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Its stuff that rhymes. Only it doesn’t always rhyme. Usually the stuff that doesn’t rhyme is bad, but then if you look at poetry in other languages and traditions sometimes it doesn’t even rhyme at all. Hmm… maybe I should back up a bit. What I’d like to do is try and characterize poetry from a scientific perspective. That means I’ll be observing three samples of poetry captured in the wild to see what we can learn about them. Let’s move right to the first:
I come home during the 2016 campaign and @MattBalzer says to me “Hillary Clinton just called Trump supporters a ‘basket of deplorables.'” You know how I responded? “I don’t often have a good word to say about Hillary Clinton, but that’s a good phrase right there.”
I’m not offended by politicians slipping up and saying how they actually feel. I already knew that Clinton despised me. But that’s just me; that phrase touched a nerve in the general public. “You’re darn right we’re deplorable in your eyes,” says the crowd. “We’re sick of you beltway types believing that your games are the only thing that’s important. Well, we get a vote too!” Only not in so many words; it was expressed in memes and MAGA hats. Almost certainly it helped put Trump over the top in that election. But I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to talk poetry.
If we sit and observe the phenomena we can discover our first principle of what makes poetry. Poetry exhibits strong memetic properties. That isn’t to say it fits well as white text on funny pictures, but that it tends to stick in people’s minds. Poetry, when it’s firing on all cylinders, leaves lines that strike a chord in people’s hearts, and that people naturally want to repeat. Check any oft-repeated cliché from Shakespeare if you don’t believe me. It’s to Hillary Clinton’s sorrow that she expressed herself so well.
To illustrate the second principle I’m going to lift the opening line from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
This was written back in the days when TVs displayed static. No soothing power-down state; harsh black and white dots consuming each other to a patternless cacophony. I’ll tell you one thing about static, you don’t want your sky to look like that. Gibson was inventing the cyberpunk genre, a globe dominated by zaibatsus and populated by cynical hucksters who hold little regard for individual lives. Cities living in a perpetual twilight of smog pierced by neon glows and digital ads. It’s a harsh land; a good place for stories about keyboard cowboys.
More than that, look at the word “dead” in there. Quite a bit more impact than “tuned to a blank channel” would be, or “tuned to an unused channel”. There’s an echo of the ruthlessness I mentioned in the last paragraph, but it’s also pointing to the despair shared by the people of the world. You can slave your life away for a corporation like a West Virginia coal miner, only with less hope of escape. Or you can rebel, become a hacker, fight the power. But you can never win; there’s just too much inertia for a man to change the course of these monstrous large corporations and the world they direct.
Cyberpunk is a style, and Gibson is trying to key you into that style with the most speed he can. He’s trying to set the mood so that we empathize with the protagonist, his despair at having the future burned out of his brain, and his unconfessed attempt to commit suicide by drug-deal-gone-wrong one of these days. You get an entirely different mood out of the first line of, say, Pride and Prejudice, or of A Tale of Two Cities. But that’s deeper than we need to go at the moment. Our second observational principle is that poetry packs a whole lot of information into very few syllables.
The third principle can best be illustrated by the opening of the Gospel according to Saint John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
I could go on for a while on about the meaning packed into this verse; there’s a great deal and more than has been expounded even in two millennia of long-winded theologians. Instead though I’m going to focus on the poetic qualities of the line. Note that the word “Word” is repeated three times. The second and third phrase in the verse differ by only one word. More than that, if you rephrased the first part as “In the beginning the Word was” which is a touch awkward but still has the same meaning, then you have “the Word was” repeated three times.
Why all the repetition? The human brain thrives on patterns and devotes a great deal of thought to pattern recognition. You notice how people singing songs tend to say things over and over again when any normal human being would get to the point already? More than that, most of those poetry-related vocabulary words you learned in school and then immediately forgot after the test, those words are descriptions of patterns. You could write a sonnet that doesn’t follow either the Italian or the English rhyme scheme, but it probably won’t be any good. Unless you devise your own pattern of rhymes to impose on it, in which case it probably won’t be any good because writing sonnets is hard.
Poetry rhymes because we like things that rhyme. Rhyming provides a predictable pattern that lets us both know what’s coming and be surprised when it happens. In other traditions the structure of poetry serves much the same purpose, the repeated stresses of a Russian poet or the grouped consonants of a Viking skald give you both the structure and the room for art. There’s an infinite amount of variation which can be squeezed into the seventeen syllables of a haiku. In fact, this is our third observed principle. Poetry displays patterns keyed to resonate with the human mind.
There’s a temptation here to assume that that’s all that poetry is. Put a man under an MRI and read Kipling to him, see what parts of his brain light up. Heck, you may even be correct under a materialistic worldview. But even if you could define euphony by which neurons fire when you hear the phrase “on the road to Mandalay” I don’t think that means you understand what poetry is. I’ve done some arguing here about the how of poetry, next time I’ll dip into the why of poetry. Fair warning, it’s going to be further out there than my pseudoscientific speculations about rhyme schemes.Published in