Thursday, March 10, 2011

WARNING: Tight Rhymes Ahead

Though I profess to be a fan – and practitioner – of free verse, there’s something to be said for the tight structure of rhyme. Though free verse imports its own rhythm when the author does it right – consider Meredith Wilson’s “Doesn’t Know the Territory,” for one:

I’ll confess the main reason I prefer the structure of rhyme over free verse is that you don’t necessarily have to launch into The Poet’s Voice to read it and make it sound good; the sound naturally carries through.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy Newman Levy’s poetry from The Treasury of Laughter.

But before we get to the poetry, here’s actually one of the funniest bits Louis Untermeyer wrote to introduce one of his subjects:

Newman Levy, born in New York in 1888, contributed to P.P.A.’s column while in college, and won a watch for the collaboration in 1912. Nine years later he won another watch, this time unassisted. Plentifully supplied with watches, Levy discovered it was later than he thought; he also discovered that he could get paid for writing.

Now on to the poetry. Note the tight structure, which works well for him:

On the isle of Pago Pago, land of palm trees, rice and sago,
Where the Chinaman and Dago dwell with natives dusky hued,
Lived a dissolute and shady, bold adventuress named Sadie,
Sadie Thompson was the lady, and the life she lived was lewd.

She had practised her profession in our insular possession,
Which, to make a frank confession, people call the Philippines.
There she'd made a tidy profit till the clergy, hearing of it,
Made her life as hot as Tophet, driving her to other scenes.

So this impudent virago hied herself to Pago Pago
Where the Chinaman and Dago to her cottage often came.
Trade was lucrative and merry, till one day the local ferry
Brought a noble missionary, Rev'rend Davidson by name.

Full text of levy’s poem is here, though you’ll noticed it’s not faithfully reproduced. Untermeyer has this poem laid out at four lines per block, not the eight shown on the page. As I’m sure he’s working from original material, I’ll go with Untermeyer’s version of the thing.

I love this kind of intricate structure within a structure, and faithfully try to replicate it in my own poems. Unfortunately, I don’t have characters like Sadie and the Rev’rend Davidson to work with (at least not yet) so my poems are not as good as these.

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