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?


"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!

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.

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

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.

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.

I agree.

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?

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."

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.

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


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