Poet Caitlin Doyle (Photo by Mike Robinson)

 

Rhyme is tricky business for a contemporary poet. In an environment where free-verse dominates, how can a writer make a traditional technique like rhyme meaningful and innovative, and not simply a hollow, reactionary gesture against the status-quo?

Poet Caitlin Doyle has been exploring this question through highly original poems steeped both in meaning and musicality. Whether she is constructing in free verse or in more traditional forms, Doyle’s surprising creations use “sound as a doorway to sense.”

Caitlin explained her views on rhyme and meter in a recent email exchange:

It’s not uncommon to encounter the rhyme-is-dead edict, the argument that rhyme is out of tune with contemporary ears. But how do you explain the fact that, looking back on years of jumbled history lessons, the clearest piece of knowledge that rises to my mind is this: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue? How do you explain the fact that children still chant ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies at recess? Or that no one in my family can drop an Alka-Seltzer into water without singing plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is? Rhyme has long infiltrated every aspect of human discourse, from how we teach the young (an apple a day keeps the doctor away) to how we sell ideas, products, and even politicians to one another (Tippecanoe and Tyler, too).

In the beginning was the rhyme, both at the inception of human life when pre-literate people used rhyme to pass on oral history and at the start of our own individual lives; lullabies, nursery rhymes, jump-rope songs, commercial jingles. I have spent the past several years writing my way forward to get back to that beginning, the sustaining sonic pleasure of the first time I encountered Robert Louis Stevenson questioning the wind: O you that are so strong and cold, / O blower, are young or old? / Are you a beast of field and tree, / or just a stronger child than me?

Doyle’s poetry hovers in this surprising place between music and meaning. She is always aware of the larger effect of her poems, but no small detail escapes her notice. Her ability to balance content and form, humor and seriousness, seems effortless.

“For me, the ideal reader is a person who apprehends a poem’s meaning primarily through its music,” says Doyle. “I often imagine this reader as likely to be somebody who had stirring experiences with language in childhood and adolescence, who connected with the hypnotic pull of words as a young person long before learning to approach poetry with an eye toward dissection. Essentially, my ideal reader is an individual who, somewhere along the way, learned to experience language as a form of enchantment beyond full analysis.”
 

 

A drawing of Caitlin Doyle by artist Thomas Thorspecken

 

Doyle’s poems are serious and complex, but also witty and playful, and it’s this tension that makes her writing so innovative. Although she is skilled at using rhyme, meter, and the traditional formal elements of English-language poetry, she also has a facility for free verse and can’t be categorized as a strict “formalist.”

Most poetry lovers, myself included, aren’t much interested in polemical debates about the moral or political implications of choosing one stylistic approach over another. People who relish poems want to read work that compels their ears, minds, and hearts, and they don’t tend to believe that a single aesthetic mode is intrinsically superior in achieving those ends. When it comes to infusing a poem with aural resonance, rhyme and meter don’t possess greater or lesser power than alliteration, skillful modulation of line-lengths, assonance, or any other tools a poet might use.

The poems included here are a wonderful introduction to Caitlin Doyle’s unique voice. I hesitate to use the word “gothic” to describe Doyle’s style, and yet that is the word that kept arising while reading a selection of her work. Although she is a poet and not a fiction writer, she shares Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner’s Southern-gothic flair for unsettling (sometimes comic) domestic scenes. The Brontë sisters, Isak Dinesen’s tales, and Chri