their long ambitious poems without end-rhyme. Nor was rhyme used by ancient Greek or Latin poets (except for occasional comic effect—a deliberate grotesquerie). You could argue that the most serious writers of Shakespeare’s time considered rhyme a bit low or less than serious—a folk-art technique.
Here for the first week of Slate’s annual Month of Poetry Against Poetry is Ben Jonson taking both sides of the rhyme question. On the one hand Jonson curses rhyme’s inventor (“He that first invented thee,/ May his joynts tormented bee”) and addresses rhyme itself with disgust: (“Soone as lazie thou wert knowne,/ All good Poetrie hence was flowne.”) He pities Latin for being tortured with rhyme by the neo-Latin poets of his time. On the other hand, as the paradox of his title indicates, Jonson denounces rhyme with some remarkably fluent, jazzy rhyming:
A FIT OF RIME AGAINST RIME Rime, the rack of finest wits,
That expresseth but by fits,
True Conceipt,Spoyling Senses of their Treasure,
Cozening Judgement with a measure,
But false weight.Wresting words, from their true calling;
Propping Verse, for feare of falling
To the ground.Joynting Syllabes, drowning Letters,
Fastening Vowells, as with fetters
They were bound!Soone as lazie thou wert knowne,
All good Poetrie hence was flowne,
And Art banish’d.For a thousand yeares together,
All Pernassus Greene did wither,
And wit vanish’d.Pegasus did flie away,
At the Wells no Muse did stay,
But bewail’dSo to see the Fountaine drie,
And Apollo’s Musique die.
All light failed!Starveling rimes did fill the Stage,
Not a Poet in an Age,
Worth crowning;Not a worke deserving Bays,
Nor a line deserving praise,
Pallas frowning.Greeke was free from Rime’s infection,
Happy Greeke, by this protection,
Was not spoyled.Whilst the Latin, Queene of Tongues,
Is not yet free from Rimes wrongs,
But rests foiled.Scarce the hill againe doth flourish,
Scarce the world a Wit doth nourish,
To restorePhoebus to his Crowne againe;
And the Muses to their braine;
As before.Vulgar Languages that want
Words, and sweetnesse, and be scant
Of true measure;Tyrant Rime hath so abused,
That they long since have refused
Other ceasure.He that first invented thee,
May his joynts tormented bee,
Cramp’d forever;Still may Syllabes jarre with time,
Still may reason warre with rime,
Resting never.May his Sense, when it would meet
The cold tumor in his feet,
Grow unsounder,And his Title be long foole,
That, in rearing such a Schoole,
Was the founder.