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:

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?

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.

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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Glossary term

Stanza

A group of lines within a poem, demarcated by a blank line (or stanza break).

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