Quoting Poetry

Critical Inquiry 18 (1):42-63 (1991)
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A tension between content and form can even be said to be essential to the effect of a great deal of rhymed poetry in English. William Wimsatt’s wonderful essay on “One Relation of Rhyme to Reason” argues precisely that rhymes in English poetry work when differences of meaning and of part of speech tend to counterpoint similarities of sound.3 Rhyming nouns together, for example, ought to be avoided, since the salutory tension will arise from the fact that a difference in grammatical function will coexist with sameness of sound. This means that prosodical structure does not mirror content, and that even in rhymed poetry the sense may be variously drawn out. Empson makes the complementary remark that English is blessed with the fact that subjects and verbs cannot in general rhyme:The crucial thing about English, as a language for poetry, is that you cannot rhyme the subject with the verb, because either ‘the cat distracts’ and ‘the nerves swerve’ or ‘the cats distract’ and ‘the nerve swerves’; this bit of grammar has been enormously helpful to English poetry by forcing it away from platitude.4This means that the grammar of rhymed poems will not simply be determined by the rhyme scheme but will tend to be a kind of counterpoint to that scheme, since the predicate is kept from rhyming with the subject. 3. William Wimsatt, “On Relation of Rhyme to Reason,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry , pp. 152-66. In this essay, anticipating some of the deconstructive claims he came to find too extreme at the end of his life, Wimsatt writes that “verse in general, and more particularly rhyme, make their special contribution to poetic structure … [by imposing] upon the logical pattern of expressed argument a kind of fixative counterpattern of alogical implication” . See also Wimsatt, “Verbal Style: Logical and Counterlogical,” The Verbal Icon, pp. 200-217.4. Empson, “Rhyme,” Argufying, p. 136. William Flesch teaches English at Brandeis University and is the author of The Heart of Generosity: Largess and Loss in Herbert, Shakespeare, and Milton



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