Poetry Sunday: 'Used Book,' 'Unplanned Obsolescence,' and 'Plea Bargain' by Julie Kane

Patterns of end rhyme are another distinguishing feature of formal poetry. We’ve seen such patterns in the sonnets previously featured in this column, the two most common being Shakespearean (ababcdcdefefgg) and Petrarchan (abbacddceffegg), but once again, many permutations exist. Anything that repeats often enough for the mind to register it as recurring creates a pattern. And, as I’ve pointed out before, human beings are pattern-seeking animals who find a sense of rest, even delight, in recognizing any pattern. For some linguistic reason I don’t understand, we find it funnier to rhyme multiple syllables than just one—Lewis Carroll’s pairing of “snickersnack” and “Jabberwock” in  “Jabberwocky” is funny not just because of the nonsense words but also because the rhyme extends across several syllables. Another element amping up humor is something that strengthens any rhyme: unexpected, even incongruous word pairings. Linking “flesh” with “press” in today’s first poem is an example, as is “pet” with “debt” in the last. We see both elements at work when Kane rhymes “you will be” with “the big C” and “rollers” with “molars” in today’s poems. The phrase “the big C” deploys yet another strategy mentioned at West Chester: mixing the high with the low, especially in diction. Calling something as disastrously fatal as cancer by an affectionately diminutive nickname makes us laugh.
All three of today’s poems have strictly defined meters and end-rhyme schemes. “Used Book” is a pentameter sonnet with mostly alternating slant-rhyme until its final, rhyming couplet. Every line contains five beats arranged mostly in the rising pattern established by the first: What luck—an open bookstore up ahead. “Unplanned Obsolescence” is an old French form called a triolet whose end-rhyme scheme diagram (ABaAabAB) uses capital letters to designate repetitions of entire lines, here also in iambic pentameter: I wish I hadn’t mentioned pay phones. The last poem, “Plea bargain,” uses iambic trimeter quatrains that rhyme the second and fourth lines. Read this line aloud and see if you can hear the three beats ringing out: Inside the scanner’s tunnel. Kane frequently uses slant rhyme and assonance instead of full end rhyme; we see this in “Used Books” rhyming of “Street” with “poetry,” “Kees,” and “’83.” In all three poems, though, the closing rhymes are strong and full (inside/died, molars/rollers, and pet/debt) and contribute to the sense of an ending vital to all good poetry and to comic verse in particular.
Frank Osen reminded our class that the principle of compression important in all poetry is crucial in poetry that aspires to be funny; he calls it “pith.” Sometimes meter and pith are at odds, as when one more syllable is needed to fill out the beats of a given line, but the best formal poets interrogate every word, making sure each one carries its weight. If you read through today’s poems, you see they feel just right, with no false notes or words obviously inserted to pad the meter or rhyme.
Tension is necessary to all good poetry; without it, poems putter along and peter out and feel slack—unless, of course, that is the point of the joke, as may be the case in “Unplanned Obsolescence.” The equivalent in comedy is timing, exquisitely controlled in all three poems featured today. In “Used Book,” readers are led along through lines 1-13 by a slightly pretentious poet delighted to discover her chapbook on a used bookstore shelf between the books of two eminent writers. Tone turns on a dime in the last line, with the surprising and ouch-funny revelation that the book in question was one bestowed upon—and subsequently discarded by—the poet’s ex-lover. In “Unplanned Obsolescence,” the repeated lines come just often enough to evoke a humorously plaintive, almost hapless tone. Another reason those repeated lines are funny is that they—I got this from the Seinfeld interview—use funny words. “Pay phone dimes” are so passé they make us smile, whether with derision or nostalgia. Itself the subject of a million jokes, “female hurricanes” is just an oddly droll concept. “Pink foam rollers” are also relics of the past, but even when they were in fashion, they were amusing in concept and appearance—all Lucille Ball or Edith Bunker had to do to get a laugh was wear them and walk on the set.

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