It's not a proper poem unless it rhymes
Jean Sprackland - 18 October 2009
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?