Poet in residence

This term's poet in residence

Jean Sprackland

It's not a proper poem unless it rhymes By Jean Sprackland
18 Oct 2009 - 02:48 PM

This term I've started a new job at Manchester Metropolitan University, teaching poetry to undergraduate and postgraduate students. My first-year students and I have been looking at rhyme, and it's been very interesting for me to go back to the most basic questions: what is rhyme, and what is it for?

There does seem to be some piece of hard-wiring which makes human beings respond to rhyme. When I look back on my early encounters with nursery rhymes and folk songs, I remember rhyme not only as a useful way of remembering them off by heart, but also as a satisfying and comforting thing which seemed to affirm that there was structure and pattern and predictability in the world. Young children love repetition: the same story, the same game, the same picture-book again and again and again. This is a characteristic which stays with us all our lives, so that we enjoy the chorus or the recurring motif in a piece of music, and the rhymes in a poem: chime, echo, reminder, refrain, affirming and re-affirming a sense of order and 'rightness' even in our messy and complicated adult world. Perhaps it is this capacity of rhyme to suggest order which makes some people dismissive of 'free verse' or 'modern poetry'? Without rhyme, does the poem become an anxious rather than a reassuring thing? In fact, the idea that contemporary poetry does not rhyme is a misconception. What has undoubtedly waned, however, is the reliance on full rhyme at the end of the line, coupled with regular metre, which I think tends to feel very sure of itself and therefore less appropriate in this age of doubt. Part-rhyme, internal rhyme and assonance can create subtle, edgy and less predictable effects. Not everyone approves of these developments, though! What do you think? When people say that it's not a proper poem unless it rhymes, are they really talking about poetry? Or are they expressing a more general nostalgia for the comforts of childhood, and the certainties of the past?

23 Comments at the moment

Susan at 18 Oct 2009 - 04:46 PM

Surely doubt and uncertainty also existed in the past-I don't understand why so many modern poems are so edgy when there is still some certainty and comfort in our lives. I feel that regular rhyme and metre can make a poem very vigorous and energetic-and there is still some room for that in today's world.

Lucian at 20 Oct 2009 - 04:09 PM

I believe that a vast amount of "poetry" published today is little more than shredded prose palmed off as poetry. It lacks compression. It lacks intensity. Frequently it even fails to communicate. I doubt that much of it will survive. I think that--in a world of increasing disorder and chaos--there is a strong craving for form and coherence. In the past the function of art was to fulfill this craving. I believe, in time, there will be a partial return to form. I may be wrong. Shredded prose may prevail. I by no means wish to imply that all poetry should be written in traditional forms. Much of my own is not. But poetry, in whatever style, possesses a compression, an intensity and an impact which prose, however placed on a page in broken lines, cannot attain.

Ralph at 20 Oct 2009 - 05:19 PM

I think there is a strong case for using regular meter and rhyme in writing poetry that has less to do with nostalgia and more to do with the fact that repetition and similarity are features of the world we live in and of our experience of it - consider the recurring seasons, the regular following of night after day, the recurrence of circular forms in nature. A poetry employing regular rhyme can help accurately express our experience of life as it is still being lived today. On the other hand, not every person's experience will be one where regularity is the focus - people continually live lives characterised more by uprootedness and disruption. To say that poems that reflect such a reality through formal irregularities are not proper poems is to invalidate a great deal of human experience and earnest creative endeavour. In my opinion, a person who can accept nothing but regular rhyme and meter in poetry is not being open to the diversity of human experience.

Lucian at 25 Oct 2009 - 01:21 PM

Could you elaborate on what you mean by "in this age of doubt"? I agree re "a person who can accept nothing but regular rhyme and meter in poetry is not being open to the diversity of human experience." However, I have never met such a person. There is no human experience that cannot be expressed through regular rhyme and metre. Form is not a straitjacket it is just a tool. Poets have been writing metrically for thousands of years and there have never been two poems that have been identical.

Jean at 26 Oct 2009 - 08:27 PM

Hello, Susan, Lucian and Ralph - good to hear from you all. I agree with everything you say about the role rhyme has to play -it remains a major and highly valued resource for poets. However, I'm not so sure I'd go along with the idea that "there is no human experience that cannot be expressed through regular rhyme and metre", Lucian. Form and content are interdependent in a poem, and there are times when the predictability of regular rhyme is simply wrong for the subject matter. I'm sure you're right, Susan, that people in every age experience doubt and uncertainty. Perhaps what is more significant is that the narratives chosen by late 20th and 21st century poets tend to reflect the uncertainties of our age. Why is this, I wonder? Has the role or the purpose of poetry changed, and if so how?

Ralph at 26 Oct 2009 - 08:42 PM

Has not the reliance on full rhyme waned because there are a finite (and comparatively not large) number of rhyming words in the English language, and that English-using poets are in danger of simply sounding redundant? Have legitimate rhymes such as 'tears'-'fears' and 'face'-'embrace' outlived their usefulness? I have played with such rhymes in my own work; but when I heard them used in another person's poem (verbatim!), it got me wondering whether I hadn't made a too obvious choice, and whether there were not very real limits to the ability of rhyme to hold an audience's interest and attention. I felt in danger of sounding embarrassingly the same as the next guy (like wearing the same outfit to a party), even though I was expressing a completely different sentiment. Can full-rhyme positively put people off, even though the poetry is good?

Lucian at 27 Oct 2009 - 03:02 AM

Jean, we will just have to agree to disagree (strongly disagree). I wish you all the best.

Susan at 27 Oct 2009 - 03:02 PM

The question that Jean poses is interesting-what is the role of poetry today and why does so much of it focus on the uncertainties of our age? I can't think of an explanation other than that there is so much more knowledge and information at our disposal today than there ever has been, so many theories to explain our behaviour and the workings of the world around us, and these overwhelming complexities govern our lives and hence manifest themselves in our art. So while doubt and uncertainty existed before, there wasn't the need for the endless questioning and rationalizing that we must do today to keep up with the rapid intellectual developments of our age. Apart from this, it could be that the devices of rhyme and meter are now hackneyed, as Ralph suggests, because the same combinations of rhyming words have been used countless times-or perhaps poets are afraid to go back to the old traditions? That from 'modern', poetry can only become 'more modern', more fragmented and formless?

Lucian at 30 Oct 2009 - 09:02 AM

How about we stop writing at all because all the words have been used?

Jean at 30 Oct 2009 - 11:38 AM

Thanks, Lucian, that made me smile! I don't believe a rich resource like rhyme can ever be 'used up' or 'worn out'. We have only to look at a familiar verse form like the sonnet, and how popular it remains with poets today, to see that everything is capable of infinite use and reinvention. But Susan, I think you're right that the pace and scale of change all around us influences the kind of poetry we make. I come back to this 'age of doubt' idea, and I'd like to add this thought: only since the 1940s have people had to live with the knowledge and the means to annihilate the entire human population, a new and terrifying kind of power which I think has brought with it intense self-doubt and self-interrogation. Some of this inevitably finds its way into art and music and literature, and our creative practices have to adapt in order to express it.

Lucian at 30 Oct 2009 - 03:56 PM

"That from 'modern', poetry can only become 'more modern', more fragmented and formless?" It seems to me writing is about making sense and meaning out of rubble. It should not be turning sense and meaning into rubble. "...:only since the 1940s have people had to live with the knowledge and the means to annihilate the entire human population, a new and terrifying kind of power which I think has brought with it intense self-doubt and self-interrogation." Yes, and I think the world wars and haulocausts do as well. Total anihalation (whether by nuclear war or an asteroid impact) for me is far less personal than ethnic cleansing. P. S. Glad I made you smile!

Ralph at 30 Oct 2009 - 06:39 PM

On the purpose of poetry: it is there to develop and stimulate our imaginations and perception so that when we close the book of poems we were reading, we can be influenced to view our world more specifically, or in a new way. It teaches us to pay attention and notice things better than tv and movies, which are more passive artforms in which our power of imagining our own images of scenes and objects in our minds is not exercised or honed at all - it is all given to us on the screen. (No offense to movies and tv intended). In our age of passive media, the role of poetry is to challenge us. But I'm not sure if it played a less challenging role in earlier times - I would hazard the guess that it pretty much always played this role.

Lucian at 1 Nov 2009 - 08:40 AM

Well said, Ralph. Yes, I believe poetry has always played this role.

Brian McLean at 4 Nov 2009 - 05:33 AM

I'm not just a reader of poetry, but a consumer of it, as I tutor young Hungarians in English. Rhyme, rhythm---structure in general---are appreciated. So is a fairly straight message, although an Elizabethan conceit can go down well. The aim is gratification---for the pupil to feel he/she has understood something of greater merit and meaning than the twaddle in the textbook. Deep emotion, horror, humour and topicality are all appreciated. The most popular (according to these rather strange criteria, in reverse order of age, not worth): Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Dylan Thomas, E. Ethelbert Miller, Wendy Cope, U.A. Fanthorpe... Suggestions, with online references, would be gratefully received.

Rosemary at 4 Nov 2009 - 07:29 PM

To say that poems have stopped rhyming because there are a finite amount of words that rhyme is like saying that music should stop being composed because we have used up all the notes. I need poetry to rhyme, even if the rhyme is not obvious. It’s not good enough for people to just chop up prose and call it a poem. I love the long, epic poems that tell a story and have a rhythm that begs to be read aloud. The rhyme is a key that helps you to remember the story. I agree with Jean’s original comment that it is satisfying to learn poems by heart. I recite poetry to myself if I am waiting for a bus or trying to fall asleep at night. Part of this satisfaction is the rhyming element.

Lucian at 5 Nov 2009 - 01:33 PM

I agree.

Susan at 8 Nov 2009 - 12:38 PM

I agree as well. The question I have about alot of the free verse I read is, when does it stop being 'chopped up prose', as Rosemary says, and start being a poem?

Lucian at 8 Nov 2009 - 03:27 PM

I am staying out of this one! Your question reminds me of a poem by the now completely forgotten Howard Nemerov: "Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry//Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle/That while you watched turned into pieces of snow/Riding a gradient invisible/From silver aslant to random, white, and slow./There came a moment that you couldn't tell./And then they clearly flew instead of fell."

Lesley at 11 Nov 2009 - 03:31 PM

I don't think that free verse is cut up prose without rhyme or rhythm, I just think it is very easy to write rubbish free verse. Which in one way makes it even more brilliant when it's good. William Carlos Williams Red Wheelbarrow is an example of getting it right, blows me away everytime I read it. Poetry informs of us this world but doesn't it also have the capacity to take us to other worlds? Worlds we can't understand, but we can sense and feel? Rhyme they say had a very practical origin in helping pre-literate cultures to remember hours and hours of stories about war heroes etc. But maybe pre-literate cultures enjoyed rhyme for it's own sake, enjoyed playing with language. I mean what is language if not something magical, something that humans have formed with a little help from something we can't understand, something we don't question too much, or if we do we can never answer. Where the heck did language come from??? Anyway, in my mind that's free verse. A way to enjoy language in a way that has a hint of magic to it - i.e. poetry. But yes, a lot of modern poetry does seem like trite, as does a lot of older poetry. Surely no one is suggesting that just because a poem rhymes it's good! Shakespeare wrote in blank verse most of the time remember, he was a rung on the ladder towards free verse. Blake read Shakespeare, Whitman read Blake, Ginsberg read Blake etc. Poetry changes because like language itself it is fluid, it rebels against itself, it is alive. And may it live long in all its forms.

Susan at 11 Nov 2009 - 03:47 PM

That really is a lovely poem Lucian! Thanks for sharing it.

Rosemary at 12 Nov 2009 - 08:05 PM

I am not suggesting that all poems that rhyme are good, I just don't understand why most modern poems don't rhyme. I was watching The Culture Show this evening on BBC2, which contained a section on 4 young poets. None of them rhymed. What turns a line of prose into a poem?

Jean at 13 Nov 2009 - 09:10 AM

Hello everyone. Rosemary raises a perennial and important question: What makes the difference between a line of prose and a poem? It's a deep and complex question which can't be answered quickly or glibly. I think of rhyme as one of a great range of resorces of language - it's powerful - but then so are other resources, like rhythm, alliteration, ellipsis, metaphor... I could go on and on. I've always loved rhyme, but I've never thought of it as an essential feature. A successful poem is never 'chopped-up prose", since the poet breaks the line to achieve certain effects - decisions about linebreaks are subtle and intensely creative decisions, not random cuts like chopping up carrots! I love the way this part of the drafting process reveals the incredible plasticity of language, and how apparently tiny adjustments can change the tone and sense of the whole poem.

Lucian at 15 Nov 2009 - 10:00 PM

Lesley, I am not sure that Shakespeare was "a rung on the ladder towards free verse." I think you may have the wrong definition of blank verse (usually non-rhyming iambic pentametre).

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