Whatever happened to poetry? many wonder. Those who wonder probably don’t realize that a lot of poetry continues to be written. On the other hand, they may be perfectly aware that a lot of what’s written passes itself off as poetry, but they deny that it qualifies. And they have a point.

Whatever happened to poetry? often means Whatever happened to rhyme and meter? And the answer is that these traditional features of poetry no longer characterize much of what’s written as poetry. This is not a comment on the inventiveness of contemporary poetry, or its beauty. But after centuries in which meter and rhyme distinguished poetry from prose, it’s worth wondering why that might have changed. Here I focus on rhyme.

Poetry has not always rhymed. The Hebrew Psalms don’t rhyme. Homer doesn’t rhyme, nor Virgil. As Giorgio Agamben has noted ( The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans ) rhyme developed in Latin Christian poetry, beginning in the fourth century. From Latin it spread to the Romance languages, and became a defining feature of Western poetry. Agamben doesn’t think the connection with Christianity is accidental.

Italian poets developed the sestina on the model of the six days of creation, and the Augustinian theory that the creation was recapitulated in the history of humanity, the redemption of the sixth-day creature man taking place in the sixth age of history. Dante had consciously theological reasons for employing the sestina form in his rime petrose .

Agamben illustrates with a sestina (6 stanzas of 6 lines) from Arnaut Daniel. The rhyme scheme is ingenious. The same six words are used at the end of the lines in each stanza, but they are rearranged chiastically: ABCDEF becomes FAEBDC, and the third stanza performs the same operation on the second stanza.

Each stanza recalls the previous and anticipates the next, and, Agamben says, “through this complicated to-and-fro directed both backwards and forwards, the chronological sequence of linear homogenous time is completely transformed into rhythmic constellations themselves in movement.” Normal chronological time is organized by a “somewhat hidden internal pulsation.” In a highly complex rhyme scheme such as this, “the retrieval of rhyming end words transforms chronological time into messianic time” (82).

Where did this all come from? Agamben suggests that it comes from the Pauline and New Testament notion of types and antitypes, in other words, the New Testament’s understanding of the pattern of history. Medieval poetry was sometimes structured by parallelisms of type and antitype, rhyming events. Agamben claims that “rhyme issues from Christian poetry as a metrical-linguistic transcodification of messianic time and is structured according to the play of typological relations and recapitulations evoked by Paul” (85).

And he points out that this typological pattern of thought, translated into rhetoric, can be found in Paul, who “reaches unknown heights in Greek or even Semitic prose, as though he were responding to an inner exigency and an epochal motivation” (86). He points to 1 Corinthians 7: Paul writes a series of clauses alternating between kai oi and hos me , and those, as not: “those who weep, as not weeping; those who rejoice, as not rejoicing; those who buy, as not possessing.” He points to the climactic poetry of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: Again, the passage is made of lines alternating between speiretai and egiretai , sowing and raising: “Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raise in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raise a spiritual body.

Agamben concludes that “rhyme, understood in the broad sense of the term as the articulation of a difference between semiotic series and semantic series, is the messianic heritage Paul leaves to moder poetry, and the history and fate of rhyme coincide in poetry with the history and fate of the messianic announcement” (87). Agamben points to Holderlin, who announces the departure of the gods at the very time his poetry fragments and shatters. Lose typology, and you lose rhyme. Lose Paul, and you lose poetry because “atheology immediately becomes a-prosody.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart