Thoughts about Rhyme

October 7, 2011

When you’ve enjoyed October Snakeskin, why not take a look at a challenging article “Why don’t Poets Write in Rhyme?” on the PoemShape blog?

The author takes the view that most poets don’t because they can’t do it well. Fighting words, and a stimulating argument.

I suspect that the truth is more complicated – that at some time early in the twentieth century (maybe on or about December 10th, 1910when, according to Virginia Woolf, human character changed, or maybe later) regularly rhymed and metred verse began to seem trite and predictable to sensitive ears. A poet had to be pretty good to rise above this. I’ve been thinking a lot about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost recently – both committed to metre, and often to rhyme, but both insistent on keeping these as servants, not masters of the poem. They wanted ‘the sound of sense’, the shape of the sentence being an embodiment of what it is saying. A damned hard trick to pull off if you’re using rhyme and metre. No wonder others who felt something of the same headed for vers libre.

Snakeskin has always been hospitable to both formal and free verse. Its editor wrote free verse when he was young, and gradually became more and more committed to rhyme. The author of the PoemShape piece suggests that free-versers don’t  rhyme because they can’t, but I suspect that the reverse is also sometimes true. I’ve sometimes sat down to write a free verse poem, and then I find the rhymes creeping in, and it just works better with a firm metrical framework…

Using a regular metre allows you to highlight certain words by making sure that they are stressed – or emphasising them even more by introducing metrical irregularities. Echoes and repetitions allow you to link words together so that the reader will notice similarities or contrasts. Making a form where the reader expects sound echoes in a particular place – such as the end of a line – draws attention to these, and allows the poet to spring surprises.

Free verse poems often remind me of songs scored for solo guitar. Some of these are very good indeed. But introduce other instruments to the music and you have possibilities for harmony, counterpoint, all kinds of richness. But the scoring definitely gets more difficult.

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2 Responses to “Thoughts about Rhyme”


  1. No doubt many formalists are unable to write good free verse. I myself feel, like Robert Frost, that “writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”. This is not to say that I don’t like free verse. I just don’t feel confident about being able to write it well.

    As a staple diet, however, I do think free verse becomes very dull, and at times I rail against the strong bias towards free verse in contemporary poetry circles. This may be seen by some as merely self-serving, but tolerating an unjustified predominance would not be doing anyone any favours.

    Here’s an essay written by A.E. Stallings in defence of formal verse: http://ramblingrose.com/poetry/others/stallings_essay.html


  2. I find that the spoken word benefits greatly from rhyme. But the rule nonetheless remains: forced rhyme sounds trite.

    Spoken word rhyme often uses words’ internal sounds to pattern each other, paralleling vowel sounds within words. And I often avoid rhyming the words that end lines, rhyming instead words within lines.

    Rhyme can be pleasant to the ear when done well.


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