January 13, 2004 by AK

Rhyme II

The Russian language seems to be inherently better suited for rich, elaborate rhymes. Hence the stricter requirements: “go–slow” and “geh–seh” wouldn’t cut it in Russian, unless in folk and pop songs. The first half of the 20th century saw the most inventive rhymers in Russian literary history: Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Bryusov. On the contrary, English poets were content with simple assonances for ages, as were Russian poets in the 19th century, “simple” being a bit less simple for them. Then most of the English-tongued bards started wearing of meter and rhyme; they turned to free verse instead. Some of the Russian poets chose quite a different route: further formal sophistication.

Although there is nothing like the great French vers libre tradition in Russian literature, free verse is not a stranger here either (e.g., Mikhail Kuzmin left a few excellent poems of that kind; he tried a lot of old forms, too, like the rondeau or the triolet). But it is one of many varieties, not The One. Interestingly, Baron Rosen claimed, as early as 1836, that rhymed verse was a child’s game, a sign of cultural immaturity, that folk poetry only used rhyme to accentuate irony or salacious contexts, and suggested returning to the grand style of ancient epic poetry. Russian poets shrugged off his remarks, although Pushkin (a great master, inter alia, of blank verse — not of free verse, of course) found them worthy to be published in his journal, Sovremennik.

When Russian poets turned to rhyme’s underexplored potential, Anglophones were turning away from it. Now that that the pop world has a better claim on meter and rhyme than does serious poetry, let’s not forget that English is not so well suited for rhyming, and that its servants have never accorded rhyme enough reverence. On the contrary, a Russian-style rhyme in English would provoke laughter or condescending smile: e.g., “Manhattan–my hat, man”, which is acceptably inventive in Russian.


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