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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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