WHAT RHYMES WITH ‘SESQUIPEDALIAN’?
(below) is perhaps not so forced, but again there is a suggestion of the rhyme scheme guiding the poem, rather than working for it (It doesn’t scan either!):
Far beyond the deep blue sky I soared in a rocket ship so high
Carolyn Jess-Cooke asks, does poetry have to rhyme? Or is it a fetish that turns a decent poem into a greetings card?
Poetry is synonymous with rhyme. Or at least, that’s the broad belief circulating amongst poetry audiences, with many a poet hearing ‘but it doesn’t rhyme’ as a (rather jarring) response to their work. Clearly, the sound of the end words is to poetry what butter is to bread. But is rhyme what makes poetry ‘poetry’? Or is it just an outmoded throwback to the days of yore, when school kids were forced to recite sonnets off the cuff and Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Pope dominated the poetry curriculum? What use does rhyme have in the 21st Century?
Derek Walcott – recipient of this year’s TS Eliot prize – recently offered this endorsement of poetry’s paradigm: ‘Rhyme is an attempt to reassemble and reaffirm the possibility of paradise. There is a wholeness, a serenity in sounds coupling to form a memory’. The ‘wholeness’ Walcott describes relates to the relationships that rhyme creates between sounds. Take, for instance, these lines from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘Art’ from her collection Rapture (Picador):
our bodies, brushstroke, pigment, motif; our story, figment, suspension of disbelief; the thrum of our blood, percussion; chords, minor, for the music of our grief.
Although the words ‘motif ’ ‘disbelief ’, and ‘grief ’ sound alike, their meanings contrast with one another; and the line ‘the music of our grief ’ recaptures the rhymes of the preceding lines, drawing our ear to the sound of the poem and thereby epitomising the notion of grief ’s music.
Indeed, rhyme at its best is essentially a celebration of the musicality of language. Poetry originated as an oral art form, or as a communal performance in which bards would recite long works before eager audiences, drawing upon rhyme and repetition to enable them to remember their poems. So originally poetry was intended to appeal to the ear first and foremost, with the effects emerging through its music.
Rhyme engages an audience, prompting associations and achieving a more effective kind of sketching than can be realised by direct statement. Take the title of Walcott’s collection White Egrets (Faber). Are they birds? Regrets? The impact of a poem can be more effective when not everything is spelled out.
Benjamin Zephaniah’s work relies on rhyme and rhythm to comment on serious issues such as racism, and political justice, and yet it is perhaps the word play throughout Zephaniah’s work that is most engaging and provocative, as in this extract from ‘Dis Poetry’ (City Psalms, Bloodaxe):
Dis poetry is not afraid of going ina book Still dis poetry need ears fe hear an eyes fe hav a look Dis poetry is Verbal Riddim, no big words involved An if I hav a problem de riddim gets it solved.
Rhyme done badly, however, tends to prompt the gag reflex. Few other poetic techniques cripple a poem quite as badly as a forced end-rhyme, though almost every poet is guilty of resorting to a bizarre word order in an effort to make a rhyme ‘work’. Here’s a terrible couplet I made earlier: Far beyond the deep blue sky in a rocket ship went I
Forced to match words with each other, there is a danger that the aspiring rhymer will mash sentences together without respect to meaning or sense. As with all kinds of poetic form, the idea is to use the technique – in this case, rhyme – in order to enhance the poem’s meaning, not choke it. The example above uses language in a way that contradicts contemporary usage. The ‘went I’ is obviously a forced way of rhyming with ‘sky’, and it is this forced element that cripples the phrase. My second attempt
A good rhyme ultimately contributes to the integrity of the final piece, without the impression that the rhymes have been jammed into place.
Rhyme seems like a rather straightforward technique to apply in poetry – but its easiness belies how quickly it can make a poem smack of Hallmark or a bad nursery rhyme. As WH Auden once put it, rhymes ‘are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy household. If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks authority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk and dishonest’. In other words, rhyme is there to assist the poem, to serve its meaning and tone. It should never
Few poetic techniques cripple a poem quite as badly as a forced end-rhyme dominate – unless, of course, the point of the poem is to emphasise the rhymes and create puns and parody.
So, how to do it? The good news is that rhyming is one of poetry’s easier devices. Rather than requiring a head for numbers (counting syllables) or organisation (ever tried a sestina?), rhyme requires nothing more than recognising (and listing) similar sounds.
Begin by listing similar-sounding words (to make it even easier, rhyming dictionaries are available free on the internet). A list of words that sound like ‘bait’ (gate, wait, mate, hate, fate, late), for instance, creates a word palette – and this may prompt an otherwise
4 LINES THAT RHYME Here are some tried and tested forms to try: ABAB: standard quatrain (various meters can be used) ABBA: envelope rhyme (as above, but the idea of a couplet 'contained' by the A rhymes has a different dynamic) XAXA: ballad stanza (often alternating tetrameter/trimeter) AAXA: stanza from the RubaiyatofOmar Khayyam
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reticent muse to speak up. Each word in your list will ignite immediate, often surprising, associations and mental imagery; so even when you feel uninspired, creating a list of rhyming words might well spark a subject, image, or even a tone for a dynamic poem.
But take care. As I mentioned above, rhyme can dominate a poem, like a cuckoo in a nest. This is especially true of end rhymes, but also with some of the subtler forms of rhyme – such as alliteration (see box) – where it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Better to use a variety of rhyming devices, as Anne Compton does in the extract below from ‘What light decays’ (Modern Canadian Poets, Carcanet).
Try reading it aloud, to appreciate the rich texture of its sounds: how the relationships between ‘shingle’, ‘cigarette’, and ‘quick’ are dramatised by the rhyme scheme, as is the notion of ‘how words sound’ by the alliteration in the second stanza. Rhyme here renders the spoken word utterly delicious, flooding a moment with flavour and meaning.
This example demonstrates that rhyme doesn’t always, or only, have to come at the end of the line. Becoming aware of its function within the line is every bit as important as recognising end rhymes; in fact Compton doesn’t employ end rhyme at all in this poem – yet the rhymes are still there, in ‘step’, ‘except’ and overslept’, for example.
But perfect rhyme, where two words rhyme exactly, is not the only way to use rhyme in a poem. There are many other ways of creating this ‘music’ (see Glossary box). Oblique rhymes, for instance, can attune the reader to other forms of discord within a poem, or draw their attention to two sides of a story that don’t quite reach. When Walcott speaks of the ‘wholeness’ that rhyme brings to poetry, it is precisely this kind of alignment between the ear and the intellect – and perhaps even the heart – in comprehending the layers of a poem. There are simply things the ear can hear that the intellect cannot.
For writers of all genres, rhyme is a must – even if only as an exercise – in order to become more aware of the relationships between sounds and their effects. Experimenting, tampering, and generally mucking about with rhyme is perhaps the
I make my way down the shingle to my father. He’s by the rowboat smoking a cigarette. You’d think he’d be wayworn at his age but, no, he’s quick to my step, except his eyes have the look of the overslept – […] His voice hollows off – how words sound in a silo, come spring, the silage gone. There’s a seasmell to his clothes though he’s come, he claims, from the headpond. Where herons nest
GLOSSARY alliteration: matching first consonants (‘Harry’s hard hat’) assonance: repetition of vowels in the stressed syllables of words in succession (‘And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain’) consonance: matching consonants (‘sword’, ‘salt’) end rhyme: where the final syllable of one line rhymes with another half rhyme: matching final consonants (‘bent’, ‘ant’) holorhyme: when entire lines rhyme (‘It wounds me to see you flying like that […] Baboons need to feel the sighing white flat‘) imperfect rhyme: between a stressed and unstressed syllable (‘string’, ‘fighting’) internal rhyme: within a single line (‘The book looked like it had been cooked’) oblique rhyme: an imperfect sound match (‘gun’, ‘thumb’) rhyme scheme: the general organisation of a poem’s rhymes semirhyme: with an extra syllable on one word (‘food’, ‘wooden’) syllabic rhyme: in which the last syllables sound the same but do not necessarily contain vowels (‘marry’, ‘bury’)
first trick. In my own poetry practice, a potentially dry spell can often be nipped in the bud with a few flirtations with rhyme. It takes away the pressure to ‘say something’ and I find myself falling in love once more with language itself.
Of course, there are many fine poets who never consciously use holorhyme or alliteration in their work. But personally I feel more playful when I wield rhyme as a tool, more able to delight in poetry rather than struggle with it. Even if only as a starting point, rhyme can be the key to fresh insights and renewed attentiveness; or, as Auden put it, ‘a happy household’. ■
CAROLYN JESS-COOKE is Mslexia’s poetry adviser and author of the poetry collection Inroads (Seren) and the novel The Guardian Angel’s Journal (Piatkus, just out), which is being translated into 18 languages. www.carolynjesscooke.co.uk
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