Among contemporary American poets, rhyme has largely fallen out of favor. Poor rhyme. It’s actually not rhyme’s fault, though–it’s English’s fault.

The 13th century troubadour tradition often used rhyme so that the songs might be more easily memorized by the singers. This tradition was popular in France, and spread to Italy and Spain. Do you see a pattern? These are the lands of the Romance languages. And you know what English is? Not a romance language.

In fact, the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition relied heavily on alliteration and not at all on rhyme. The reasons for this are obvious once you think about the differences in our languages. Italian and Spanish words only have five vowel sounds each, whereas English has about twenty depending on your accent. And because many Italian and Spanish words end in vowels, you have a much better chance of finding good rhymes without forcing them (after all, you can only rhyme love with dove so many times). Indeed, it’s difficult, especially in the post-Seussian literary landscape, to writing rhyming poetry in English without it sounding childish. Thus it is even more difficult to translate rhyming poetry into English, since most translators would opt to keep the rhyme scheme (as I did with Sor Juana’s poem) thereby contorting the new poem in ways the original was not.

Beowulf is one of the great epic poems of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and uses an interesting pattern throughout: each line is alliterative within itself, and each line has four beats with a break halfway through. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated the entirety of the work about a decade ago, and wrote a very interesting forward on his process of translation. After feeling daunted by the task ahead, he “noticed that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem of my first book confirmed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables–‘the spade sinks    into gravelly ground: / my father, digging.   I look down.’–and in the case of the second line, there was alliteration linking ‘digging’ and ‘down’ across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”

Heaney goes on to talk about individual word choice, often picking words that look ancient in the Old English, but were still in common usage by his Irish aunts and grandmothers. He concludes that the tradition from which Beowulf sprang was his own ancestry, and thus he felt creative license to take on the translation. The primary language he’s translating is not so aesthetically different from the secondary language into which he’s funneling the poem.

On a final note, my dad overheard Kerri Miller, a wonderful interviewer and commentator on Minnesota Public Radio, complain of the usage of “so” to start stories. Apparently, she is sick of her interviewees signaling with “so.” I was bothered by her pet peeve–what else should we use besides “so” to start jokes or signal the beginning of something new? Luckily, as I was perusing my copy of Heaney’s Beowulf, I came across this very issue. The Old English poem begins with the exclamatory word whaet; Heaney explains how he chose the perfect word to start his translation:

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and–more colloquially–“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was.”

So there, Kerri!

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