Mark Doty’s “Broadway” begins with this opening: “Under Grand Central’s tattered vault / —maybe half a dozen electric stars still lit— / one saxophone blew….” It’s an opening that places us, and highlights the constellations on the ceiling of Grand Central’s main terminal. A page later into the poem we are told “The rooftops were glowing above us, / enormous, crystalline, a second city// lit from within.” At poem’s end a subway poet gets the final word, saying: “Our ancestors are replenishing / the jewel of love for us.” These images are not the same, the poem does not return to where it started, the way, often many poems try to close with an image that directly references the opening image. Yet, the images are connected, and we get the satisfactory closure here of feeling like it has come full circle, even as we’ve come so far.
In his groundbreaking essay “Rhyming Action,” Charles Baxter highlights “the unsatisfactory nature of thinking about fictional form as a circle becomes apparent after a second or two.” I might argue this is true of poetic form, too. Yes, the art form is filled with fixed forms that require a repeated line to close the poem, and, yes, there are times when a return to an earlier image is exactly what is needed. But such closures, too, become formulaic, don’t inspire surprise in the reader, and so rather than feeling like it closes the poem out, a repeated line could be like a rerun airing when you’re expecting the next episode of a dramatic TV show. Unsatisfying. Been there. Seen that.
“The immediate return of a story to its beginning would be like a rhyme that insists too quickly and bluntly on itself… [it] would turn every journey into a trip around the block,” Baxter insists. Repetition, one of poetry’s key tools can liberate us or imprison us. Free verse’s capacity to be unconstrained by rules, often leads poets to not know how to close poems, and so that return to the earlier image can be very tempting. You know I started with the ascendant moon, perhaps I can end with it, large and orange on the horizon, waxing…
Or maybe not. Baxter suggests fiction writers think of rhyming action, and by that he means something that hints at a previous event in the story. A rhyming image, therefore, wouldn’t be the same image, but perhaps one that we can find an associative connection. Note in the Doty excerpt how the first line’s “half a dozen stars still lit,” imply ones that aren’t lit, ones that are broken, burnt out. The second excerpt notes the city lights as “crystalline” and again, notes that the lights are above us, making a connection from stars to crystals, which then lead us to “the jewels of love” at the end. “Jewels of love” that need “replenishing.” In other words, they’re burn out, too. These images rhyme without any sense that anything has been repeated; perhaps, it’s more accurate to say they slant-rhyme. We may not even notice such a gesture at first read, what we experience, instead, is unconscious satisfaction–something feels right without, at first glance, being able to explain what. Baxter suggests such a feeling is akin to déjà vu.
The fact is that using an image that rhymes is a way to create a kind of closure—or just connect various moments in a poem—without going around the block and returning home.
Such techniques, though, are never quite that easy. “Using echo effects and rhyming action can feel contrived or corny,” Baxter warns. It’s the problem with the five-paragraph form that we teach kids to write, the one in which the introduction says what they’re going to do, the three body paragraphs support what they say they’re going to do, and the conclusion tells us what they did. I don’t need the conclusion to tell me what they’ve done; it’s only been a few paragraphs. Ditto, the rhyming action needs to be both completely organic and completely surprising, and enough time needs to have elapsed in the poem that we’re surprised by the return, perhaps so much so, we don’t recognize it at first as a return at all. Again Baxter: “The image or action or sound has to be forgotten before it can be effectively used again. Rhymes are often most telling when they are barely heard, when they are registered but not exactly noticed.”
Perhaps this is what’s so compelling about slant rhymes, and why I like the Doty example so much: these rhyming images are loosely connected: clearly there, but also not calling attention to themselves. In part because they come out of where the poem takes us (from saxophone player in the subways, to (is she homeless?) woman uptown, to the subway car poet—in their asking passersby for change in their way, even they are rhyming images), these rhyming images feel organic to the poem’s choices, to the poet’s vision rather than a contrivance.
Technique that calls attention to itself, that highlights its artifice instead of its artistry wears such moments as contrivance. When rhyme is forced, whether phonically or imagistically, the poem’s closing gesture will fail. Ditto when rhymes are easy, unsurprising, ordinary. The power of the slant rhymed image is its ability to both surprise and feel completely expected and right.