Miles Kington: Who said that rhyme was a literary crime?

Whatever pundits say, people like rhyme and gravitate towards it. What does the sign in your local car park say? 'Pay and Display'
Click to follow

One of the interesting things about great works of art is that they are always hailed as epoch-making, or mould-breaking, or trail-blazing, or something equally apocalyptic, and almost every time they are nothing of the sort.

We are often told, for instance, that after the towering genius of James Joyce's Ulysses things were never the same again. I am not sure if it was a work of genius or not, but I am very sure of one thing; the idea that the novel was never the same again is utter baloney. Most novelists still write as if James Joyce had never existed. The shadow of James Joyce falls, not over today's novelists, but only over the critics who have written books about James Joyce.

Music was never the same again after Schoenberg and the 12-note system, was it? Well, actually it was pretty much the same, I think, just as you would not know from today's jazz that Free Jazz in the 1960s had thrown out harmony, melody and rhythm. Abstract painting spelled the death of representational art, did it not? No, I think it did not, any more than you could tell from reading John Betjeman and Philip Larkin that TS Eliot had created modern poetry before they came along. There was new broom Eliot, getting rid of all the jumble, throwing out old rhyme and scansion as surplus to needs, and before you knew it there were Larkin and Betjeman, down at the boot sale, buying it all back in again.

I think the case of rhyme is especially interesting, because you can tell from the way the English language works that, whatever the poetry pundits say, people like rhyme and gravitate towards it without thinking. When it is possible to manufacture a rhyming phrase, people will opt for it. What does that little sign in your local town car park say? "Pay and Display". What is the inducement to go and eat at your local inn? "Pub grub". What is the lazy editor of the local paper doing when he blows court cases up into moral outrage? "Naming and shaming". What do we go to Scotland to see? "Highlands and Islands", of course.

Sometimes the rhyme is so apt that a handy rhyming phrase becomes almost the only definition. When British scientists go somewhere where they are properly paid and respected, it is always a "brain drain". When someone wants to refer to the presence in one place of university residents alongside the local population, nobody has ever thought of anything neater than "Town and Gown". "Hatches, Matches and Dispatches" is still the best description of the births, weddings and death announcements in a newspaper, just as the predatory male's attitude to sex has never been better summed up than as "Wham, Bam, thank you, Ma'am". Would "Wham, Bam, thank you, Missus" sound as good? No, it would not. Then there is "toy boy" and "fag hag" and "gang bang" and "humdrum" and so on, until the rhymes run out.

Which they do sometimes. When someone started the idea of Park 'n' Ride, they must have scratched the rhyming dictionary to find a handier phrase, or at least one with a rhyme, but they couldn't and nor can I. People sometimes even invent a word to make a rhyme. When bridge players trump a card in dummy and throw an unwanted card from their own hand on it, they call it "ruff and discard". Or rather, they don't. They call it "ruff and sluff". "Sluff"? No such word. But it rhymes. And I guess the second half of words like "huggermugger" or "killerdiller" is merely an invention, to give some symmetry to the first half.

Yes, it will take more than TS Eliot to knock out the human urge to rhyme. And the prize for the most macabre rhyme of all must, I think, go to the medical profession. I am not sure if everyone knows this, but if a doctor can persuade someone to have their deceased relative cremated, rather than buried or anything else, the doctor gets a small commission on the proceeding. I wonder if you can guess what this cremation payment is called in the business? Yes, well done. "Ash cash".