Sir Geoffrey Hill, Simon Jarvis and Rhyme.

I'm one of those who expressed dismay at the publication of Hill's Oraclau, primarily because the rhymes struck me as being bad. I've also spent some time arguing against the Jarvis view of rhyme and metre being a really good way of expressing philosophical and religious ideas. I now realise that I might be wrong about Simon's position but I still hold the same view of Oraclau, although I realise that I'm not entirely clear as to what I mean by 'bad'.

Regular readers will know that I try not to 'do' lit crit but try and present a more personal and subjective account. I haven't liked rhyme for as long as I've been reading poetry, mainly because of its sing-song quality that often leads to clunkiness (technical term, see below) and because it strikes me as one of those stultifying hangovers from the Romantics.

In order to try and get my brain around this tricky subject, I've reluctantly waded through the overly complex Princeton Encyclopedia on rhyme and have come across this 'taxonomy':

Hill employs all of the above in the Oraclau sequence but I don't think they work and I don't think they work because most of the 'strictly speaking rhymes' are tired and the rest have problems with scansion and / or cadence. In fact, most of this material is so weak / inept that it is difficult to believe that it came from Hill's pen. Of course, Sir Geoffrey can do whatever he wants, his reputation is intact because of the fifty years of work that went before but this is a strange blot on the career of one who knows so much about the Poem. The sequence would also seek to demonstrate that being prolific does not automatically imply being good.

Simon Jarvis' Night Office is, however, at the other end of the spectrum with tight control over his rhymes and the uses to which they are put. Or so it appears to my untrained ear. I therefore propose to do a compare and contrast which also makes use of Simon's Why Rhyme Pleases essay because it makes a strong case for contemporary use.

Before we dive headlong into the work, I'd like to make clear my own belief that poetry works best when it is read aloud. This isn't to diminish the value of the word on the page but to suggest that serious poems gain an additional strength when read aloud. I read in public whenever I can, especially to people who don't have a specific interest in poetry and continue to find that those people respond with a more considered reaction than they would to anything on the page.

Some of the poems acknowledge the badness of the rhymes. This is poem 77;

Harmonious colours; dissonances
In miniature; percussive dancers;
 Rattling cadences, remembrancers.
 Mid-October, best of seasons,
  Zest for the finding flash
Fruit of the horse-chestnut, its whorled varnish,
Its crack too fresh for gloss to diminish 
Like drying pebbles. As to belong here-
My presence to myself no stranger.

On any level of reading, this is a mess, there's no consistency, the gist (technical term) of the content gets lost in the glaring anomalies of the whole. I know that in another of the Day Books that Hill acknowledges that it is his intention to make his readers 'wince'. In Clavics he demonstrate that he knows how to rhyme so I'm assuming that this is 144 poems of faux ineptitude in the self-aware playful style advocated by the Ludo epigraphs and colophons. Now, I'm never averse to something of this sort providing that it's brief and more than a little parodic. However, this is about 143 poems too many and manages to instill ever-mounting tedium in the reader. To use a musical analogy it's akin to Keith Jarrett playing a three hour concert in the manner of Les Dawson. This would be amusing for about 8 bars and excruciating for the rest.

Having attempted to read this aloud several times I can report that the rhymes are inadequate because they only approximate to any of the types set out above and that the cadence doesn't rattle, it doesn't exist. I wasn't going to dwell on the content but the overall theme of Oraclau is the recentish discovery of Hill's Welsh ancestry which would fit with the last line and a half. The lines on the horse-chestnut and the brightness within might, at this distance, refer to Hill's increasing productivity in old age whilst the first two seem to be about poetry in general. Needless to say, this would be quite accomplished were it not for the ineptitude of the conceits in which it is placed.

This, in contrast, is from Simon's Why Rhyme Pleases:

The first is the argument that technique is the way art thinks. The second is the argument that art thinks historically, and that what it knows, when it thinks well, is natural-historical experience.
If technique is the way art thinks, and if self-absorption is, curiously, the way art notices others, then might this 'virtuoso incantation' be, not simply a screen or a cocoon or an anaesthetic, but a medium - a medium for thinking, and for thinking about historical experience, just when in the very act of apparently retreating from it?

I'm going to rely on this as a point of entry to the remarkable Night Office which is a 200+ page poem in rhyme which is, amongst many other things, an example of how rhyme can become a 'medium for thinking'. I've written elsewhere on arduity about this glorious work but here I just want to concentrate on the way in which this particular technique is put together. These are the last two stanzas on p. 126:

Be still : it is just nothing, which you do,
and, when you've done it, then the rest have, too.
Fall silent : it is someone else's hymn;
the night defeats you, as the dust does him.
Shut down your box : no sandbank may contain
this helpless quantity of salt and rain.
Then from still silence and the shut down head
learn what you always had already said.

Rolled opal is impervious to blood.
I think beside you how a single pleat
might stand between you and whatever mud
might interject itself, or with its sweet
infection penetrate : whose fatal bud
were here averted by hygienic fleet
light's unmeant flickers in the slab of glass
through which no fragments of the air may pass.

I've chosen these two because the first one works and the second one doesn't- but not because of the rhyme. The first stanza uses line endings with the same final consonant and vowel and uses different parts of speech as the paired rhyming words. The effect is stunning, the sing-song irritation is avoided and there is a depth of thought and consideration that is missing from all but the very best of blank or free verse.

The rhyming words in the second are again of the 'ordinary' kind and this enables the lines to flow smoothly although this is marred by 'interject itself' which is a failure of cadence rather than rhyme. I don't know about others but cadence is an essential element for me in most kinds of verse because the words need to flow and they need to do this in a way that complements the 'sense' of the stanza as a whole. The problem here is that the two words interrupt the flow, there are too many ts, in quite a jarring way and 'interject' detracts from the sense of the stanza. The first stanza (as with the vast majority of those in Night Office commits neither of these sins and is a demonstration of how, in Simon's words, "Archaism and innovation have not in the history of poetry been chalk and cheese, but speaking twins."