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This article is taken from PN Review 70, Volume 16 Number 2, November - December 1989.

Gunn's Rhymes Martin Dodsworth

Thom Gunn's development as a poet has been slow, and is clearly defined; he began with rhyme, then added a form of half-rhymed syllabic verse in his third book, My Sad Captains, and finally went on to develop his own, characteristic free verse. Although the syllabic form has disappeared from his work, he remains faithful to rhyme; his last full-length book, The Passages of Joy, is largely in free verse, but its second section is exclusively rhymed, and rhyme crops up elsewhere in its pages. The way Gunn uses rhyme is intimately related to his whole style and outlook, and is worth looking at for that reason.

Gunn likes to rhyme monosyllables with monosyllables. The preference is already manifest in Fighting Terms; checking through the first thirteen poems of that book (in its first edition, to be precise), I found that out of a total of 132 rhymes, 88 used monosyllables exclusively - said / bed / dead, for example. This is not generally regarded as a very exciting kind of rhyme. Of course, English is not a language with a plenitude of rhymes, and this fact may excuse a poet who relies heavily on monosyllables, even if it does suggest a mechanical exercise undertaken in order to maintain the rhyme-scheme: bat / brat / cat / drat / fat / flat, and so on. But can it excuse the poet's using rhyme at all when there are unrhymed forms available?

In using monosyllables so ...


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