A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”

Tony Woodman and me at the Gran Prix of Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1963

Dear Tom……………………………………………………[November 22nd, 2009]
My hunch is that your emphasis on “rhyme” in your previous article is going to be misunderstood. I think it will give those who don’t want to hear you at all the excuse not to read you, and may weaken your argument even for those that are willing to give what you say a try.

Let me say this first: I’m a curious critic because I’m so sophisticated yet so naive and trusting — I know so much (or at least ought to, considering the length of my education) and yet am so obviously an innocent. I deliberately didn’t say ‘ill-informed’ there, because what I do know I know quite well, and my eyes are always wide-open. It’s just that I’ve only been engaged with the history of ‘Modern Poetry’ since I started writing it in 1990, and I was already 50 by then. I’ve never sat in a Modern Poetry lecture, for example, never participated in a Writing Workshop, and only rarely attended a Poetry Reading. I’ve got Gawain and the Green Knight, all of Chaucer, The Faerie Queene, George Herbert, Christopher Smart, John Clare and Emily Dickinson on my shelves here in Chiang Mai, but very few literary-critical texts written after Wimsatt & Brooks.

The fact is I only came up against ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 10 precious packets I had sent to a much-respected University Poetry Series between 1994 and 2006 were probably never opened, and that my 8 packets to yet another up-and-coming Press hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter purporting to be a personal critique of my work. The letter, almost identical copies of which have subsequently emerged, suggested that for a certain sum the editor would help me to improve my book and that I could then resubmit it to his/her competition. I remember that moment very well — I was at my desk with my cheque book in hand when I was first alerted to the existence of Foetry.com which had already started to investigate the letters. When I then complained about my own letter on Poets & Writers (Nov 2006), I was scolded by a well-known critic for my limited understanding of publishing poetry in America today, while the very same judges who had abused me were praised for their hard work and integrity.

That was hard for me — and still is.

But the critic who attacked me on P & W was partly right, of course — even at 66 I was uppity and ignorant, and was nowhere near ready to concede that the situation I found myself in was ‘normal’ what is more ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry in me or anyone else in America. And the next thing I knew I found myself banned on-line for discussing my disquiet, first by the P&W blog, then by the AoAP blog, and finally by the Poetry Foundation’s new and wonderful Blog Harriet — not a very promising start to my new career, and particularly not at 69.

So what can you call me, then, and how can my input be more useful?

Hardly a “noble savage,” as my style is too perfect even if my content is analphabet. Yet I am a peasant in poetry when you compare me with somebody like David Lehman, for example, what is more Stephen Burt — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed a lot of people who knew a whole lot more than I did about the poetry business, and wanted me to be more practical, respectful, and compliant. Because after all, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? And my cow pat hammer, that was the last straw [open the ‘Comments,’ then ‘Show More Comments,” then scroll down to July 6th, 2009, “Footnote for Posterity”]. And I was fired a few days later.

What I do have (and this is all about that word “rhyme,” of course, Tom) is my Rip Van Winkle status, a contemporary poet back from the dead. Because my anomaly is that I was so highly educated in the History of Literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Dino Bigongiari Prize for Italian Studies, Woodrow Wilson at Yale, Kellett Fellow at King’s [after Lionel Trilling and Norman Podhoretz but before David Lehman], C.S.Lewis & G.G.Hough as my Supervisors for my work on Edmund Spenser, Tutor for George Steiner at Churchill, Research Fellow at Christ’s) — yet I never got formally educated in Modern Poetry, not once. So I go straight from the ’30s in which I was born and jump straight to the ’90s in which I got published by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise! Indeed, I will be forever grateful to Marilyn Hacker — and to the likes of James Laughlin (only just legible on his old Remington), Theodore & Renee Weiss (I was one of the last QR Finalists, and I still have his notes in pencil), Joseph Parisi ( who read my long poem, Works & Days,  3 times!), and Alice Quinn (who suggested The Kenyon Review for my Connemara Trousers). They made not just my day but my life!

Yes, a “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on that P & W critic’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” perhaps.   Because the irony is that in the end my publishing credits have turned out to be not bad at all, considering my age and when I started.

So back to  “rhyme,” then, Tom. I’m sure you know exactly what you mean by the word, and you do know the literary-historical details like the back of your hand. But what you don’t know first hand is the snobbery that lies behind the creation of Modernism, the revulsion with which those early 20th century poets around Pound and Hilda Dolittle rejected the late 19th century mush so loved by those who had just emerged from the crude working class.  Because Edgar Guest/Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the side of the verse they specifically despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which went along with the satisfaction you got when you at last sat down to ‘dinner’ together around a ‘table’ or ‘read’ together  in the ‘parlor’ — which factory workers were still not going to do in Britain or America for some time to come. On the other hand, after 1916 “A Heap O’Livin” sold over a million copies — which opens up a huge social and educational grey area in the History of American Poetry, one which is not yet quite out of the bag like what actually happened when my ancestors put in to Plymouth.

That’s what I know about more than most of you who are reading this and interested in our struggle. Because I was brought up in the 19th century, and I was a snob and “mush” made me feel unclean too, so I know the feeling only too well. I spent my early years in Gladstone, New Jersey, after all, the so-called “Gold Coast,” and in my American childhood I never sat down with a worker, or a so-called ‘person of color,’ or a Catholic who wasn’t a descendant of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 20s didn’t socialize with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter “Delia Hilary Orlando Woodman,” (Irish plus a name which could be mistaken for someone of Italian descent???).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my two brothers and I — my younger brother, Loring, westward to the Gros Ventre in Wyoming, myself eastward across the Atlantic to Cambridge and then on up to remote Eskdalemuir, and Tony just really really fast (he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe until he broke his back in the Northwest 200 in Ireland in 1965). And how I ran, and kept bees, and fiddled around with Trungpa Rimpoche, and sailed, but mostly just fell in love with my wonderfully wrong women — and little by little I sloughed off that good taste and sense of superiority which went along with the family silver (I still have a trunkful somewhere, and enough 18th century willow pattern china to serve you all at once, though goodness knows where that is as well) — and here I am now writing to you like the fool…

No, it’s not the rhyme, Tom — it’s the snobbery of a new intellectual class that is still not too secure and needs to put a lot of distance between itself and the upper working-class poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rung of the new upwardly mobile America.

And should the ‘petit bourgeois poetry’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries be re-evaluated, then, should that forgotten corpus be restored to grace? Hardly, but the alternative “Make it New” movement at the opposite extreme must be re-assessed as ‘petit-bourgeois poetry’s’ shadow, in the Jungian sense, so that those aspects of our western poetry tradition that got debased and/or hidden by ‘Modernism’ can be brought out into the open and liberated — like feeling, like music, like value and meaning and even, when its applicable, like rhyme. Indeed, all the underpinnings of Modernism must be fearlessly re-examined, and it’s tendency to sew new clothes for the emperor ruthlessly exposed, as we’re doing — and how the courtiers do kick and howl!

That’s our theme, of course, and it’s a big one, and one for which I think I’m well-equipped even with just a small cow pat as a hammer in my hand.




  1. thomasbrady said,

    November 22, 2009 at 7:05 pm


    So you are saying that rhyme represented middle class conservativism and the Modernist avant garde was looking to separate itself from that group of people?

    I agree.

    Modernism, Bloomsbury, the avant garde, was a power grab by the unorthodox ‘idle rich’ who professed all sorts of noble ideas–but were just as prejudiced as any ‘red-neck example.

    The forward-looking unitarianism of Emerson, for example, was characterized by Irish, French, Catholic hating bigotry. See “English Traits.”

    The WASP establishment is Emersonian: radical and conservative, by turns, depending on the circumstance, on the audience, on the geo-political urgency.

    Henry James spoke for this Highest Class when he made literary excellence essentially about one thing: intelligence. The unspoken message is: do whatever needs to be done to protect your class, your people. Do not be pinned down by particulars. Rhyme, or don’t rhyme–who cares? The game has nothing to do with particulars. Particulars are used according to the pragmatic moment.

    Rules are for the small-minded.

    Even science is for the small-minded, if it gets in the way of the Highest Class.

    No one should seem to be against science, of course. But science has the unfortunate habit of lifting up undesirables. Poe was despised by James and Eliot for being boyishly scientific: Poe ‘didn’t get it.’ Poe tried to improve mankind in general. This is what the true artist does, and why they are so rare. Plato’s Dialogues, Shakespeare’s Plays, Poe’s Works: rare instances of Literature That Lifts Everyone in a totalizing manner; Plato, Shakespeare, and Poe, just to take 3 examples, is not literature of a style, of rhyming or not-rhyming, or a movement, or a manifesto, or one for just blacks or the poor, or whites only, or the rich only, but literature for EVERYONE.

    As I said in my essay, ‘A Defense…Sort Of,’ the whole question of rhyme is a stepping-stone; rhyme, per se, is not the issue.

    Compromises must be made within the context of natural law; some reject natural law, others confine themselves too much to it–the genius is not so facile or stubborn. For instance, in the matter of sexual pleasure and morals; some reject sexual pleasure, some pursue it greedily; the compromise is to neither reject it, nor make sexual pleasure an end in itself, but to see it rather as a companion in the journey to a higher end. When Shelley wondered why a poet would want to reject rhyme as a tool, he was speaking in this spirit: why reject rhyme as a companion, as a helpmate? Why take rhythm away from a temporal art, why take rhythm away from your music, why muffle your drum? For rhyme helps rhythm, the rhythm that many poets think they are making more interesting by not using rhyme! Of course, in the hands of the unskilled, rhyme calls attention to that very lack of skill. Rhyme ill-used is more painful than if it were never used at all. As is proper to the whole matter, if the whole matter were properly understood.

    Paul Engle told me that John Keats was moving away from rhyme as he matured, and here Engle was expressing the popular postwar idea that rhyme appeals to the jingle-sense of the child, and rhyme withers away in the face of maturity. Engle was a very out-looking person; unlike Allen Tate, for instance, who represented the Red-Neck branch of Modernism; Engle was a universalist, and translation becomes a key component of Engle-ism–and rhyme is very difficult to translate into Chinese. An image is much easier to translate.

    The right-winger, Irish-hater, and rhymer, Rudyard Kipling, was adored by T.S. Eliot. Eliot, as leader of the Modernist pack, was never comfortable with free verse. Eliot knew that his modernist clique could not seem too rapaciously manifesto-ist, or they would fade away; he therefore made clear where his allegiance lay in ‘Reflections on Vers Libre:’ “Vers Libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.” Notice how Eliot’s formula has nothing to do with style; the key is to express disdain for Russians. It is the S.O.B. ‘wisdom’ of the cultural snob, Henry James: natural law “does not exist;” the only thing that exists is the “intelligence” which will make you believe any thing it wants, according to the occasion. For of course vers libre exist. T.S. Eliot, in the spirit of his friend, Ezra Pound, is being an a**hole, and he knows it.

    Engle also quoted Yeats once to me: “If it doesn’t sing, it doesn’t talk.” This is rather the opposite sentiment from Engle’s John Keats remark–perhaps Engle thought rhyming was OK for Yeats because he was Irish, but, in any case, Engle was practical; he wasn’t hung up on style and rules. Whatever worked, was Engle’s moto.

    Engle was the greatest literary fund-raiser in history. Iowa, and its influence on the Writing Program era and on postwar literature in general is just beginning to be understood.

    I’ve written elsewhere on how Workshop poetry was default anti-Keats; there was no science operating in the Writing Worskshop–it was a business model, pure and simple, and poetry-writing going back to the 19th century parlor (Keats) was what the modern, poetry-teaching university knew it could not do, even as it taught nothing positive, per se, and so it all became about what to AVOID, what not to write–which is why poetry became crippled and clique-ish; it was at bottom based on an unspoken DO NOT.

    The deeply disturbed Robert Lowell, before he was institutionalized, rhymed.

    When he was medicated, he did not.


  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    November 24, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    With regard to Kipling, one should never forget that he was remarkably open to Indian culture all his life, which was after all his cradle as well as the major inspiration in his development. Indeed, one forgets how young he was when he was brought back to Britain by his parents and more or less abandoned in a drab, middleclass home of the very worst English sort, stuffy and strict and puritanical. He never got over that anger either, and never lost the desire to transcend his Englishness by losing himself in the bazaar like Kim. He did that as an artist in everything he wrote — and indeed it’s almost as if he adopted his conservative attire and appearance to guard himself against the unprincipled dark, pseudo white-boy within him.

    There’s a lot to be learned from that — things are rarely what they seem.

    And rhyme? Boy, was he a master of that, and his neo-colonial verse is less imperial than it is liberating. Gunga Din — how he sings. And how I love him, and how much his romantic imperial vision of a world full of heroes, animals, lamas, agents and warriors lost in the dubious Great Game of survival fills me with hope that there are still possibilities for secrets and solitary, impossible, adversarial adventure.

    Rikki Tikki Tavi up against John Ashbery and the charioteers, Stephen Burt and Helen Vendler? Who is most human, deep and luminous in the book of the jungle?


  3. thomasbrady said,

    November 24, 2009 at 5:14 pm


    Yea, Kipling was skilled at his craft.

    It’s not common knowledge that T.S. Eliot attempted to revive interest in Kipling…Eliot praises Kipling’s “moral” writing…I just read the mature Eliot’s toast to the Kipling Society…Eliot revels in his “100% British Stock” and compares his citizenship in the “Empire” with Kipling’s…the view that the Modernists were this progressive, open-minded phalanx needs to be put to rest once and for all… I don’t know why discussion of Modernism has been so immune to real political analysis…instead of talking about the political/cultural reality critics just repeat harmless, meaningless phrases like “make it new” over and over and over again…if I read “make it new” one more time I think I’m going to scream…