Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry
Brad Leithauser’s new book, Rhyme’s Rooms, is a feast, a palace, a work of beauty that deserves a wide audience beyond the academy, as well as inclusion in any serious course on poetry. It also seems to be Christian scholarship of the best sort: serious intellectual work conversing in a rigorous and diverse secular profession, grounded on a deep understanding of human life and limitation, and shot through with the warmth of (what Christian readers will gradually recognize as) the glory of God. Anyone who has ever opened themselves up to a poem, or who has ever been opened up by one, should read this book. High praise, this, but Rhyme’s Rooms is really that good. Let me justify my enthusiasm.
Infinite marble halls of statues washed by the tides of an infinite sea, and a strange, alien race with superhuman powers of aesthetic sensitivity: these images constantly recurred to my mind as I read Leithauser’s book.
That strange race is introduced by Leithauser himself as he explains his purpose (5). Imagine people (the “Funesians,” he calls them) conscious of every single pattern of form and sound in poetry. If two rhyme words are separated by one hundred lines of verse, the Funesians still catch the rhyme—as they do every half-rhyme, auditory weight, stanzaic structure, and all the variations these enable.
The Funesians embody the longing we feel when a poem leaves us with an ache of inadequacy or incomprehension. If only we had ears to hear a poem completely—every resonance, every nuance, every shade of meaning!
And Leithauser’s book does teach us to have ears to hear, adding layer after layer of understanding, deepening our aural sensitivity, sharpening our vision for poetic structure. The book contains twenty-four chapters on poetic form and craft. These are like guided tours through the palace of poetry, with some border-chapters serving as antechambers between series of sprawling halls. With Leithauser we explore the cognitive experience of poetry (chapters 1–3); its typographical structures (chapters 3–6); its patterns of sound (chapters 6–17); its intersections with sight, music, and reason (chapters 18–20); the far frontiers of poetic architecture, via case studies of two Christian poets, Hopkins and Moore (chapters 21–22); and, in the widest perspective, poetry’s role across centuries to shelter human frailty while urging us infinitely outward and upward (chapters 23–24). Before we say goodbye to the Funesians in Leithauser’s penultimate chapter, we have learned to feast with them.
At the same time, one realizes about halfway through, the Funesians are just a projection of all our insecurities about poetry: readers who “get it all,” on whom absolutely nothing is lost. And so they are less than human, and their poetry readings—not ours—are the inadequate ones. The Funesians may catch every detail, yet their appreciation of poetry is purely detached, purely aestheticized. Like uncomprehending computers in John Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument,1 they cannot truly experience what they read. Because poetry is rooted in human weakness and fallibility. As Leithauser states in a line that comes early, but whose full import takes much of the book to fully sink in, “The poetic forms we’ve created please us not despite but because of our human limitations” (12).
Take rhyme, for instance. Rhyme is a mental experience that works by letting the memory of one sound echo and mate with a newly-encountered sound as we read onward, making key words glow as everything around them fades (5). Rhyming poetry thus interacts with the failure-point of hearing, blowing the rainbow mist of meaning back over the crest of the linguistic waterfall (138).
In another wonderful passage, Leithauser imagines how even if humans disappeared from the earth, almost every detail of human physiology could be inferred from the ruined buildings we had left behind. The height of our doorways would reflect our average maximum height; the pitch of our staircases and the height of each step would suggest the limits of our leg-length and hip-socket range of motion (29–30).
Poetry’s structures, too, are an outgrowth from the limit-points of human capacities: they “both mirror and minister to our corporeal nature” (30). The speed with which an echo-memory fades sets proximity limits for rhyming words. Our limited peripheral vision makes enjambment a tool for humor or irony. And short-term memory’s capacity to hold only three or four items at a time sets the practical limits for metrical possibility: hence the abundance of couplets and quatrains in English poetry, and the scarcity of stanza forms larger than the octave (51–52).
These may seem like microscopic observations about tiny units: rhyme, meter, rhythm, structure, the mere bricks from which poetry is built. Yet through numerous such insights, Leithauser demonstrates a far-reaching principle of the trans-millennial architecture. The things poetry does, it does by building beauty at the edge of our lapses. It bears with our weaknesses. It is, as Leithauser frames it (though he never says so explicitly), an architecture of grace.
Leithauser’s book is remarkable for the beauty of his prose. It shows long and loving attention to language’s every shade and quiver. A few almost random examples: “Evanescence is the essence of rhyme” (5). “A poem is a compact sonic parade, marching clamorously through the tunnel of the ear canal, an ever-shifting zone of commotion in which the most recent sounds serially dominate” (6). And again: “any serious poetry reader knows the precise moment when one’s starting point, sound or sense, suddenly ecloses into a larger, winged clarity” (11).
One small criticism might be that the book is hard to get through—“Another one?” a surprised reader might well ask as the sixth chapter on rhyme leads into the seventh—just because of its superabundance of rich material. Yet Leithauser is so amusing and illuminating that most readers will not experience tedium so much as the difficulty of keeping up one’s appetite through a weeks-long feast. Rhyme’s Rooms would be hard to devour, but it is marvelous when gradually and thoughtfully digested. Or, to return to its palatial metaphor, when explored at a comfortable stroll.
This book also shares a wealth of interdisciplinary insight. For example, in one place Leithauser uses statistical analysis to explain how each line added to a stanza exponentially expands its structural potential: from a couplet’s mere two possibilities, to the triplet’s four—“AAx, AxA, xAA, AAA” (48)—to the fourteen possible in a quatrain:
Even if we keep meter extremely simple and assume that only four feet, all iambic, are possible (trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter), it turns out there are 3,584 ways to configure a simple quatrain! Again, the precise numbers hardly matter. What matters is the underlying vastness, the abyssal depth of possibility. Of those 3,584 possible quatrains, are there some never yet employed by anyone, anywhere? (48)
As in chess, within a few moves, one “may well arrive at a position nobody has [ever] seen” (48). Merely add a few lines more, say, make it an octave, and the poet “is piloting a little skiff upon a horizonless ocean” (51).
In places like this, Leithauser kept reminding me of Susanna Clarke’s wonderful novel Piranesi, its ocean-filled marble halls an infinite expression of human creativity at the edge of thought.2 Leithauser continues: “What’s striking is the speed with which our capacities are outpaced. We succumb to an architecture far greater than ourselves when stanzas grow as long as a mere four or five lines. And [at eight] we are utterly at sea” (52).
Mathematics, physiology, architecture, literary and linguistic history, theology, music theory, and on and on: Leithauser draws on a wide understanding of the world to make poetry’s most subtle and complicated elements clear and accessible to readers, regardless of their backgrounds. Henry James spoke of the house of fiction with its many windows looking out on the world. Leithauser has built a palace for poetry with many doors, welcoming everyone in.
Or rather, welcoming everyone back in. “Some readers carry a lifelong sense of having betrayed the high schooler they were,” says Leithauser, who “came to poetry eagerly, indiscriminately,” but for whom, in later years, “[s]omething went amiss in their relationship with poetry” (330). The lapsed poetry reader is at the center of Leithauser’s target audience. For even though Rhyme’s Rooms is well equipped to be an undergraduate textbook (with its glossary and its reading-assignment-length chapters), it’s really structured for any who have loved poetry, who are coming back to it (in Wordsworth’s phrase) with “gleams of half-extinguished thought.” Leithauser draws his illustrations from a perfect mix of well-known and little-known poems and poets, and he introduces just enough of each to leave the reader hungry to go read the poem as a whole. The book constantly baits you to go deeper.
In sum, Leithauser has accomplished a new “Defence of Poetry” suited to our time. He draws us back to the best poetry has to offer our attachment-poor, attention-thin, mediocrity-flooded world. He equips us to dwell with poetry and profit from what we find there. And he does all this with grace and humor.
Madeleine L’Engle once said that a book can be “a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”3 Rhyme’s Rooms is that kind of book.
- John Searle, “Can Computers Think?” in Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 28–41.
- Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2020).
- Madeleine L’Engle, “Newbery Award Acceptance Speech: The Expanding Uni- verse,” August 1963, https://www.madeleinelengle.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/ Newbery_Award.pdf.