Brad Leithauser has been publishing poems and novels, much of it brilliant work, for forty years. When he was a young man he imagined writing a book about the structure of poetry. It has recently appeared—has been haunting his imagination for decades, and now at last is available between two covers. Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry is a lifetime’s worth of education on the craft, a handbook, a book of essays, yes, but each one geared—in the manner, say, of John Hollander—to particular elements. There are chapters on “Stanzas,” “Enjambment,” “Rhyme and Rhyme Decay,” “Iambic Tetrameter,” even a chapter on the boon afforded English-language poets by English’s odd spellings, and another on “Rim Rhyme” (“where consonants are held steady while internal vowels are shifted around,” like “light” and “late”). Though the title phrase means “rhyme” as a kind of synonym for poetry in general, this poet does argue for the power of rhyming—the relationship between two words—as being, still, central and generative to the art form’s vitality.
All of which is to say, Leithauser’s book has meat to it, meanders but with a purpose: this is no rambling fortuitous browse through his tastes and dislikes. Taste is central to his project, of course, but not for its caprice or prestige. A study of taste for this poet is part of a devotion to a systematic understanding of the mechanics, the structures, the possibilities—the architecture, the madeness, the inhabitable shapes—that poems might take, and what effects those have for those of us who want—need—to live in them. In this sense, Rhyme’s Rooms goes on the same shelf as Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form, and pairs well with The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.
So, a book for craftspeople, but—it must be emphasized—also a book for readers—and a book about reading, about how to be a better reader of poetry—how to be what every good critic is, an amplifying device, better able to hear what the music of the words might be saying, if not the music of the spheres. This utopian—inspiring, really, in its optimism and promise—approach is accentuated in the thought experiment Leithauser opens with, and carries (never too heavyhanded) across the writing. Leithauser, a storyteller in anything he’s writing, proposes that we imagine a people whom he calls the Funesians. They live and work far away in their homeland, but what makes them distinct is that they are incredibly sensitive readers of poetry. They hear rhymes and echoes and resonances that we hurrying and clumsy and distracted readers tend to overlook. What, the book asks, can you learn from them about how to read poetry? What, after all, is more crucial to a human being than the capacity to read—the poem, the room, the horizon, the weather, the stars. As Jay Hopler once wrote: “It’s not what one listens to that matters, / But what one listens for—.”
JESSE NATHAN: Can you talk a little bit about where Rhyme’s Rooms ends? What do you mean by the essential “conservatism” of poetry? And what about the essential “radicalness”?
BRAD LEITHAUSER: The last two chapters of my book are called “The Essential Conservatism of Poetry” and “The Essential Radicalism of Poetry.” As irreconcilables, they were meant to pose a challenge—a challenge with a hint of mischief. Or you could call them a goad.
Poets often resist the idea of poetry’s fundamental conservatism—all the ways in which the medium discourages and suppresses innovation. They want to believe they’re doing something new, something fresh, and as a poet, I suppose I do too. But the poetic rhythms that lie deepest within us, assimilated as children (whether it’s Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss, old ancestral saws or new television sales pitches), remain remarkably stable, in our individual lives and over the centuries. The ditties Shakespeare and Milton absorbed as children were, metrically and rhythmically, quite similar to what your splendidly outfitted, cellphone-carrying kindergartener absorbs today. There are sound reasons (sound in a variety of senses) why that great sonneteer Sir Philip Sidney, writing in the sixteenth century, could have immediately understood and appreciated Robert Frost.
The last poet in English to fabricate a viable new poetic system—one capacious enough for other poets to work flexibly and fruitfully within—was Marianne Moore, with her syllabic verse. When, if ever, will the next one appear? Of course one can innovate in ways other than the formal/structural. Moore’s contemporary E. E. Cummings (whom she adored) innovated largely through syntactic jumbling and scumbling—rupturing traditional word order, converting nouns into verbs and adjectives into nouns, etc.—even while composing iambic pentameter sonnets. Poetic forms are durable things—often maddeningly so.
Modern readers, especially those largely uninterested in poetry, will often resist the idea that the genre is capable of anything radical. They’d prefer to view it as a quaint, even outmoded discipline. But as I argue in my final chapter, this is wrong—indeed, I think poetry is salvational.
I open my book this way: “All poems begin by saying the same thing. It doesn’t matter if the poem is written in your native language, or in a language acquired later in life, or even in one in which you’re wordless. It doesn’t matter if the writing goes from left to right, or right to left, or descends vertically down the page. The first message it sends you is Slow down.”
Modern life keeps speeding up. Surely the greatest global transformation in my lifetime (I was born in 1953) is this sheer acceleration, especially in regard to computational speed, empowering the computers that more and more direct our lives. Everything runs faster, fiercer, louder.
But poems can’t get any louder (Shakespeare and Wordsworth speak at the same modulated volume as Elizabeth Bishop or Richard Wilbur), which strikes me as mostly a good thing. In an intensifying world, hellbent on growing more strident, more graphically violent, poetry calls on you to attend to subtly shaded hues of sound, to minuscule muscular variations of tempo. Our modern world imbrutes us. Meanwhile, poetry solicits your better, your more nicely attuned, angels. What could be more radical than that?