Time and Rhyme

Over the course of the year, and particularly at the height of lockdown, I went walking along the same route every day. I’m a country dweller, so this was a route along narrow west Walian lanes shadowed by beech and sycamore but sometimes climbing to high pastureland with views towards the Cambrian mountains.

After some initial alarm at an intent stranger striding by in all weathers, the sheep got to know me and hardly bothered to pause in mid-chew. Sometimes a buzzard would stalk me from tree to tree. There was one patch of lane where black beetles seemed to practice their road-crossing skills – I got to look down by instinct. There were places where the air was dense and soily, places where it was suddenly sharp. There was a long short-cut that somehow evaded a stretch of road with a slightly dangerous feel, and a place where the road switched from the atmosphere of part one to the atmosphere of part two. There were dog-walking locals whom I’d never meet at the same point but could rely on for human contact. There were buildings that appeared on cue yet never in the same light. And all the time one kind of flora gave way to another, like a shift in sound pattern – celandine to bluebells, bluebells to campion, campion to willow herb, willow herb to blackberries. The route became an addiction, a solace, a place of both reassurance and surprise.

This is much like the experience of rhyme: the comfort of familiarity and the frisson of surprise. If I use rhyme in poetry, it’s mostly internal: I rarely write to strict form. However, exploring rhyme, seeing how it functions to charge and recharge meaning, is a wonderful way to refresh your sense of how sound patterns can work to propel a poem. Much of poetry's frisson comes from the interplay between pattern and variation   - expectations rewarded and then shifted. Variation in pattern also creates a sense of movement through time and of a narrative that reveals itself cumulatively by altering the angle of our gaze. See how this works in the wonderful villanelle 'Antarctica' by the late Derek Mahon.

Antarctica - Derek Mahon

‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time –

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go:
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

What I love about this poem is the way the rhymes talk to each other, rotating the different aspects of captain Oates’ famous sacrifice.  They embed the ambiguity at the heart of much human experience.

And what better place than poetry to let ambiguity exist with all its richness! Like a walk that lets you see what shifts in the same ground walked over and again.

Ros Hudis