Along the way, we get readings of individual poems and poetic effects that are enjoyable, if sometimes idiosyncratic. Is it really true that “we can say with certainty” that “the pentameter derives much of its power and charm through a numerical imbalance” (that is, the line has five stresses, rather than four or six)? Or is this like saying that a fluffy bunny derives much of its adorableness from being rabbit-shaped? It doesn’t matter, because the idea leads Leithauser to compare writing in pentameter to “controlled falling,” which is an amusing and useful way to imagine this major structure.
Leithauser has a trove of formal poetry at his command, and his examples (ranging from nearly lost figures like Chidiock Tichborne, who died in 1586, to contemporaries like Paul Muldoon) show a stamp collector’s appreciation for minute difference. In particular, Leithauser is a superb reader of Louis MacNeice, the mid-20th-century Irish writer who is still undervalued by American poets. MacNeice, he writes, partakes “of the spirit not so much of the chess player, who naturally focuses on plausible lines of play, as the chess problemist, who relishes positions that wouldn’t ordinarily arise.” The prose throughout “Rhyme’s Rooms” is snappily business casual in this manner, with fairly involved discussions of iambic tetrameter stitched through with little pops of color like, “Most books should probably limit themselves to a single anecdote at the expense of dimwitted American tourists. ” The effect can be winning but also odd; as if an accountant kept cracking jokes to you while trying to explain accelerated depreciation.
The oddity is unavoidable, because the book’s project is itself odd. What we have here isn’t a professor talking about versification for an audience of students, but a poet talking in detail about technical aspects of poems for an audience of — well, who exactly? Leithauser says that he is writing for “the reader who loves words and literature but maybe feels some trepidation, and a little nervous resentment, as well as various unvoiced cravings, on confronting a poem on a page.” This describes a fairly large chunk of humanity, so how might we describe that ideal reader more specifically? What is this reader actually like?
“Rhyme’s Rooms” seems unsure. This reader presumably doesn’t know who Joseph Brodsky was, since he is identified as “the Russian poet and Nobel laureate.” Yet this reader is apparently going to be undeterred by the 340-page length of this book or its fascination with poetry’s structural arsenal (“It’s rare for a seven-syllable line to feel trochaic right through to its end”). This reader has enough literary savvy to be amused by potshots at hackneyed poetic conventions (“Aggressive enjambments are the bane of contemporary poetry”). But this reader needs a framing device to understand poetry that involves imagining a remote tribe of perfect readers whimsically called “Funesians” (from a Borges story about a boy named Funes, who perceives and remembers everything — and the reader is going to appreciate this as well, it would seem). This reader knows very little about the contemporary American poetry world, but this reader also needs to be told almost nothing about it (vast, prize-strewn swaths of that domain are resolutely ignored here). This reader is a cloud blown together and apart by opposing winds.
That’s no criticism of Leithauser; it’s simply a function of the genre to which his book belongs. That genre—Learn Poetry! — attempts not just to imagine a reader, but to imagine a world in which that imaginary reader could exist. It’s a task no single book can accomplish. So these works are either frustrating, partial successes like this one, or dull, purple failures in which a prickly, piercing art is reduced to corny sayings and walks in the woods. But this doesn’t make the genre worthless. At the end of “Rhyme’s Rooms,” Leithauser writes, “I suppose what I’m doing here, in my concluding chapter, might be termed a defense of poetry.” As he points out, such defenses have a long legacy — a legacy that is, as most poets know, both moving and dubious. Here is the book’s final line: “Poetry improves people.” Does it? Leithauser believes it does, and it’s clear he also believes poetry has improved him. Perhaps, where poetry is concerned, believing is enough.