Meeting the Funesians
Let us begin with a tribe of people residing high in the Andes Mountains, where the brisk air is thin and vistas are arrestingly clear. We’ll call them the Funesians. They are a small and in many ways unexceptional community, subsist-ing mostly on boiled potatoes and pickled turnips and a mild rhubarb brandy. Days roll by, decades pass, marked chiefly by a gratified uneventfulness. The Funesians are remarkable in only one aspect, really: They are, far and away, the fin-est readers of poetry in the world. They hear things the rest of us don’t hear. The question this book poses is what can you—whether you live in New York or London, in Johan-nesburg or Jakarta, in a tidal shack or a yurt or a submarine or a castle—learn from the Funesians?
Plenty, I think. In their modest but dizzying excellence, the Funesians instruct and enlighten us about our limita-tions as readers and thinkers. Perhaps all art is an expression of human restlessness against our bodily confines and of our adaptations within them; perhaps every art form is an arena for measuring the mettle of our physiological and mental capabilities. Even so, poetry—like its sister arts music and architecture—is a medium that constantly brings this testing into sharp relief, with pointed and poignant models.
Let’s open with a valedictory poem by Dylan Thomas, “Prologue,” completed in 1952, shortly before his death. Thomas himself did not suspect it, but at his close he was writing for the Funesians. “Prologue” initially appears to lack a rhyme scheme. You have to reach the poem’s exact mid-point, lines 51 and 52, to meet your first rhyme, a couplet:
Sheep white hollow farms
To Wales in my arms
From here on out, the rhymes unfold punctually, systemati-cally. The next line, line 53, turns out to rhyme with line 50, and line 54 with 49, and so forth, each later line finding its earlier, coordinated partner, until finally the second-to-last line rhymes with the poem’s second line, and its final line with its first. Everything’s neatly paired.
“Prologue” is a wildly eccentric construction. Thomas built it mostly for himself, I suppose; poets are forever erect-ing self-imposed obstacles that the general reader is unlikely to appreciate, or perhaps even notice. For an ordinary reader, “Prologue” offers a peculiar experience. If it comes across as an unrhymed poem for most of its length, there’s a fleeting middle interlude, beginning with line 52, when something else occurs: You hear the rhymes chiming away, creating an ever-dwindling music. Depending on your ear, you may hear the rhymes for four or six lines, eight, ten, maybe twelve, but no one is going to hear all fifty-one of them.
No one except a Funesian. To hold inside their brains, in order, fifty-one rhymes—why, it’s a piece of cake for the Funesians. Let’s assume that, as a little joke, Thomas had created a random and minuscule disorder: The rhyme that was supposed to fall at line 89 (linked to line 14) actually fell at line 88. You and I would never notice. But the Funesian reader’s eyebrows would lift, followed by a slight but unmis-takably quizzical shaking of the head. What is he doing? our Funesian wonders. The rhymes are out of whack.
When a poem is placed before a Funesian, he or she, though human in all other tastes and talents, becomes a kind of extraterrestrial. The Funesians notice everything. Every variant of rhyme, every sonic repetition (not merely of word but of syllable and phoneme), every tiny buried euphony and dissonance, every metrical variation, every little tension and release in the rhythms, every pun, every punctuational inconsistency—there is no end to all the things they notice.
For the rest of us (mere human readers), rhymes fade and are meant to fade. Evanescence is the essence of rhyme. Our ears move on. Rhymes live, in Shakespeare’s phrase, within a “dying fall.” For a few instants, a rhyme chimes inside the ear, recalling an earlier sound. An echo is celebrated, then discarded as another echo surfaces.
In poems written for ordinary human beings, the rhymes are therefore proximate, especially with the most popular forms, like the ballad or Shakespearean sonnet or limerick. But as any handbook of poetic forms will show, this propin-quity of rhymes is true of rarefied forms as well (the villanelle, the ballade, terza rima, ottava rima, rhyme royal). Most rhyme schemes require partnered sounds to fall no more than thirty syllables apart—and usually much closer. Sounds come and go within a poem, as each line, with its unique freight of reso-nances, in effect replaces and supplants a previous line, with its own unique freight. A poem is a compact sonic parade, marching clamorously through the tunnel of the ear canal, an ever-shifting zone of commotion in which the most recent sounds serially dominate.
It turns out that thirty syllables (three lines of iambic pentameter—see the glossary for words in boldface type) represent a chasm both sizable yet bridgeable. A rhyme spaced at an interval of thirty syllables speaks of resuscitation, of a spirited and robust call-and-response across that black and echoless abyss that threatens every poem. Having composed poetry for more than a millennium, experimenting all the while with echoes and durations, English-language poets have learned that readers can be trusted to hear rhymes across this distance.
Among popular poetic structures, the Miltonic son-net maintains the longest interval between rhymes. It’s an inflexible form in its octave, or first eight lines (they rhyme ABBAABBA), though highly flexible in its sestet, or final six lines, which allow rhymes to fall where they may, provided no lines remain unrhymed. These rhymes can therefore achieve a gap as long as fifty syllables, the distance between the end words to lines 9 and 14.
Beyond fifty syllables, the distance evidently becomes too great. The web strand linking any two words grows increas-ingly attenuated, then breaks. Of course, poets live to chal-lenge accepted limitations, and they will often (in their spidery ingenuity) contrive to stretch a rhyme as far as it will go. This is what’s happening at the conclusion of Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking.” (Speaking of spiders, Frost created one of the most memorable web weavers in world lit-erature with his sonnet “Design,” to which we’ll turn in the next chapter.) “After Apple-Picking” is a poem of forty-two rhymed lines that follow no established scheme. At the start, the rhymes are unavoidably clangorous:
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
But the rhymes grow quieter at the close, as the exhausted speaker/farmer, his harvesting duties accomplished, begins to drift off. And it’s surely no accident that the longest wait for a rhyme consummates with the poem’s last word, a full seven lines removed from its mate. The poet, like the farmer he’s depicting, can now say, All done at last, as the concluding rhyme drops with an almost subliminal echo into the drows-ing mind:
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Frost has kept the final rhyme alive partly through internal rhyme, thrice slipping sleep into these eleven lines before it materializes as the final rhyme word. Even so, the last rhyme is, appropriately, the softest and sleepiest in the poem. And— perhaps no coincidence—it arrives fifty syllables after its part-ner (fifty-one, actually); in roundabout fashion we’ve arrived at a familiar threshold.
Fifty syllables. It’s a sizable distance—the extent of three haikus, and longer than some immortal whole English- language poems (Frost’s “Hannibal,” A. E. Housman’s “Here Dead Lie We,” Robert Herrick’s “The Coming of Good Luck”). Much can be uttered in fifty syllables—asserted, questioned, contradicted, resolved. But while the reader is following these assertions, questions, contradictions, resolu-tions, she is also holding aloft a sound in her head, waiting for it to encounter its soul mate, and waiting for the two united sounds, now bound in wedlock, to be put to bed. Any good reader of poetry is a born multitasker.