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Prose and cons

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. Prose and cons. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, April:12–14.

Way back in the dark ages, before European culture had developed computers, the first word processors were the roving minstrels (also known as bards, skalds, troubadours, jongleurs, et al.). These brave souls took to a life of travel on the open road, indeed often the open field, to pass from town to town, singing for a living and exchanging gossip. In those days, news of the world came from a very different type of foreign correspondent: not Knowlton Nash [a popular CBC news-anchor], but rather (so to speak) a traveling Garrison Keilor.

Remember, these were the days before Gutenberg developed the printing press (redeveloped, actually, since the Chinese had beaten him to the punch, if not to the patent office, several hundred years earlier). These were the days after the fall of Rome, when writing was lost to virtually everyone outside a monastery who didn't speak Arabic. Travel was hazardous and life was, as a more modern philosopher once put it, "nasty, brutish and short". But although a person was considered exceptional if he traveled farther than over the horizon from his place of birth (that is, perhaps 20 miles, depending on what part of the Earth we're talking about), the average person was also intensely interested in what lay beyond that horizon.

In the absence of Associated Press International (API) and the National Enquirer (not that I intend to draw any parallels!), news from afar came only from travelers who had been there. And these travelers, not able to jot down the news on paper and run off a few hundred copies on the Gestetner, were forced to adopt a more traditional method of transmitting their message. As before the development of writing, they resorted to carrying their message orally, which required that they remember what it was they wanted to say—after all, extemporizing before a crowd of distrustful strangers in exchange for a meal would be an unsettling experience for all but the most practised of speakers. Thus, the safest and easiest thing to do was to make up one good story and stick with it. If you could set this to music, so much the better, for music hath charms to soothe the savage breast and thus perhaps to feed the wandering bard.

This necessitates a digression into the realm of memory. Many lyrics to songs rhyme for an important reason: the words are made easier to remember thereby. Furthermore, by rhyming your verses, you are forced more or less to apply a catchy scansion to the lyrics, which in turn makes them easier to set to music. If this seems a bit hard to swallow, think way back to grade school to see which verses you remember best: do you recall the nursery rhymes, or your first experiences with blank verse? I still remember my nursery rhymes better, though I confess to still being fresh out of the nursery in a relative sense.

This is one reason that rhymed poetry has persisted through the ages, and why some of our best-known and best-loved poets remain those who wrote in rhyme. However, with the advent of the printed page and all the myriad electronic crutches that support it, the need to rhyme has disappeared. In fact, many advocates of unrhymed poetry (blank verse, in other jargon) consider rhymed poetry to be a throwback to the bad old days, when poetry could survive only if it was easily remembered. Books have made blank verse an increasingly popular form of poetry, to the extent that rhymed poetry is now looked upon somewhat askance. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, as it turns out.

It's good because this implies that the message is more important than the medium (i.e., that poetry needs both reason and rhyme). The original goal of poetry, other than to provide our wandering minstrel with a full belly, was to share ideas, to help people to see or feel something they had never encountered or considered before, to reach out and share. In this case, the medium is irrelevant so long as it does not interfere with the message. The bad side of modern blank verse is that, increasingly, it is the medium that overrides the message.

Ask the average person for their opinion of modern poetry, and you'll probably get an answer that uses any of the following phrases: it doesn't rhyme, it doesn't make any sense, it's gloomy, it uses obscure references, it doesn't tell me anything I never thought of before. Although the blank verse writers set out to create an Art Form (rather than a form of art) that no longer needed to be memorized, it seems that they inadvertently created one that was no longer memorable. Saying that something has neither rhyme nor reason indicates the sort of dichotomy that has grown up between rhymed verse and blank verse (reason?). And there's the pity, for in so doing, some modern poets have cut themselves off from the real reason that poetry is written... to communicate. Nowadays, writing blank verse is a good way of ensuring that only college Literature graduates will read what you've written. To the above list of criticisms of blank verse, add one more: intellectual snobbery.

I write poetry now and then, and I have a fair collection of pieces put together that I'm fairly proud of. They rhyme, because I don't want to cut myself off from the larger audience. [Also, looking back 20 years, because I lack the skill to craft a truly impressive blank-verse poem.—GH] Many over-educated poetry readers have long since lost sight of the meaning of what they read, caught up instead in the intricacies of scansion, metaphor, and allusion. I'd say, honestly considering what I've written, that a good half of it is rubbish—the meaning is still there, but the medium has undercut the message by forcing rhyme upon something that really only needed reason. So I suppose it's fair to say that although the meaning is of paramount importance, I confess to a sneaking admiration for the modern nonrhyming poet: the poetry readings I've attended have all been far more dynamic, and far more entertaining (in a theatrical sense) when the medium was blank verse. Which may be taken as a criticism of the written word and of rhymed poetry, though I prefer to think of this as comparing apples with oranges, since the two forms of poetry are so different.

Shall I compare thee to a rose? I'd rather try in rhyme than prose.

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