Brad Leithauser. Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
“If, generations hence, literary historians take any interest in what went on in our criticism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, surely they will marvel at an explosion of explication surveying poetry from every conceivable ventage (psychoanalytic, sociological, political, philosophical, environmental, etc.) except structural.” Brad Leithauser’s new book, Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry, could equally be subtitled The Music of Poetry. We are all familiar with the endless expositions of how to interpret poetry, especially considering the obnoxious rise ideological criticism over the past century. Recovering and experiencing the joy of listening to the music and structure of poetry is sorely needed, and Leithauser leads us in a wonderful pilgrimage through the beauty, the music, the architecture, of poetry.
Why do we love poetry? It’s not because of some ideological exposition from a teacher indoctrinating students into their preferred or prevailing zeitgeist criticism. On the contrary, that kills the love people have for great literature who, bitter and miserable, wish to spread that bitterness and misery to others. How dreadful.
We love poetry “not for its what but its how,” Leithauser reminds his readers. We intuitively know that “art is an expression of human restlessness against our bodily confines and of our adaptations within them.” This is why, for instance, though a philosopher and theologian, we can’t but love Plato and Augustine as artists of philosophy and theology. We don’t necessarily need to be reminded of this, we intuitively know this whenever we encounter such works of restless expression which touch our souls. But many readers today are wandering in the wasteland and ruins of the rhymes and structures of the cathedral of music that had brought poetry to the masses and lifted their souls and spirits into the heavens. Music is what lifts the restless soul out of those “bodily confines” in its own highway to heaven.
The most enduring road one takes in their pilgrimage with poetry is the highway of rhymes. Although “[r]hymes are merely one contribution to the poem’s music, and its music is itself often contending with meaning,” rhymes give poems their eternality, their songs of pleasantry that invite us to join their waltz inside their “rhyme schemes, metrical configurations, stanzaic forms, patterns of indentation and capitalization.”
Rather than offer a reading of the what the great poets wrote about, Leithauser explains the how of the great poets and how their works embody the lyricism of poetic architecture in all its beauty which so captivate the human heart. What follows in Rhyme’s Rooms, then, is a dazzling, joyful, and witty exposition on what helps make poetry, well, poetry: stanzas, enjambments, meter and rhyme, pentameter, tetrameter, spelling, song, folly, praise, and creative wordplay and rhetoric. When one thinks of their favorite poems, the why one like it becomes apparent in reading Leithauser’s sagacious tour through the symphonic performance of poetry still echoing through the millennia.
Looking over poets like William Shakespeare, John Milton, Lord Byron, E.E. Cummings, W.H. Auden, and so many others, our wonderful guide begins to shed light on their genius. The great poets of our past who still live with us today were not merely innovators, they also understood the human psyche’s desire for “familiarity and regularity.” Hence why Shakespeare never forsook iambic pentameter or why the bulk of the poetry of Byron, Keats, Shelley and the Romantics relied on pentameter line despite their explosive innovation we rightly credit them with having embodied and created. While we do, in fact, “crave unfamiliarity and variety,” Leithauser notes this is not a license to reject the unwritten “prosaic contract” that readers expect from poets. Precisely because so many pseudo-poets today forsake that contract with their readers many toss their scribbles in the trash and return to the greats of the past. The best poets have always blended the familiar and regular with the unfamiliar and new. That’s what made them great.
In soaring over the breadth of poetic treasures our culture has bequeathed to us, English poetry (with which this volume mostly concerns itself) discusses how “our rhyme is enriched by our language’s hospitality toward dense consonant clusters, which breed quirky sonic effects.” No wonder English is home to so many alliterative poems and nursery rhymes. Likewise, rhyme is “[d]elicate, hardy; impoverished, opulent; subordinate, primary; natural, artificial; dismissible, indispensable.” Even those great works of blank verse, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, are filled with rhymes—and it is those moments of rhyme that make our hearts flutter:
From this Assyrian garden, where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living creatures new to sight and strange:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honour clad
In naked majesty seemed lords of all.
Because music is the heart of poetry, and music speaks to the interior life of human emotions, “Poetry can invest the emotions far more rapidly and potently than prose. The language of doublespeak turns out to be doubly moving.” Why do we love poetry? The music and lyricism that it trumpets touches our very hearts rather than our minds. I believe this to be true, for when reading or reciting poetry what moves me and so many others is not necessarily the intellectual side of a poem but the heartfelt warmth, passion, and torment—the emotions—that poetry grabs from within and sings forth with intensity.
In reading through Leithauser’s great book, he lifts out of the ashes of the cathedral of poetry destroyed by barbarous critics what the simple listener and lover of poetry always felt. “Thus music had been there all along,” he says. But the music of poetry is more than just one instrument or one song. “I’d only recently learned to differentiate song from song—and, more to the purpose, only recently reached a point where the swoop of a clarinet, or a few soupy strains of a violin, evoked elaborate chains of lyrics,” our great guide writes.
Out of the ashes of the cacophony of confusion and into the eternal cathedral of symmetrical lyricism, Leithauser leads us into that immortal hall where poets sing and dance and we sit and listen, but in sitting and listening we eventually join in their song and dance. Leithauser hoped his work would “attract the specialist” but also “the reader who loves words and literature.” Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry certainly accomplishes both, and this splendid and majestic book directs us to the musical beauty so harshly oppressed by critics but resurrected so mystically by our author.
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