SHAWKAT TOORAWA: Good evening and welcome. A few years ago-- no, many years ago-- I started reading Poetry Magazine again-- a magazine that I had stopped reading, because I was so unhappy with the confessional and introspective and what I thought, certainly by my own views, and kind of uninteresting poetry that was being published.
I then read an article about a new editor, Christian Wiman, and I picked up poetry again and discovered many voices-- some established, some new. And one in particular blew me away. And I would tell people about A.E. Stallings. And they would just look at me blankly, mainly because those people tended not to be people who were reading poetry.
And I asked all those people to start reading Poetry Magazine. And I followed A.E. Stallings and others, to be sure, for some time. And then my connection to Poetry Magazine was cemented a little more.
I did a translation for one of the issues. And I ended up being published in the same issue as A.E. Stallings, who had also translated something. And I started doing something at Cornell called the Dr. T. Project, in which I cover important items of cultural interest.
And I decided that A.E. Stallings was an important item of cultural interest. And so I spoke about her for a few minutes to some students. And then we made a t-shirt.
And so on the back of the t-shirt, I had to put some of the items I'd covered. And I put A.E. Stallings' name. I then mentioned this to Gail Holst-Warhaft, who is a dear friend and colleague. And she said, well, I know A.E. Stallings. In fact, I'm going to Greece. I'll take the t-shirt.
And so the t-shirt went to Greece. And a volume of one of A.E. Stallings' poetry came back-- "Ha-pax" or "Hay-pax." And she didn't know, I think-- the poet-- that I'm actually someone who works on hapaxes in the Quran.
At any rate, this is the introduction to how it occurred to me, and then with the close collaboration of Gail Holst-Warhaft, it occurred to us to nominate A.E. Stallings for a messenger lectureship. In this enterprise, we received the co-sponsorship and collaboration of the Society for the Humanities, the Department of English, the Department of Classics, the Department of Comparative Literature, and, through the persons of Gail and myself, the Mediterranean Studies Initiative, and the Department of Near Eastern Studies, which, incidentally, is the greatest department of near Eastern studies in the world.
The messenger lectures were established in 1924 through a request by a graduate of Cornell, who had graduated, I believe, in 1880, to bring in people that Cornellians and people in Ithaca would not otherwise hear. In writing the nomination, I had some hesitation, because I worried that a poet would not be-- the nomination would not go through for a poet. Certainly no other poet had ever been nominated. Or if they had been, they certainly hadn't received the approval.
So we were delighted when the messenger lecture-- that is to say, the University Lectures Committee agreed. She was supposed to come in April. And this was delayed to October for all kinds of reasons. But we think they were good reasons.
And this is why we're here today. So I'd like to thank the university for its intelligence in accepting the nomination. I'd like to thank A.E. Stallings and her husband John Psaropoulos, who's sitting right next to her, and their young children, who are in the hotel-- in the Statler-- for hauling all the way out here from Athens, Greece. Did I mention that they live in Athens, Greece?
And I'd like to thank you all for coming. I think we're in for a real treat. Three lectures-- one today, one Wednesday in this room at this time on translation of poetry-- another thing which she has accomplished-- and then something at the museum-- the Johnson Museum-- on Thursday at 7:00, which will be a reading by A.E. Stallings and which will then morph into a poetry night-- a elegant soiree of poetry and pastry, to which you are all invited.
I'm going to leave it to my friend Gail Holst-Warhaft to do the remaining introduction. Thank you again. And hold your applause, not that I need any.
I've been reminded to tell you to turn your cell phones off. It seems to be the way every evening starts these days-- with a statement about cell phones. But since I've forgotten to turn my own off, it was a salutary reminder.
GAIL HOLST-WARHAFT: Thank you, Shawkat. Shawkat is the person, I think, with about the best ideas on this campus, which is why I like doing things with him, because he keeps coming up with yet another wonderful idea. And so far, this is the best idea of all.
I'm delighted that Alicia and John have come here to Ithaca. It seems appropriate. It is Ithaca, after all. There is a strong Greek connection.
And I also want to say, for those people who are not only interested in poetry, that John will be talking at 4 o'clock in the physics building-- the physical sciences building-- room 401 on Thursday before Alicia speaks. And he'll be talking about the Greek crisis-- a fairly hot topic at the moment.
Just a couple of words-- I said that I would say a couple of words. And they are couple of words about Alicia. And a friend of mine today, to whom I spoke, who's a great admirer said, oh, you're not, just read a poem. He said, don't say a word, just read a poem, that'll do.
And so I just wanted to say that, as a person who is a poet myself, I always have a few books of modern poetry on my shelf above where I write. And sometimes you look at them to see how you're measuring up with or to steal a little trick from one of them. And other times, you look at them for just the unadulterated pleasure of re-reading them.
And then there are ones you love to read, because they seem to be speaking both to you and for you. And the poetry books on my desk come from an odd mixture of languages and cultures and surprisingly few in English. But Cavafy is a keeper. He's always there.
And I can never put away Yehuda Amichai's latest book of poems, Open Closed Open. If you haven't read it, run out and buy it. Szymborska's Complete Poems are always there. And Heaney's Human Chain, and Stallings' Hapax, to which I have now added all of her most recent book.
And why is she in this group of poets? Well, there are firstly the personal things-- that Stallings writes of so many things that I love. She writes of Greece, Greek mythology, mourning and grief, children, animals. And two of the poems I like best of hers are about animals.
And the subjects, rather oddly, are species that D.H. Lawrence-- who I think must be perhaps the finest of English poets writing about animals-- he made his snake and his bat so memorable that I thought, nobody could write about those again. But Stallings' poem "Momentary" is a wonderful poem, I think, recently published in poetry. And it's one of regret for an unrealized encounter, as is Lawrence's.
But while Lawrence's snake is a lordly male, the glamorous creature glimpsed in Stallings' garden is a charming, elusive female. And I quote, "Too late I notice as she passes, zither of chromatic scale. I only ever see her tail quicksilver into tall grasses.
I only know her by her flowing, by her glamour disappearing into shadow as I'm nearing. I only recognize her going." How lovely that "quicksilver" is as a verb and how that word "glamorous" conjures up some slightly old-fashioned beauty-- the star of the silent screen in a shimmering lame dress.
So I've always loved what she does with things that you think, gosh, can she really take on that ancient modern Greek stuff-- stuff that has been done by other people? And she does it. And she does it so wonderfully.
But apart from their settings and their subjects, Stallings' poems have two qualities that make her indispensable to me. One is this formal grace she has-- a technical brilliance that appears to be totally effortless. And the other is her sense of humor.
And I just want to read one very funny little poem that had me laughing so much that I couldn't stop. "Stoic Seneca wasn't a hero to take on a pupil like Nero. But I tell you, in those days, it took some cojones to give his assignments zero."
And with that, I would like to introduce Joanie Mackowski from the English department, who will say perhaps a few more words about somebody that's difficult to say enough good about. Thank you.
JOANIE MACKOWSKI: was quite a funny tripartite introduction. But OK. It takes three of us to do this properly.
I'm delighted and honored to introduce A.E. Stallings. And to begin, I'd like to go back in time-- not to ancient Greek pre-antiquity, not to a pre-relapsarian poetic era when minutes actually were trochees. Rather, let's go back to the 1990s. That's when poems by A.E. Stallings first started appearing in journals and anthologies.
Her poems first appeared in Poetry Magazine in 1995. In 1994, her poem "Apollo Takes Charge of His Muses" was included in the annual anthology Best American Poetry. And that edition was edited by A.R. Ammons, of all people. And it's actually fascinating to look at that 1994 table of contents, because who but Archie Ammons would have included poems by Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Sharon Olds, Dean Young, and Lyn Hejinian? That's some lineup-- among others-- among A.E. Stallings.
But back in the 1990s, there was a lot of discussion about something called the new formalism or even neo-formalism. As Pound wrote in a piece on cantos-- to break the pentameter. That was the first heave. In the '80s and '90s, we were trying to break out of the 20th century. And some poets started writing again in meter and rhyme.
And this formal poetry made some other poets really uptight. They felt really uptight about it. So formal poetry was criticized for being a decadently offensive luxury, as if it gilded the nipple.
Formal poetry was even criticized for being a form of literary fascism. One writer, in an essay called Neo-Formalism-- A Dangerous Nostalgia, compared iambic pentameter to the goosestep. So as A.E. Stallings' poetry took root in print, with its cosmic calibrated measures-- its rhymes sonic fibrillation, its high speed races from origins to apogees-- her poems left all those arguments in the dust. Instead of a shouting match between free poetry and formal poetry, we could start talking again about poetry.
And I, too, want to read one of your poems. This is an early one, "A Postcard from Greece." "Hatched from sleep-- as we slipped out of orbit round a clothespinned curve new-watered with the rain, I saw the sea, the sky as bright as pain, that outer space through which we were to plummet.
No guardrails hemmed the road. No way to stop it. The only warning here and there-- a shrine. Some tended still, some antique and forgotten, empty of oil. But all were consecrated to those who lost their wild race with the road and sliced the sea once like a knife.
Somehow we struck an olive tree instead. Our car stopped on the cliff's brow. Suddenly safe, we clung together, shade to pagan shade, surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife."
So that's a Petrarchan sonnet, observing the rights of the form with masterful fervor and the way, in its imagery, it's moving from orbit to close-pin-- so spanning such a speed, while hitting the measures so beautifully. So it's set in Greece in a car. And we're scaling from the mundane safety of laundry out to orbit and the tedious sea.
And one last bit-- A.E. Stallings-- her name, who, I didn't know she was a she. That's on purpose and also an honor to A.E. Housman. So it's self burned away, like Elliott's filament of platinum. It's an extinction going on.
And you get the sense that from the get-go, she's more interested in poetry than she is in poets. But I'm so glad that people found her to give her awards and stuff. So please, let's really welcome her now.
[INAUDIBLE] turn off my phone. All right. Let me grab some water. Yeah, thanks. Thank you.
A.E. STALLINGS: Well, that was amazing and humbling. I'm so grateful to be here. This is our first trip to Ithaca-- or any Ithaca, for that matter.
And it's humbling and also head-expanding to hear such things and to be on a t-shirt. And I'm so grateful to Shawkat, to Dr. T, and to Gail, and to Cornell for bringing us here. We're grateful to Ithaca, who gave us the beautiful journey.
And I thought I would talk-- I'm going to speak about some things and read some poems. And what I wanted to talk about-- it is true that, for some reason, I write almost exclusively in received forms, whatever that may be.
It does make some people mad-- I think less so than it used to. But it's unclear to me why. But it's not really meter that makes people mad.
If you have an un-rhymed poem that happens to be metrical, a lot of people just won't even realize it. That's not going to make them mad. What makes people upset is rhyme. Rhyme upsets people.
So I was going to title this talk slash reading "Rhyme and Unreason." Three and 1/2 years ago-- I remember this, because I was pregnant with my daughter-- I was commissioned to write a manifesto for Poetry Magazine. And I think Chris Wiman, the editor, and Don Share-- they decided they wanted to kind of stir things up. So they invited several poets from different schools or aesthetic leanings to write a manifesto.
And at first, I wasn't really thrilled about this assignment. I'm not really big into manifestos. But then I sort of thought of a manifesto as a received form. And I could write a manifesto as a received form.
And so I thought, OK, I need something that's really subversive, something that gets people upset. And I thought, what better than to write about rhyme? And I was commissioned to do this. And there's a certain element of me, as a professional writer, if I'm commissioned and paid to do something, I will try to do it-- give it my best shot.
So this was my Presto Manifesto, a manifesto about rhyme. And I'm going to read this first and then talk a little bit about rhyme.
"The freedom to not rhyme must include the freedom to rhyme. Then verse will be free. All rhymed poetry must be rhyme-driven. This is no longer to be considered pejorative.
Rhyme is at the wheel. No, rhyme is the engine. Rhyme is an engine of meter" [INAUDIBLE]-- sorry.
"Rhyme is an engine of syntax. Like meter, it understands the importance of prepositions. English is not rhyme-poor. It is only uninflected.
On the contrary, English has a richness in rhymes across different parts of speech, whereas in many other languages, rhyme is often merely a coincident jingle of accidents. There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes.
Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon all still have great poems ahead of them." I'm serious.
"Rhymes may be so far apart, you cannot hear them. But they can hear each other as if whispering on a toy telephone made of two paper cups and a length of string. Rhymes do not need to be hidden or disguised. They are nothing to be ashamed of.
Rhymes are not good Victorian children to be seen but not heard. Rhyme may be feminine or masculine, but not neuter. Some rhymes are diatonic. Some are modal.
Off-rhymes founded on consonants are more literary than off-rhymes founded on vowels. Vowels are shifty. Assonance is in the mouth, not the ear. It is performative.
Consonants brings forth what is different. So we listen for what is the same. Assonance brings forth likeness. We listen for dissonance. The vowel is the third of the chord.
Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don't rhyme, solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem, have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy. Rhyme is an irrational, sensual link between two words. It is chemical. It is alchemical.
April, silver, orange, month-- rhyme freeze the poet from what he wants to say. Rhyme can also free a poem of fixed line length. A rhyme lets us hear the end of the line, so lines may be of any metrical length or even syllabic and still be heard.
Rhyme schemes. Rhyme annoys people, but only people who write poetry that doesn't rhyme and critics. See also, chime, climb, crime, dime, grime, I'm, lime, mime, paradigm, pantomime, prime, rhyme, slime, sublime, time, time." Presto Manifesto.
So it's true. Nobody wants to be called a new formalist. This is just one of those things.
All kinds of people are clamoring at the door of the avant-garde. Please call me avant-garde. But nobody wants to be called a new formalist. It's sort of like being called a young fogey or something, who only turn into old fogeys. So it's one of these things that it's not necessarily a label that people like to have.
But rhyme continues to be the thing that gets people upset. And that is because the issue of rhyme is an issue of control. If you look at all of the arguments for or against rhyme over the centuries-- and it's the same argument over and over and over again-- the argument against rhyme is that it hinders. It's a hindrance to free expression.
And the argument for rhyme is that it unlocks secret associations. Rhyme is, for me, well, I think it is a metaphor. If you define metaphor as the comparison of two dissimilar things wherein we find likenesses, that is what rhyme does. Rhyme has-- it's a sympathetic magic.
Some people do not like that idea of the irrational in rhyme. So it is a kind of sympathetic magic where two things that have some kind of arbitrary similarity-- in this case, an end sound-- also seem to have some other connection. Womb and tomb, gloom, doom all seem to us to have some kind of fitted connectiveness. And of course, each language will have its own groupings. That's one of the language-specific things about rhyme that is difficult for the translator.
But this sympathetic magic-- for instance, breath and death. These would seem to be opposites. But instead, we listen to the fact that both of them end in this exporation of "th." Breath and death-- and that's one of these very limited rhyme pairs. There is breath, death, Seth, Elizabeth. I guess now you have crystal meth.
But breath and death will always, in English, have this magical connection. So rhyme has this effect of casting a spell-- of giving a spell. And I use "spell" very literally. There's always been this connection in magic, too, with spellings with the words themselves, the sounds of the words themselves so that-- well, for instance, the word "glamour," which came up into this, it's one of my favorite words.
Glamour, which I think we do think of in the sense of this sort of glimmering of celebrity-- glamour is originally the Scots' version of our word grammar. And again, it's this idea of casting a spell because of the power of words themselves. And rhyme has this.
We expect witches to rhyme-- double trouble kind of things. But it's interesting that this controversy is almost as old as its usage. The classical poets-- we think of Greek and Latin-- did not rhyme. They knew about rhyme.
Rhyme was actually more something that classical writers would use in the rhetoric of prose. It would perhaps punctuate the ends of periods and sentences and so forth. It was not really necessary for poetry in any way, because you had these languages with all of these endings that repeated all the time.
Rhymes were just all over the place. You couldn't throw anything without hitting a rhyme. And that way, it was not able to have quite the same magical association it does once we've left those endings and become less inflected languages.
But after it became used in medieval Latin hymns, it gets brought over into the vulgar languages. And by "vulgar," that is one of the things about rhyme. It's considered to be gross, barbarous, vulgar. It doesn't have the purity of the classical languages that don't rhyme.
And so almost very early on, you get defenses and attacks on rhyme. And it's almost always the same arguments that come up. This is a defensive rhyme by Samuel David 1603, who is responding to a treatise against the vulgarity, grossness, barbarousness of rhyme.
"Indeed I have wished that there were not that multiplicity of rhymes as is used by many in sonnets, which yet we see in some so happily to succeed and have been so far from hindering their inventions, as it hath begot conceit beyond expectation and comparable to the best inventions of the world. For sure in an eminent spirit, whom nature hath fitted for that mystery, rhyme is no impediment to his conceit, but rather gives him wings to mount and carries him not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a far happier flight."
So there's this idea that rhyme can take a poet out of himself. It's not about what the poet wants to say, but what the rhyme wants to say-- that it can cause something surprising and inspired-- this magical idea of inspiration. And Samuel Daniel is maybe not one of the great, great, great poets, but a very fine poet.
You might know his sonnet, "Care-Charmer Sleep, Son of the Sable Night"-- "brother to death and silent darkness born." One of the most famous attacks on rhyme in English language is, of course, Milton before "Paradise Lost," which he does in blank verse, which would be un-rhymed iambic pentameter, which itself was an invention for the purpose of translation. The Earl of Sully invented it in order to translate "The Aeneid" of Virgil, which was not rhymed. And he thought it was important that the English not be rhymed.
And of course, Milton was a perfectly good rhymer himself. But he didn't want that for Paradise Lost. "The measure," he explains, "is English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek and of Virgil in Latin, rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially. But the invention of a barbarous age to set off wretched matter and lame meter graced, indeed, since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise. And for the most part, worse than else they would have expressed them. And it's not a good thing in itself to all judicious ears-- trivial and of no true musical delight."
So there is this idea that it's obvious that some people get pleasure out of rhymes. But somehow, it's a gross pleasure. It's a sensual pleasure. It's a bodily pleasure.
It's not a mental, cerebral pleasure the way meter is. And these same arguments get knocked around again and again-- that rhyme is a hindrance. It's a bondage. It bends the poet's thoughts out of shape.
It is pleasurable, but it's the wrong kind of pleasure-- this idea that bondage and pleasure can't go together. And where, in fact, the positive things are, again, that it's a sort of sympathetic magic-- it is a rhetorical device, in the sense that a rhetorical device is a way to persuade. And that is, again, what the argument against rhyme is-- is that it's persuasive but illogical.
It's like an advertising jingle. It somehow gets into your head by bypassing your higher thoughts. It is metaphor of the most radical and irrational kind.
This is Rilke-- pro-rhyme. "Do not say anything against rhyme. It is a mighty goddess indeed-- the deity of very secret and very ancient coincidences. And one must never let the fires on its altar burn out.
She is extremely temperamental. One can neither anticipate nor invoke her. She arrives like happiness itself, her hands filled with blossoms of fulfillment. True rhyme is not a means of poetry, but an infinitely affirming 'yes' that the gods impress like a seal on our most innocent emotions."
So again, the argument for rhyme is an emotional and irrational one where you have, for instance, Nabokov on his prose translation of Onegin. He argues for why he doesn't think he should do a verse translation.
"Here are three conclusions I've arrived at. One, it is impossible to translate Onegin in rhyme. Two, it is possible to describe in a series of footnotes the modulations and rhyme of the text"-- et cetera. "Three, it is possible to translate Onegin with reasonable accuracy by substituting"-- he gives his metrical things.
"These conclusions can be generalized. I want translations with copious footnotes-- footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity. I want such footnotes in the absolutely literal sense with no emasculation and no padding."
Rhyme emasculates. "I want such sense and such notes for all poetry and other tongues that still languishes in poetical versions begrimed and beslimed by rhyme." Again, this is the infusion of rhyme into prose. "And when my Onegin is ready, it will either confirm exactly to my vision or not appear at all."
On the other hand, he writes his apology for doing Onegin in prose in two perfect Pushkin sonnet stanzas. "What is translation on a platter? A poet's pale and glaring head; a parrot's screech; a monkey's chatter; and profanation of the dead-- the parasites you were so hard on are pardoned, if I have your pardon.
Oh, Pushkin, for my stratagem, I travel down your secret stem and reach the root and fed upon it. Then in a language newly learned, I grew another stock and turned your stanza-- the pattern on a sonnet-- into my honest roadside prose, all thorn but cousin to your rose." He's showing off. He's saying, I could have done it.
He has it both ways. And it ends, "I analyze alliterations that grace your feast and haunt the great fourth stanza of your canto eight. This is my task of poet's patience and scholastic passion blent-- dove droppings on your monument." Begriming and besliming with rhyme-- so I think it's perhaps worth understanding what happens when rhyme goes wrong, because this is what's always put forth about rhyme.
It's always brought forth, well, look at this ghastly rhyme, as if all free verse could be condemned by bringing forth some ghastly free verse poems. And again, this idea of boring, tired, weary rhyme pairs comes up, for instance, in Pope's Essay on Criticism-- very famous couple of couplets. This is about bad poets.
"While they ring round the same unvaried chimes with sure returns of still expected rhymes. Wherever you find the cooling Western breeze, in the next line, it whispers through the trees. If crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep, the reader's threatened, not in vain, with sleep."
Of course, Pope himself uses breeze and trees in other poems. And there are various reasons why these are bad rhymes and in this example. One of the things we think about-- or maybe not consciously, but perhaps start to think about at a certain point, and there are even words for this in other languages. Like, in Portuguese, "rhema pobre" or whatever is "poor rhyme."
And a poor rhyme is a rhyme on the same grammatical part of speech. So here we have, for instance "chimes" and "rhymes"-- two monosyllabic nouns. We have "breeze" and "trees"-- two monosyllabic nouns. We have "creep" and "sleep"-- two monosyllabic verbs.
Why doesn't that work as well as, for instance, rhyming different parts of speech, rhyming different lengths of words, rhyming the abstract with the concrete? It's something to think about. One of the reasons is that you want to both have a certain equivalence, but you also want to have energy.
And those of you who are scientists will know much more about this than I. But I sometimes use the metaphor of a thermodynamic equilibrium, which sounds very nice, but it's death. It's when a system is dead.
If you've got two fronts that are the same temperature, nothing is going to happen. You need a cold front and a hot front. You need some kind of imbalance. Some kind of asymmetry will give that coupled balance its energy.
So for instance, "chimes," "rhymes," "breeze," "trees," "creep," "sleep." Those aren't very exciting rhymes. You could still write a wonderful poem using those rhymes.
But if you'll notice, what Pope is doing is he's showing you it's not just that the rhymes are poor, but the thought behind them is poor. It's not, "While they ring around some unvaried chimes with sure returns of still expected rhymes, whenever you find the cooling Western breeze"-- the entire phrase is a cliche. That is what makes the rhyme poor.
"The cooling Western breeze," in the next line, it "whispers through the trees." That whole phrase is a cliche. And a rhyme is just part of a phrase.
Also, in English, where you have rhymes that are the same part of speech, that is probably because you're using rather boring syntax. If you have a poem that ends-- end rhymes-- cat, mat, rat-- you're having sort of noun, verb, noun, noun, verb, noun, where if you have something like a preposition, perhaps, before-- if you have an adverb-- if you have something that expands out, the syntax and the complexity of the thought in the poem is probably more complex.
So even though he's mocking these rhyme pairs, it's not really the pairs themselves that are at fault. It's this whole lame, cliched phrases-- "crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep," and so on. And Frost was one of the first people to open my eyes to this.
I had done some of it, I think, without thinking. You realize that a poem was flat and something about the rhymes was wrong. Even though they were perfect rhymes, there was something wrong about them. As Frost says in The Constant Symbol, "The freshness of a poem belongs absolutely to its not having been thought out and then set to verse as the verse, in turn, might be set to music."
And then later, "I may say the strain of rhyming is less since I came to see words as phrase ends to countless phrases. Just as the syllables -ly, -ing, -ation, are word ends to countless words. There are countless phrases that might end in trees. And some of them will be amazing phrases, and some of them will be bored and tired phrases."
And also, when he says, "The freshness of a poem belongs absolutely to its not having been thought out and then set to verse as the verse, in turn, is set to music"-- this is where criticizers, critics of rhyme, who don't write in rhyme themselves, misunderstand how rhyming poems work and how rhyming poets work. They do not think up what they want to say and then find rhymes for that thing, which might bend the same thing out of shape.
It is the rhymes that lead the poet to the discovery of what the poem is about. In this sense, I think of poets as bats. Poets are creatures who are blind, hanging upside down in a cave. And they have to let go into the unknown and find their way by calling out and listening to these resonances. For a rhyming poet, that is often the rhymes themselves telling the poem where it needs to go.
I've had wonderful reviews. I've had negative reviews. I've had wonderful, interesting, negative reviews. Anyway, I've been very lucky to have been reviewed at all. And I'm not complaining about being reviewed.
But I'm just going to give you a little example from a review of a misunderstanding of how a rhyming poet works, even though her criticisms may be quite valid. And she picks on a weak poem in the book Hapax. This was a review by Joan Houlihan, who's a critic I admire very much. I'm not criticizing her criticizing of me. I'm giving you an example.
She says, "Reading [INAUDIBLE] is like watching a thoroughbred horse win the race in spite of a weighted saddle-- magnificent horse, exciting race, but the handicap is a constant distraction, often becoming itself the focus." So she goes on, "It is curious that Stalling seems wedded to end rhyming, mainly in true rhyme, no matter what the poem might otherwise do."
You see, for me, the poem wouldn't exist otherwise. I could perhaps write a rhyming poem and then set it in free verse, but that would be a very bizarre proposition. "Hapax provokes a question. What is the purpose of rhyme? Is it to emphasize meaning?
Is it to bring pleasure to the ear? Is it to engage the reader at a physiological level? Certainly, rhyme can do all of these things. But it doesn't need to be placed at the end of a line to do it, nor does it need to be true rhyme.
To consistently seek out true rhymes and to constantly place them at the ends of lines has another purpose-- the fulfillment of a prescribed pattern." This, you see, I would take issue with as a concept. "This is not a purpose driven by the poem, but one driven by its maker."
And for me, actually, that's backwards from how I feel that I work. I may be wrong. Frost also speaks quite a lot about performance-- poetry as performance. And certainly, there's an element in rhyme that is perhaps a little showy, perhaps a little putting-it-all-out-there. This is what I'm going to do, and if I do it badly, you're going to hear a big splat when I fall off the line.
But I think he is also thinking a performance in its almost etymological sense, which is to fully furnish, to thoroughly fulfill. And in that sense of not fulfilling some idea that you have, but the rhyme fulfilling its own surprising expectations, one hopes. So I will read some poems, which may or may not have to do with-- so you can think about this.
Are these good rhymes? Are these bad rhymes? Or you could not think about the rhymes at all. That is fine, too.
It seemed to me appropriate, since it was brought up that-- I will say Archie Ammons chose this poem. It was almost my first published non-juvenalia poem for Best American Poetry. And it was in a sort of crossroads, I think, in my work.
I was trying very hard to get published. And I was writing poems I thought would get published instead of poems I really wanted to write or liked, which I think is common with younger poets. And it was interesting. I sent a batch of poems to the Beloit Poetry Journal.
And I threw this one at the last minute. And I thought, they won't possibly take it, because it's got rhyme in it. But that was the one they took.
And I suddenly realized that people might like the rhyming poems, which is what I really enjoy doing anyway. But you'll see here that this has just very occasional rhyme.
"Apollo takes charge of his muses. They sat there, nine women much the same age, the same poppy-red hair and similar complexions, freckling much the same in the summer glare-- the same bright eyes of green, melting to blue, melting to golden brown.
They sat there, nine women, all of them very quiet. One perhaps was looking at her nails. One plaited her hair in narrow strands. One stared at a stone.
One let fall a mangled flower from her hands. All nine of them very quiet. And the one who spoke said softly"-- this is a bit like maybe Bane taking over the muse. "Of course, he was very charming. And he smiled, introduced himself, and said he'd heard good things.
Shook hands all round, greeted us by name, assured us it would all be much the same, explained his policies, his few minor suggestions, which we would please observe. He looked forward to working with us. Wouldn't it be fun? Happy to answer any questions.
Any questions? But none of us spoke or raised her hand. And questions, there were none. What has poetry to do with reason or the sun?"
So this is another poem of kind of occasional internal rhyme where I enjoyed putting the rhyme not at the end of the line, but at the beginning of the next stanza to sort of pull the poem along. And that was fun to do. I don't think I've done that since. But I enjoyed writing this poem.
This is entitled "The Man Who Wouldn't Plant Willow Trees." "Willows are messy trees, hair in their eyes. They weep like women after too much wine and not enough love.
They litter a lawn with leaves like the butts of regret smoked down to the filter. They are always out of kilter. Thirsty as drunks, they'll sink into a sewer with their roots. They have no pride.
There's never enough sorrow. A breeze threatens, and they shake with sobs. Willows are slobs and must be cleaned up after. They'll bust up pipes, just looking for a drink.
Their fingers tremble, but make wicked switches. They claim they are sorry. But they whisper it."
Guess those are those whispering trees, but I didn't rhyme it with "breeze"-- not this time, anyway. I'm sure I've done it. And one of the nice things about rhyme, too, you can use rhyme in what is essentially a prose poem.
You don't necessarily have to have rhyme in a metrical poem. One of the Greek myths that has long fascinated me and many other people, obviously, is the myth of Hades and Persephone and Demeter, or Proserpina. I just think it has this universal appeal of-- it's creepy.
There's this creepy god of the dead who takes off the sort of Little Red Riding Hood character down to the underworld. And you've got the angry mother and so on. And I've written several poems about this.
And I thought I'd kind of got it out of my system. But evidently, I haven't. And this is also a received form, but not one that's usually used for poetry.
But it suddenly occurred to me that I could use it for poem. And reading it in an academic environment is very appropriate. It is called "First Love-- a Quiz."
"He came up to me, A, in his souped-up Camaro; B, to talk to my skinny best friend; C, and bumped my glass of wine so I wore the fairest stain on my sleeve; D, from the ground in a lead chariot drawn by a team of stallions black as crude oil and breathing sulfur. At his heart, he sported a tiny gold golden arrow."
Some of you will hear the "arrow," "Camaro." "He offered me A, a ride; B, dinner and a movie with a wink at the cliche; C, an excuse not to go back alone to the apartment with its sink of dirty knives; D, a narcissist with 100 dazzling petals that breathed a sweetness as cloying as decay.
I went with him because A, even his friends told me to beware; B, I had nothing to lose except my virginity; C, he placed his hand in the small of my back, and I felt the tread of honeybees; D, he was my uncle-- the one who lived in the half-finished basement, and he took me by the hair. The place he took me to A, was dark as my shut eyes; B, and where I ate bitter seed and became ripe; C, and from which my mother would never take me wholly back, though she wept and walked the earth and made the bearded ears of barley wither on their stocks and the blasted flowers dropped from their seeples; D, is called by some men hell and others, love; E, all of the above."
"Love," "above"-- that's a good one-- good old one. One of the things living a lot of my life in another language in which I'm not a native speaker is there are certain things that-- the poems almost have phrases that are themselves translations. It's as if I'm writing a poem in translation sometimes.
This is from a series called-- well, I'm not a big writer of sequences. I admire people who can do it, but I usually write two. That's not really a sequence.
So it occurred to me that what you could do is just gather a bunch of little poems and give them an overarching grand title. So this is the overarching title, "Exile-- Picture Postcards." It's very grand.
But it's several little sonnety type things. So this is a poem called "Bouzouki," which Gail could tell a lot more about than I. But Bouzouki is an instrument from Asia Minor that is very typical of Greek folk music and of sort of Greek blues-- this music that is all about suffering and misery and is very cathartic and wonderful.
So this is called "Bouzouki." "After five years here, I understand most of the sung words, recognize the tune. But there's an element I'll never get that isn't born in me-- the way they play.
One manages to hold his cigarette between two fingers on his strumming hand, takes drags between his solos, and then soon, how something changes. A woman starts to sway around an absent center, ancient wrongs cherished.
The cigarette gives up its ghost. The music drives now. Someone makes a toast as suddenly, the melody arrives at minor-- Asia Minor in whose songs the hands of lovers always rhyme with knives."
It's sort of a double joke for me, because Greek, it's [GREEK] and [GREEK]. They do rhyme. And it's one of those pairings, whereas we don't have that "hands are knives" thing. But Greek has-- that's one of their sort of sacred and mysterious pairings.
So this is my bat metaphor. "Explaining an Affinity for Bats"-- "That they are only glimpsed in silhouette and seem something else at first-- a swallow-- and move like new tunes, difficult to follow, staggering towards an obstacle they yet avoid in a last minute pirouette, somehow telling solid things from hollow, sounding out how high a space or shallow, revising into deepening violet.
That they sing not the way the song bird sings, whose song is wrote to ornament finesse, but travel by a sort of song that rings true-- not an utterance, but hearkenings who find their way by calling into darkness to hear their voice bounce off the shape of things."
I think the idea that rhyme somehow hinders the poet from what he or she wants to say-- that it somehow prescribes and tells you what to do and bosses you around. Well, there's a sort of game that I think was started in the 1800s called [INAUDIBLE], where you are given the end words of a sonnet, and you have to come up with a new sonnet.
And again, I was sort of invited to give this a shot. And these rhymes were taken from Shakespeare "Sonnet 20," which is a very gender-switching-around poem. "A woman's face with nature's own hand painted, hast thou the master mistress of my passion. A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted with shifting changes is false women's fashion."
So this very gender-bending, cross-dressing sonnet all in interestingly feminine rhymes-- and those are "painted passion," "acquainted fashion," "rolling gazeth," "controlling amazeth," "created a doting," "defeated nothing," "pleasure," "treasure." And we were asked to write a sonnet to these. And I said, no, no, I cannot do it, absolutely not-- cannot do it.
And we were allowed to cheat a little bit. We were allowed to say "gazes" instead of "gazeth" and "amazes" instead of "amazeth." So that was nice. And a lot of the sonnets, when they did come out in this journal, were, again, about gender-bending, cross-dressing, sexual sorts of things.
And I think once I just decided, I'm just going to put away Shakespeare 20 altogether from my mind and just look at these things, it was a point where-- well, the title is "On the Nearest Pass of Mars in 60,000 Years." And this was something I was thinking about and wanted to write a poem about.
And suddenly, the poem came to me in these rhymes. So this is another thing of the rhyme not telling me what to say or bossing me around, but helping me discover a way to write a poem about something I was interested in writing about.
"War or strife-- yes, you were always painted incarnadine, hematic, flushed with passion. Sanguine, we depicted you acquainted with ruby hues-- the rage in mortal fashion. And yet, to see you ever closer, rolling elliptical through emptiness, our gazes are met now with a gaze past our controlling-- red as an eyeball through which blood amazes and stony blind.
Although we have created gods and goddesses of loathing, doting, they neither love nor hate us, are defeated by telescopes that taper into nothing-- a stare reflecting on itself, a pleasure cold and ferric-- nothing we can treasure."
So that's an interesting experiment. Maybe not my greatest poem, I think, but there it is. One of the things rhyme does is it's interesting to work with rhyme with syllabics-- so not metrical lines, but lines that are governed by the number of syllables-- because it helps you hear the end of the line. It gives the line a little bit of integrity to it, and it's fun.
But anyway, this is a recently-- very recently-- invented form called a fib, which is based on the Fibonacci numbers. So you'll remember zero, one. Zero plus one is one.
One plus one is two. One plus two is three. Two plus three is five. Three plus five is eight. Eight plus five-- 13.
OK, so I thought it would be fun to try this. So I guess technically, the first line is silence. And since they're called fibs, I thought would be fun to write about lies. So this is called "Four Fibs."
"Did Eve believe or grapple over the apple? Eavesdropping Adam heard her say to the snake oil salesman, she was not born yesterday. Miss, this is not bliss."
Ah, a timer. I am rounding up. But how do I stop-- slide to stop timer.
"Miss, this is not bliss. Wisdom is not the abyss, but visceral innocence. Kiss the windfall of the world, she heard him whisper or hiss.
'No me, not me,' cried all three. You shall creep the earth, and you shall labor giving birth. And as for you, you shall toil and sweat for all your worth.
Cross your heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye. That is the awful oath of childhood, chapter and verse, Genesis of the lie."
So I'll read just maybe two more, and then we can talk and have some questions. This is a poem where I stole one of the lines. It's a "triol-ay" or triolet, which is only eight lines to begin with.
It was the first poem I wrote as a new mother with a colicky baby. And I was walking up and down the floor-- walking up and down the floor with a screaming infant, who was obviously not at all grateful to have been brought into the world. And the line just kept going through my head-- and it's not my line. And then this whole triolet came forth out of it.
And again, I don't think-- the rhymes themselves maybe don't look that exciting. "Tunes," "night," "spoons," "spight," "afternoons"-- the most interesting is "afternoons." But that is also in the critical position in the poem.
"Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Ascribed to Martin Luther"-- it's OK to steal if you put that up front. "Why should the devil get all the good tunes, the booze and the neon and Saturday night, the swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons? Why should the devil get all the good tunes?
Does he hum them to wile away sad afternoons in the long, lonesome Sundays or sing them for spite? Why should the devil get all the good tunes, the booze and the neon and Saturday night?"
And I will end on this poem. So a good thing to do after you've had a big argument with your spouse is to dedicate a long poem about it to him.
Now this also-- this poem, I stole the rhyme scheme for the poem. And it's the rhyme scheme of Cavafy's "The City," which is a fascinating rhyme scheme to me, because it's an eight-line stanza. I don't steal the metrical pattern, just the rhyme pattern.
It's an eight-line stanza. So it goes A, BB, CC, DD, A. And it's all about not being able to go somewhere, not being able to leave. And it's so wonderful that when you start reading the poem, you think these couplets are going somewhere.
And they don't. They come back to that A. So since this was also about leaving a city, I thought it would be fun to try this rhyme scheme.
And it is called "On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia, for John." "To leave the city always takes a quarrel. Without warning, rancors that have gathered half the morning, like things to pack or a migraine or a cloud, are suddenly allowed to strike.
They strike the same place twice. We start by straining to be nice, then say something shitty. Isn't it funny how it's what has to happen to make the unseen ivory gates swing open-- the right we must perform so we can leave. Always we must grieve our botched happiness.
We goad each other till we pull to the hard shoulder of the road, yielding to tears inadequate as money. But if, instead of turning back, we drive into the day, we forget the things we didn't say. The silence fills with row on row of vines or olive trees. The radio hums to itself.
We make our way between cirrhotic blue and hills of glaucous green and thread, beyond the legend of the map, through footnote towns along the coast that boast ruins of no account-- a column more wobegone than solemn, men watching soccer at the two cafes, and half-built lots where dingy sheep still graze.
Climbing into the lap of the mountains, now we wind around blind centrifugal turns. The sun's great warships sinks and burns. And where the roads without a sign are crossed, we inevitably get lost.
Yet, to be lost here still feels like being somewhere. And we find when we arrive and park, no one minds that we are late. There is no one to wait-- only a bed to make, a suitcase to unpack.
The earth has turned her back on one yellow middling star to consider lights more various and far. The shaggy mountains hulk into the dark or loom like slow Titanic waves. The cries of owls dilate the shadows.
Weird harmonics rise from the valley's distant glow where coal extracted from the lignite mines must roll on acres of conveyor belts that sing the Pythagorean music of a string. A huge, gray plume of smoke or steam towers like the ghost of a monstrous flame or giant tree among the trees. And it is all the same.
The power plant, the forest, and the night, the manmade light-- we are engulfed in an immense ancient indifference that does not sleep or dream. Call it nature, if you will, though everything that is, is natural-- the lignite-bearing Earth, the factory, a darkness taller than the sky, this out-of-doors that wins us our release and temporary peace-- not because it is pristine or pretty, but because it has no pity or self-pity."
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: I'm instructed to see if there are questions and if A.E. Stallings will take them. Are you-- is that OK?
A.E. STALLINGS: I'll try.
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: Try. Is that something people would like to do? Yes, it seems. So I'm going to let you take them because of the--
A.E. STALLINGS: OK. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Your poems are also very playful and whimsical. So when you read your Persephone poem with the multiple choice, I was expecting [INAUDIBLE] that you grapple with instead of saying "D, all of the above," because we're dealing with Hades, say, "D, all of the below."
A.E. STALLINGS: I wish I'd thought of that. I might steal that. Damn. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I had a question about a line from your manifesto. You said translation must keep rhyme.
A.E. STALLINGS: No, no. I said-- no, no, no. Allow me to re-read. "Translators who translate that rhyme into poems that don't rhyme solely because, they claim, keeping the rhyme is impossible-- that doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem."
I don't say it can't be done-- just that that should not be the only excuse.
AUDIENCE: OK. I'm sorry. My question, though, was in reference to something that [INAUDIBLE] said about translation. He said there is no such thing as translation, just rewriting. And I was wondering what you thought about that statement in connection to translation, rhyme.
A.E. STALLINGS: Well, it's true in a sense. Translating is the most frustrating, thankless task in the world. And that is a case where you know what you want to say. You have to find a way to say it. You're not really-- but there are various kinds of equivalences.
You want to give a sense-- Penguin Classics, for a long time, for instance, would translate various epics and so forth into solid, clear, readable prose translations, which is wonderful. You get the gist. But if part of the gist of the poem is really that it is a poem, you could have completely missed that.
It is rewriting. And translating, I think of also-- and I'm going to talk about this at the translation talk in greater detail. Translation is also a metaphor. Translation is to carry across. Metaphor is to carry across.
And it's a sort of border crossing. There's a customs. And there are some things you're not allowed to take across. And there are some things that you can take across.
And there are some things you can smuggle across. But there are border guards. And you're not going to be able to take everything exactly the same. [INAUDIBLE] answers.
AUDIENCE: Are there any forms or [INAUDIBLE] that you've written in that you've decided that you will just never write them again? I know people who have said, that's it, that's my last sestina-- never, never, never again.
A.E. STALLINGS: Sestina, yeah. There are enough of those. Now I'll probably write one.
But in fact, I've only written a really-- it barely even counts as a sestina. Some of the lines are, like, one word. I now have theories about the sestina, because I've taught them several times.
Really, the problem with the sestina is not repeated words. Repeated words are not a problem. Any kind of narrative-- Three Bears or whatever. You're going to have bears. You're going to have Goldilocks. You're going to have "just right."
It writes itself. The problem with the sestina is it's 39 lines, which is a long poem-- a long poem for a lyric poem. And people start off. And they get into trouble always-- it's always the same place, around line 20 or something, because they have run out of things to say in sestina.
So you have to have enough to say to write a sestina. That's my new sestina theory. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Thank you for a wonderful talk. I want to ask about the arbitrary in rhyme-- doing something just for the rhyme. In a way, your whole talk has been, in a way, to say, there's no such thing as doing something just for the rhyme. To do it for the rhyme is to do it for the poem, which is always smarter than the poet.
A.E. STALLINGS: One hopes.
AUDIENCE: One hopes.
A.E. STALLINGS: Not always.
AUDIENCE: So when you quoted [INAUDIBLE] saying that the rhyme can arrive or the rhyme sort of arrives for the poet in that odd-- what [INAUDIBLE] calls the vestibule right before-- the [INAUDIBLE] vestibule, it rides like happiness itself. And happiness is luck-- the luck of happiness.
In a way, you're suggesting-- or question is, you suggest almost that there's a argument about how to live ethically in writing rhyming poetry-- how to live happily, how to live with the good luck that language bestows on all of us.
A.E. STALLINGS: I think my argument is going to kind of-- again, with the translation talk, I'm largely going to be talking about Lucretius and Epicurus. And there is a certain-- the happy, lucky randomness of rhyme and the pleasure of it, which is, of course, a totally epicurean principle-- that pleasure is the highest good.
And the arguments-- I'm not sure that the arguments for rhyme are-- well, I think there is a certain ethical element in-- the arguments against rhyme are against its arbitrariness, its irrationality, and its pleasure. And they tend to be fairly consistent in those are the problems with it, as opposed to seeing that as a kind of weird-- I personally think of writing in form as not about my trying to control the poem, but about my giving up control over certain things and allowing other things to happen.
Now you can rhyme badly, as you can do free verse badly. And some of that is you don't always take the first rhyme that pops its head up. So you think a little bit. You open up.
But for instance, in that poem about visiting the house in Arcadia, I think I would not have put "shitty" in the poem. But I had "city." And somehow, that gave me permission to put "shitty" in the same poem as "Pythagorean." And so that was a happy surprise for me that that happened. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you could talk a little about the mnemonic value of rhyme?
A.E. STALLINGS: Well, certainly one of the powerful things about rhyme is it does help you remember. And mnemonic, of course, is from the goddess Mnemosyne, who is memory and is the mother of all the muses. And rhyme certainly helps for that.
It's part of the pleasure of it. I do think it actually-- a rhymed poem is laid down in the brain differently from an un-rhymed poem-- that there are certain connections-- literally, neurological connections that are made because of those rhymed sounds.
And it's easier to memorize a rhyming poem. Whether that is necessarily a good or bad thing, I don't know. But it's certainly one of the pleasures that when you memorize a poem, that it literally becomes part of your brain. It is literally part of you, and you carry it with you wherever you go.
When I was in labor with my two children, I would play poems. There were poems that I didn't always get to the end of them. But that was part of the furniture of my brain that I had access to. Even if I had access to nothing else, I had these wonderful poems. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I was very interested to hear this very positive account of rhyme as a form of navigating language. And some of the ways that you're describing it-- especially the bat-- I was thinking about how well you were able to make sense of the space in language. But also, I was hearing kind of negativity of the blindness of the bat.
And I guess I kept thinking about death, breath, and crystal meth and which rhymes are closer or farther away from each other. And I was wondering, when you're navigating, say, breath, death, and crystal meth, what is the experience for you of trying to avoid something? So in the negative feeling of having an aversion to a kind of rhyme, could you talk about that?
A.E. STALLINGS: Well, there's certainly-- rhyme is very similar to humor or telling a joke, in the sense that it sets up an expectation. And that's part of the performance of rhyme. It sets up an expectation.
It sort of sets a contract. This is what I'm going to do. And then you have various options.
You can give the cliched obvious rhyme. You can subvert that expectation. You can not rhyme.
You could off-rhyme at the very end of a poem and throw someone, the way, like, you're walking up stairs and you think there's one more stair and there's not. It sets up an expectation that you can play off. And I think that there is an idea, if you are working in rhymed poems and you feel that it's not having this magical property for you, you don't always have to take the first rhyme that comes along.
In fact, it's really interesting to work in things that are not rhymed pairs. I've recently been doing a lot of things in ottava rima where I'm having to come up with three rhymes. And I'm so used to coming up with two rhymes that coming up with three rhymes is challenging. But it's often the third rhyme that's the most interesting one and takes the poem in an interesting place.
And when you're revising, though, it's wonderful to revise in form, because sometimes something is a prop. Sometimes I know I need a rhyme for this. This isn't the right rhyme. I'm going to stick it in there, get through the poem, and I'm going to obsess about this for the next five years. And then one day, it will pop into my head.
So I think the idea that you don't have to take the first thing that is handed to you out of habit-- you can explore, because often the further you go, the more interesting it gets.
GAIL HOLST-WARHAFT: So please, join me in thanking her for a wonderful, wonderful--
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A.E. Stallings, award-winning poet and translator, presented three lectures, October 15, 17 and 18, as one of this year's Messenger lecturers.
Stallings has received numerous awards, including the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets three times, the Pushcart Prize and the Richard Wilbur Award. In 1994 the late A.R. Ammons invited Stallings to read for the Academy of American Poets New York; in 2011 Stallings received both Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships; and in 2012 she was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.