By Jacob Lassin
Joseph Brodsky referred to himself as “a pretty good rhymer” (Brodsky 202, 161). Such a pithy statement downplays the importance of rhyme in his poetry. It is within rhyme that a reader understands the lexical sophistication and daring ability to make unexpected connections that typify Brodsky’s work. Building on the research of previous scholars, this paper looks at the role of a distinct subset of rhymes, the feminine and dactylic. What is it that the feminine and dactylic rhymes accomplish in Brodsky’s poetry and why is there such an abundance of them in Brodsky? This paper will attempt to answer these questions by first providing an overview of the scholarship on the effects of feminine rhyme and specifically on Brodsky’s uses of feminine and dactylic rhyme. Next, I will explore a single poem “August Rain” (Dozhd’ v avguste) (1988) in depth, with a special focus on the effects that rhymes play on the overall meaning of the poem. Finally I will speak about how digital methods might be employed to get a better understanding of the occurrence and use of feminine rhyme in Brodsky’s poetry more globally, offering some preliminary results on what such a feminine rhyme database can help researchers accomplish.
What is so unique about feminine rhyme? Scholar of prosody Reuven Tsur, who in addition to his academic work is also a poet and translator in Hungarian, English and Hebrew, offers some important ideas on the unique effects of feminine rhyme across many languages. He writes that masculine rhyme sets up a distinct and unavoidable rhythm; lines end abruptly, which makes masculine rhymes appear “rigid” (Tsur 1). By contrast, in feminine rhymes the “clear-cut ending is followed by an unstressed syllable rendering the halt more gradual, more fuzzy edged. Consequently, it is perceived as softer, less forceful more pliable” (Tsur 3). These general thoughts on the structural nature of feminine rhymes and their effects within a poem are essential to understanding Brodsky’s own uses of the feminine rhyme in his work, as feminine and dactylic rhymes affect the pacing and flow of poems.
Turning specifically to Brodsky, how does he use the feminine rhyme in his poetry? Some of the most extensive research on this topic has been done with regards to Brodsky’s English-language poetry where he was insistent on maintaining feminine rhymes even where they sounded comic, awkward, or “light” to the English-conditioned ear (Ishov 2008, Berlina 2014, Rulyova 2002). Maintaining the feminine rhymes in the English poetry allowed Brodsky to differentiate himself with a certain unique style, injecting aspects of Russian rhyming into English poetry. However, infecting English verse with Russian style is not the only interesting aspect of Brodsky’s use of feminine rhymes. In fact, Brodsky’s use of feminine rhymes in Russian demonstrates some of the “foreign” influences on his poetry.
Barry Scherr argues that the predominance of feminine rhyme leads to a large amount of enjambment in Brodsky, creating an effect of “anti-closure” with a “strong tension between syntactic and rhythmic movements,” and no neat ending of a sentence coinciding with the rhythmic ending of a rhyme pair, as might be expected (Scherr 1990, 185-6). This quality imbues Brodsky’s work with a unique sound within the Russian poetic canon. Scherr further suggests that the predominance of enjambment in Brodsky’s Russian poetry demonstrates the influence of his reading and translating of English language poetry (Scherr 1990, 192). This claim could help explain why, as Brodsky became more involved in American literary life and English language verse, there was an explosion of feminine rhyme in his poetry in the latter part of his career. However, it is not only English and the American context that explain Brodsky’s use of the feminine rhyme.
Brodsky, one must remember, was acutely aware of poetic traditions and contexts. It follows that Brodsky strove to maintain a sense of continuity between form and content. A. G. Stepanov uses the example of “Spanish Dancer” (Ispankaia tantsovshchitsa) to highlight how feminine rhyme reinforces the subject matter. Stepanov notes that the feminine rhymes “serves as a rhythmically based embodiment in the poetic text of Latin American dance” (Stepanov 2012, 176). Thus, Brodsky’s desire to create consistent imagery and mood throughout his poem leads to the adoption of rhythmical elements like the feminine rhyme. In addition, Brodsky’s experience and travels after exile in 1972 exposed him to a great deal in the latter part of his career; this too might help account for why feminine rhymes appear so frequently in his later poetry as he attempted to poetically express different traditions. However, noticing Brodsky’s increased use of feminine rhyme is only part of the story. The next question is, what affect do these rhymes have in Brodsky’s poems?
The sounds of feminine and dactylic rhymes at the ends of the lines have a falling effect, with the penultimate or antepenultimate syllable stressed and the remainder unstressed. Valentina Polukhina has argued that this falling note creates a mood of lament. Dactylic rhymes, moreover, give a palpable sense of decline or decay (Polukhina 1989, 246). This is a crucial insight into the effects of feminine rhyme in Brodsky’s poetry. The themes of longing and lamentation appear very frequently, especially in the period following his exile. Understanding the formal elements provides the reader with a richer appreciation of Brodsky’s poetry on the whole. Moreover, identifying the significance of rhyme for the ultimate understanding of the poem leads one to look carefully at the inventive and unexpected connections that Brodsky makes through his rhymes.
Informed by the previous scholarship on feminine and dactylic rhymes in Brodsky’s work, let us now look to a specific example in Brodsky’s poetry. I will use the 1988 poem “August Rain” to explore the centrality of feminine rhyme to his poetics. I chose this poem for its exclusive use of dactylic and feminine rhymes, with every single line rhymed with one other. The privileged place of such a rhyme scheme enables a reader to see the full effects of the feminine and dactylic rhymes in Brodsky’s work. In addition, Brodsky relies on the unexpected connections he makes with rhymes to show previously unnoticed similarities and equivalences between the words he rhymes.
This poem centers on the lyric subject, goaded to look back to his past and remember life with his parents in their small Petersburg apartment through the obscuring effects of rain. The mood of longing for the past and the memories of childhood are aided by the persistent use of feminine and dactylic rhymes, which provide a sense of continuous flow and a lack of finality to the poem, one that reflects the continual process of remembering.
Crucially, all of the imagery and memories evoked in the poem are caused by the rain. Rain obscures vision; Brodsky refers to it as the “the engine of nearsightedness” “двигатель близорукости.” Rather than being tangible and readily accessible for the lyric subject, the memories glimpsed through the rain are part of a mythologized lost world, when the writer was just a child. The obscured nature of the lyric subject’s memories and their connection to the act of writing the poem is made most explicit through rhymes: “близорукости” “nearsightedness” is rhymed with “рукописи” “manuscript,” explicitly tying poor vision with writing. This calls attention to the obstructed view of the past the writer brings to his poems, reinforcing the notion that the images he creates are part of an inexact, obstructed sight.
The inexactness of memory is further explored in the rhyme “sleepy” “сонливым” with “downpour” “ливень.” This rhyme highlights the similar effects of sleep and rain: both create a sort of fog, making things unclear. This occurs in both the realm of vision (downpour) and of memory (sleepy). Their “soft,” feminine endings, with trailing, unstressed final syllables, bring an auditory reinforcement of the clouded notions that these words impart within the poem.
Brodsky not only highlights new ways of understanding the fragility of memory and sight in his rhymes; he also makes unexpected connections with the images presented in the imagined home. Brodsky rhymes the epaulets on his father’s overcoat “погонами” with laws “законами.” Here the rhyme takes a beloved reminder of his father and his father’s honored position (which he lost due to institutional anti-Semitism) and equates it with the laws that forced Brodsky to leave Russia, separating him forever from his parents. The author comes face to face with the fact that the same state that once provided his father with epaulets now prevents him from being with his parents. The dactylic rhymes show the lamentation that Polukhina describes, with the last two syllables trailing off in a wistful, mournful tone. This auditory marker in the dactylic rhyme underscores the melancholy and nostalgic longing present throughout the poem.
However, we should not read all of the connections made through rhymes as entirely centered on nostalgia. Stephanie Sandler points out that the reflections of his parents world does not solely express longing for the lost past. She contends that the “poem ends with such an act of love, of self-creation as the re-creation of his parents’ world, not as a place that is lost, but as one that can be fully recovered in the imagination” (Sandler 2007, 661). This aspect of the poem is supported through rhyme as well. In the second stanza, one sees “mended” “заштопаны” rhymed with “ in order that they” “чтоб они.” One cannot help but see this “they” as the family reconstituted through poetry. This rhyme makes clear to the reader just how much the very act of writing, of remembering the past through poetic means, can repair some of the broken emotional ties.
Moreover, the rhyme of “armchair” in the genitive case “кресла” with the past tense of “resurrected” “воскресла” pairs a rather quotidian room detail with the religiously marked word, illustrating the significance of what the lyric subject is able to accomplish with his memory. The rhyme is so unexpected that the reader cannot help but dwell on it, seeing the language of the everyday joined to the language of the spiritual: an apotheosis of lyric subject’s childhood home made possible through feminine rhyme.
To make one final point about these unexpected rhyme combinations: often the rhyme pairs create meaning independent from the syntactical structure of the poem. This allows the rhymes to reinforce syntactic meaning through subtexts created by the unusual connections.
Now that I have given some indication of the significance of feminine and dactylic rhyme for Brodsky’s poetry, I will now move to the digital section of my presentation. This involved the creation of a feminine rhyme database for Brodsky’s poems, which can be used to make some preliminary claims about feminine rhyme in Brodsky’s poetics more generally.
Feminine Rhyme Database
My original intent in this project was to find a computer method for the detection of feminine rhyme in Joseph Brodsky’s poetry. I was unable to accomplish this task in the course of one semester. There are some extant rhyme detection tools on the Internet, but they do not distinguish between masculine and feminine rhyme and mostly work within English only, unable to process Cyrillic. The factors that stood in my way were first and foremost a reliable and accessible means of syllabifying Russian poetry. Syllabification is essential as it is the syllable elements that the computer will eventually recognize as forming rhymes. Another challenge to this process is the need to convert the Russian poetry to IPA so that rhymes that do not match orthographically can still be recognized as rhymes. As I proceed with this project in the future, I will hopefully be able to enlist the help of a computational linguist with much more expertise in this area and work to solve the issue of a computer syllabifying Russian. Using a rhyming dictionary is another potential area of exploration for this project in the future as well. In 1998, Aleksandr Babakin compiled a dictionary of Brodsky’s rhymes, but there is no indication in the dictionary as to where these rhymes appear and what they are rhymed with specifically in the poetry, so its utility is rather limited. However, it could provide a helpful basis for developing a feminine rhyme detector.
Given these technical difficulties, rather than have the computer detect feminine rhymes automatically, I decided to try a different angle for this project. I made use of raw data on feminine rhymes gleaned from class reading to see what can be understood about the use of this device over the course of time and in many different poems. In this way, my project is similar to some of G.S. Smith’s work on Brodsky’s versification and metrical developments in the later years of his career, and to M.L.. Gasparov’s work quantifying the identifying features of Brodsky’s poetry and comparing them to those of Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak. Where this project differs from previous work is both in the use of computer technology to facilitate the processing of the data and its public aspect. The database spreadsheet where the data is input and rhyming words interface will be open and available online. Thanks to the work done by the class, I had a large number of poems from the years 1985-1996 with the feminine rhymes marked. I chose this time period because it was both a prolific time in Brodsky’s career and one in which he was becoming more and more involved with English-language poetry, both in his interactions with other poets in America and Europe and through his decision to write poetry in and translate his poems into English. In this period of his career he was much more experimental with regards to form; as a result I felt that this would be an interesting place to begin to look at how feminine rhymes function in Brodsky’s poetics.
I entered data from the poems into this spreadsheet, which is organized by poem, rhyme set within a poem, line number of the rhyme, the lemma of the rhyming word, the inflected form actually found in the poem and finally the letters that form the rhyme. It should also be noted that I included dactylic rhymes as well and counted them just like feminine rhymes. This was because of the similar roles they play and effects that they have in Russian poetry. Going forward, the database will be refined to make a distinction between the feminine rhymes and the dactylic ones for a more precise tool, but for this beta version, they are counted together.
Here is the database. As you can see, there are three drop-down menus. The first of these you can use to select the Russian lemmata, the number next to the word tells you how many times a given word appears as a feminine or dactylic rhyme in the database. Once a word is selected, every instance of it, and what it rhymes with, throughout all the poems in the database is displayed for the user. If one is more concerned with a specific instance of an inflected form, the database makes it quite easy to quickly locate such a form and see all the instances of that word and how it creates a feminine rhyme.
The last drop-down menu allows one to search by the actual rhyming letters themselves. This section of the database provides some of the most exciting potential for the future of this project. Here, instead of looking up a specific word, which may or may not be commonly used in Brodsky’s work, one can look up certain sounds, or patterns of letters that are far more likely to be repeated in Brodsky’s poetry. The use of the rhyming letters section can be of use to a researcher trying to see exactly what kind of sound pattern Brodsky utilizes in his feminine rhymes, and how it changes or develops over the course of his career. Using this aspect of the database, one also sees a potential complication to understanding the feminine rhymes in Brodsky’s work. Because feminine rhymes are made up of multiple syllables and because of the different sounds that unstressed and stressed vowels make in Russian, there can be multiple sets of letter clusters that form exact rhymes, aurally, but not visually. This aspect of the database and the potential data that one receives could create some challenges for a researcher and must be kept in mind.
The rhyming letters section also provides a strong basis from which we might one day be able to train a machine to complete the task of feminine rhyme detection. Because orthographically different letter sets might rhyme with one another we will be able to train the computer on slant rhymes as well. Having this data on a variety of different, potential combinations of what can form a feminine rhyme could also be important for creating a probabilistic model of detecting feminine rhyme. Such an approach would not necessarily require teaching the computer exactly what constitutes a rhyme, but instead provide it with information on how to attempt to guess what could make up a feminine rhyme without having to input the data from all of Brodsky’s published poems.
While the information that the database provides has its own special and exciting uses, the question remains: what can having such a tool tell us more broadly about Brodsky’s poetics? After all, the whole point of developing such a tool via digital methods is to allow for a new reading of “canonical” texts in a different light. With the help of the database, there are some preliminary conclusions that can be drawn.
Using the database, one can find the poems that are the most saturated with feminine rhyme. On the left is a column with the raw count of feminine rhymed words. Thus, “Портрет трагедии” which has 84 lines, all of which end with a feminine rhyme comes to the top of the list. This is interesting just to see where there are lots of feminine rhymes. However, a long poem with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes could outrank a a shorter poem with only feminine rhymes on this list due to the sheer number of feminine rhymes
It is the column on the right that provides us with much more interesting information. This column contains a normalized count of the feminine rhyme saturation in a poem. This is achieved taking the number of feminine rhymed lines and dividing that number by the total number of lines in the poem. Poems like “Портрет трагедии” are shown as equivalent to poems like “Лидо” because they both only have feminine rhymes throughout, even though their total number of lines is quite different.
Looking at the poems that have 100% feminine rhymed endings, what can one discern? Many of these poems deal with the questions of home, travel and distance. These can deal either with physical distance and travel (С натуры), emotional and spiritual distance (Дорогая я вышел) or both (Дождь в августе). Due to the lack of clear endings and resolution that feminine rhymes foster within a poem, they enhance such thematics. Moreover, unlike with masculine rhymes, these poems have no abrupt breaks in the motion of the poem, further suggesting distance and travel, reflecting the content of the poems. This basic analysis from the statistical overview of feminine rhymes per poem in the database gives a sense of what the feminine rhyme database is able to provide to a researcher. The ability to readily see which poems are grouped together according to this feature permits the reader to step back from intensive study of one poem and look at Brodsky’s work from a different vantage point. This asset will only become more helpful with time and with the addition of more data.
While these findings are exciting and demonstrate some potential analytical powers of using the feminine rhyme database, at this stage they must be viewed with some trepidation. They are, after all, based on incomplete data. The poems already in the system are only from a certain period of Brodsky’s life and represent only a portion of his extensive published work. As the database becomes more complete, these findings may change, perhaps providing a more nuanced picture showing distinct phases of the use of feminine rhyme in his work over time.
But, for now, one can see in this approach the beginning exploration of potential ways of “zooming out” to look at how the phenomenon of feminine rhyme works in Brodsky’s poetics. While this is only a preliminary study, it gestures towards the power of such tools. Looking ahead, the potentials for a more complete database, aided by automatic feminine rhyme detection could show us more in depth and interesting findings about the role of the feminine rhyme in poetry on a more macro level.
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