Fashion in Poetry

Poets, like hemlines, go in and out of fashion. Poetic styles, too, have their day and then seem shopworn, archaic. For a long time, rhyme was out of style. Poets who rhymed with regularity, the whole cannon of them, were dismissed as too restricted. Free verse, experimental verse, anything but rhyme was in. But rhyme is seeping back. The simple pleasure of it has a charm that still holds. It may be slant rhyme–words that echo instead of chiming exactly; or internal rhyme that occurs in the middle of lines instead of at the ends; or simply irregular rhyming patterns, so the ear is tricked in its expectations.

One of the masters of the sly rhyme is Kay Ryan, who was recently US Poet Laureate. She writes small intricate poems, in which rhyme twists and turns around a point. They are compressed and original, and make you think. This poem especially pleases me, because it is about chickens–metaphorical ones, but chickens none the less:

Home to Roost

The chickens
are circing and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small–
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost–all
the same kind
at the same speed.

Kay Ryan

You can hear her read it, if you like. The rhyme here seems straightforward to the ear: day/way (internal), time/home (slant), and finally small/all and breeds/speed, traditional line-end rhyme.  The result is like a puzzle, and charms the ear. At the same time the message of the poem is compelling: you go bumbling along, doing one thing and then another, and then at some point, you see that you have made a certain kind of mistake over and over. Or at least, this is how I read it, and it resonates with me, a kind of soreness, a chagrin at my own actions.

Kay Ryan has a wonderful sense of humor, a dark wit, and a well-tuned poetic ear. Almost all her poems are short and accessible. Just now, she’s in fashion, though for a very long time she was not. Her newish selected poems, The Best of It, is the one I selected to take with me over the holidays–not too demanding, easy to pick up and dip into, and yet a book that makes you ponder.