Thursday, November 29, 2007

Reasoning Rhyme

An interesting series of posts about rhyme terminology at Andrew Philips' blog Tonguefire. It's nice to see someone applying analytical thinking to the subject. (Note: you of course need to start with the bottom post in the series.)

There are a lot of things I like about his nomenclature. I agree the traditional terminology is not intuitive, and reflects values that are no longer, and may never have been, current. Well, it wasn't made, it grew; a terminology that is actually designed seems like a really good idea. Philips' twin/fraternal/identical rhyme classification makes especially good use of existing language to clarify the confusing traditional terminology of perfect, full, rich, etc. rhymes.

I don't quite see why the traditional terms assonance and consonance should be discarded in favor of nuclear rhyme and peripheral rhyme. The usage seems identical, and while Philips' proposal does allow a focus on the phonetic units involved (onset, nucleus, coda), it also asserts that these relationships are in fact rhymes. I'm not entirely prepared to agree with this assertion and I'm certainly not prepared to allow it to embed itself in the language of the profession. Talk about your unexamined assumptions.

It's not that I don't think assonance and consonance are valid poetically: if it sounds right, it is right. But it seems to me that Philips' terminology risks broadening the definition of "rhyme" to the point where it loses all usefulness. I'd prefer that our terminology reflect that words can have a "sound-alike" relationship without "rhyming". Ultimately rhyme is in the ear of the hearer. Do "picture" and "cooker" rhyme to your ear? They don't to mine, and yet there seems to be a nonrandom sound-relationship there. What about another Philips example: "sang" and "work"? If there's a relationship there, I'm not hearing it.

Philips points out that the onset, the consonant or consonant cluster before the vowel of the stressed syllable, is irrelevant to traditional rhyme but becomes important when considering consonance of the onset or coda. What he overlooks is that there is already a traditional term for consonance of the onset: it's called alliteration, defined as the identity of the first sounds preceding the vowels in the syllables carrying the primary stresses of two words. I would like to have seen Philips develop his terminology to cover alliteration by analogy, rather than redefining it as a form of rhyme.

Take one of his pairs drawn from a Simon Armitage poem: longer:larder. Note that both his terminology and mine make no reference to the fact that the unstressed syllables correspond, which actually is to my ear the defining feature of the Armitage poem in question. So what we're discussing is the relationship between "long" and "lard". Do they really rhyme? I can't subscribe to that opinion. But clearly these words do alliterate on the l, and this seems a more straightforward description than removed rhyme-- which is a subset of distant rhyme-- which is a subset of relative rhyme. It also makes more sense to me to distinguish degrees of alliteration, eg. we recognize strong:strike as a stronger alliteration than strong:stink, than to refer to the second pair as a removed rhyme with an intrusion in the onset. (Note that it's not a remote rhyme because there's no relationship between the nuclei. I think.)

The value of a new terminology in any field must rest on how much it improves the discussion of a field. Philips' terminology is certainly more precise then traditional terminology, and enriches the discussion by connecting to underlying phonetic-linguistic concepts. On the other hand, it's equally value-laden in the aggressiveness with which it extends the hegemony of the term "rhyme" to include even the most remote of sound-relationships, including those which already have widely-used, precisely defined, and well-understood names of their own, ie. assonance, consonance, alliteration.

But I think the major contribution of discussions like his one of Armitage's poems is that they call attention to the underlying regularity of these poems as wholes-- a point he actually risks obscuring by trying to decompose each poem into rhyme pairs. Read aloud, these poems present an overall impression of rhyme, though any particular perceived rhyme may silverfish away when you grab for it. The forest doesn't seem to care whether it's made up of noble, silver, subalpine or white firs.


Andrew Philip said...

Thanks for the critique. It's invigorating to have some debate on the posts. I am, of course, formulating my reply. Might post it as a comment here, unless it looks like being too long, in which case it'll appear on Tonguefire.

Andrew Philip said...

Response now formulated and posted, in two parts, on my blog. Hope you enjoy reading it.