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?

Comments:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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

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?

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

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.

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Glossary term

Ambiguity

The quality of having more than one meaning.