The Canon: Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse. By John Hollander

March 18, 2010

Every academic is intellectually complete, a "finished man among his enemies" as Yeats put it. Still, we like a quick study on the sly: a night with Yoruba grammar, some hard action with Mandelbrot's fractal set, or the puff pastry of a colleague's souffle theorique. Here enters the academic how-to book. No time for Walter Kaufmann's monumental, yet Portable Nietzsche? Try the illustrated Nietzsche for Beginners (chapter one: "God is dead"). Yet in this Dantean University of the Unprepared, even "Beginners" hold high ground. We stumble downward past the Dummies series (Organic Chemistry for Dummies; Baby Names for Dummies) to the basso non profundo, the Complete Idiot's guides. Yet for poetry-writing primers, one volume teeters on a small Parnassian hillock: John Hollander's frail Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse.

Scholarly introductions walk you through the edifice of knowledge; but writers' guides want to build you up as a writer. They are acts of embodiment - like the Joy of ... series (Cooking, Sex, Motherhood, Quilting). And short-winded. For prose writing, William Strunk Jr and E.B. White's The Elements of Style runs out of breath in 51 pages. For poetry, Rhyme's Reason needs 88; but the author's virtuosity is its prime virtue: each poetic form is described and defined in that form. So, for the Tennysonian quatrain:

Another way of rhyme can come
From abba (middle two
Lines holding hands as lovers do)
In Tennyson's In Memoriam.

Clear, quick, memorable because musical, instructing in the most basic sense, and like poems, easily carried with you. Verbum brevis, longa ars. Published to wide acclaim in 1981, Rhyme's Reason has been expanded to include "sample poems" by other poets. Hollander, a very full professor at Yale, has produced many highly lauded books of poetry and criticism and has won most of the prestigious awards; his own poetry is respected (coolly) except for a fun poem naming animals, Adam's Task: "Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd." Hollander is known for calling his friend Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl a "dreadful little volume", and is rumoured to have travelled with Jack Kerouac. "Thou, spotted Glurd."

The ink depicting George Grosz's drawings is not his ink; the paper explicating the Dead Sea Scrolls is not papyrus. But Hollander explains the villanelle in a villanelle:

This form with two refrains in parallel?
(Just watch the opening and the third line.)
The repetitions build the villanelle.

The subject thus established, it can swell
Across the poet-architect's design:
This form with two refrains in parallel

Must never make them jingle like a bell,

Tuneful but empty, boring and benign;
The repetitions build the villanelle

And so on. The self-help book, from Ben Franklin's time to ours, remains a peculiarly American institution. It is both democratic and presumptuous: as contradictory as the American square dance that moves in circles, or New Orleans' French Quarter being Spanish. Rhyme's Reason's first edition offers little history and no great poems. But it achieves an apotheosis of criticism: it lets the subject speak for itself.

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