Are Poems Still Allowed to Rhyme?

Re-Size Text: A A A A Comment

RSS blog print

Are Poems Still Allowed to Rhyme?


A contributor to a literary magazine enquires, ‘Are poems still allowed to rhyme?’

Of course they are. What makes you say such a thing? Eliot rhymed some of the time. Auden and MacNeice rhymed often. Larkin and Betjeman rhymed away like anything. Of course they’re all dead, some of them a quite a long time dead. But most of my poems rhyme and I’m still above ground. Most of Wendy Cope’s, and nearly all of Sophie Hannah’s rhyme. The Oxford Professor of Poetry, James Fenton, he rhymes a lot, and so does his friend John Fuller, another Oxford man. Ann Drysdale who nearly won the National a couple of years back, who ought to have won it in my opinion, she rhymes sometimes, more than sometimes. My favourite living poet, the great Kit Wright, he rhymes, and so does Roger McGough, MBE.

OK, but… but you’re all, well, a bit old — except young Sophie that is. Ah that’s true. None of us will see fifty again. What about the younger poets? They don’t rhyme much. Some of them do, but a lot of them don’t. Why is that? Even fewer American poets rhyme? And why is that? Is rhyming like wearing a tie, a formality we find ourselves inclined to dispense with? Or even like wearing a corset, a formality we wouldn’t dream of subjecting ourselves to?

Writing Poetry by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams, a good and deservedly popular handbook for practitioners in Hodder’s Teach Yourself series, has an interesting discussion on rhyme in Chapter 14. They say (what is obviously true) that the dislike of rhyme in modern writing is widespread, and suggest a number of reasons why this might be so.

• English is not a good language to rhyme in
• Rhyme is so artificial that it suggests insincerity
• Rhyme changes what you first thought of
• Rhyme draws too much attention to itself
• Rhyme has a ‘Look Ma, no hands!’ quality which serious poetry does well to avoid

English is not a good language to rhyme in. They mean that it is more difficult to rhyme in English than in many other European languages, because we do not have a full system of (rhyming) inflections. They are right. Here is the octet of a sonnet by Petrarch.

      Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
      di quei sospiri ond'io nudriva il core
      in sul mio primo giovenile errore,
      quand'era in parte altr'uom da quel ch'i' sono;
      del vario stile in ch'io piango e ragiono
      fra le vane speranze e 'l van dolore,
      ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
      spero trovar pieta, non che perdono.

This means, according to my Penguin Book of Italian Verse:

      You who hear in my scattered rhymes the sound of those sighs on which I fed my heart in my first youthful mistake, when I was in part another man from the one I am now; for the varied manner in which I weep and reflect there, amid vain hopes and vain grief, I hope to have pity, not only pardon, from whosoever by experience knows love.

Heart, error, grief, love – they all rhyme in Italian, and sound, am, reason, pardon, they all rhyme too. You can see the poem growing with the rhymes and an abbaabba rhyme scheme is a piece of cake. In English, love has five rhymes altogether – dove, above and glove, which will do so well that they have been used ad very nearly nauseam, and shove and guv, which are, perhaps, not quite so promising. There are no rhymes at all to many common words – orange, silver, month, purple and wisdom are famous examples. So the sheer effort of rhyming deters poets, don’t you see? Well, I don’t know about that. Are we really saying that an artist will abandon a thing because it is difficult? What sort of an artist is that? Milton made the difficulty a virtue.

      A book was writ of late called Tetrachordon;
      And woven close, both matter, form and style;
      The subject new; it walked the town a while,
      Numbering good intellects; now seldom pored on.
      Cries the stall-reader, bless us! What a word on
      A title page is this! And some in file
      Stand spelling false, while one might walk to Mile-
      End Green. Why this is harder, Sirs, than Gordon,
      Colckitto, or Macdonnel or Galasp?

I think, inured as we are to our Caledonian ruling class, we might just about manage Gordon nowadays, though cricket commentators have notorious trouble with, say, Gundappa Vishwanath, and Indians themselves converted the great Somerset all-rounder into Iron Bottom. That last word is a tricky rhyme, but its very trickiness inspired my favourite middle to a limerick (we are talking about the dancing young lady of Bude). How I wish I had written it!

      He cried out ‘O what a m-
      Agnificent bottom!’

Rhyme is so artificial that it suggests insincerity. Of course all art is artificial, by definition we might say, but perhaps the idea is that you shouldn’t notice. This is what Horace calls the art that conceals art. ‘Poetry should come as easily as the leaves on the tree’ said Keats, but it was in a letter and he wasn’t on oath, though I still think it was a silly thing to say. I remember a poet, or rather a ‘poet’, telling me in a creative writing class that he never revised his work in case he spoiled it. He said it was the same with Dylan Thomas. I spluttered something about sixty drafts, but Poetaster Steve (it would be Steve, wouldn’t it?) had tuned out.

Rhyme changes what you first thought of. Yes, indeed it does. In bad poems this is very obvious

      Beautiful Railway Bridge of the silvery Tay,
      Alas, I am very sorry to say
      That ninety lives have been taken away

Perhaps McGonagall didn’t really think of anything at all in the first place. He just let the rhyme carry him along. When children make their poems rhyme they get effects like that, which is why most poetry workshops for children try to avoid it. But good poets change their minds about what they are going to say as well, because a neat rhyme suggests a way for the poem to go. John Dryden confessed, nay boasted, that the rhyme often helped him to the sense. Is that bad? Dryden didn’t think so, and neither do I. I would even argue that the search for rhyme (and metre) allows the poem to creep up on you unawares, frees your unconscious, which is where many of the best poems come from.

Rhyme draws too much attention to itself. Not always, not if you do it right. That is the concealing art that Horace talked about. I had a schoolteacher, a poet too in both English and Gaelic, who confessed that for years he had not noticed that Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ rhymed. And what about this?

      The trees are coming into leaf
      Like something almost being said;
      The recent buds relax and spread,
      Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Do Larkin’s rhymes really ‘draw attention to themselves’? Do they not rather make the lines seem so natural, so right, that they could not have been written any other way? Sometimes, of course, a rhyme does draw attention to itself.

      Come, all you lords of ladies intellectual,
      Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?

Did Byron think he was being funny? Yes, I’m afraid he did.

Rhyme has a ‘Look Ma, no hands!’ quality which serious poetry does well to avoid. This is really the same objection as the one above, with a po-faced moralising quality (that suits well with our po-faced, moralising times) tacked on. Rhymers are show-offs and we don’t like show-offs here. Humph! Not all artists are show-offs, but a lot of them are. People like Michelangelo, Beethoven and Dickens really were the most dreadful show-offs. The Sistine Chapel, the Fifth Symphony, Oliver Twist – these are art works designed to dazzle and amaze, designed to make you gasp, or cry or laugh out loud.

Serious poetry? Oh dear – when I hear the words serious art I reach for my revolver. Why? Because an essential part of all art is the element of play and serious people never play. Serious art is the stuff that empties the concert halls and art galleries. Serious books are the ones you buy but never read. The one by Derrida. The other one by Derrida.

Many modern poets dislike rhymes for some or all of the above reasons. And for another reason too I think, one that it is difficult to put your finger on. It has something to do with democracy and a dislike of elitism. Rhyming is definitely elitist. It is difficult to do, so not everybody can do it. As I said before, if you earn some of your living by getting children to write poems you very quickly see that you don’t want to let them rhyme. Why not? Because it is too difficult for them. It is something they may be able to do when they are older, like perspective in a drawing. When children rhyme they usually come up with doggerel. What is doggerel? It is like this.

      With a rumble and a roar
      The planes just soar
      High past the stand
      Where the men get fanned.
      Down the planes come
      With a hum-hum-hum.

That was written by an eleven-year-old and I don’t think it’s so bad. It actually scans (that is, the metre doesn’t limp) and it makes sense. But the need to rhyme has led the young poet to use the word ‘fanned’ which isn’t quite right, and the word ‘hum’. The planes don’t hum, do they? They roar, as he says in line 1. Most rhyming poems that eleven-year-old write are much worse than this. The poet, a boy called Donald Buchanan, wrote it in 1956 and I’ve remembered it after all these years. That’s one thing about rhyming verse. You do tend to remember it.

But it is hard to do, and people nowadays don’t know how to do it – the Queen does – because they haven’t learned many (or indeed any) poems by heart. Did you learn any at school? Probably not if you are less than that magic fifty. I learned poems by Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Robert Louis Stevenson, Browning, Coleridge, Tennyson, Kipling, James Hogg, Ralph Hodgson (who he?). I learned them because I had to, just as I learned my twelve times table and dates like 1314, 1415 and 1514 (Battles Bannockburn, Agincourt and Flodden if you didn’t know). And I can still say them, fair bits of them, the poems I mean, not the dates, though I can say the dates too.

Poems that don’t rhyme are much harder to learn. But then the children don’t learn them now. Educationalists stopped that about the same time they stopped English grammar. And now their teachers don’t know the grammar and they don’t know the poems – it’s not their fault but they never learned them, you see. I think a poet who never, or rarely, rhymes, isn’t much of a poet, just as I think that a painter who never draws figures, who very possibly can’t draw figures, isn’t much of a painter. And the same goes for a composer who never writes a tune. But then I am a reactionary old elitist. And probably not serious.

      In the Garden of Poetry I’m a
      Discreet and well-organised rhymer
      But, in this day and age,
      Poets sprawl down the page.
      As a rhymer I’m just an old-timer.

P.S. There is an apposite poem by Ann Drysdale.

      The Case for Light Verse

      Beside the epic, with its long tradition
      Of mythic reference and erudition,
      Darling of bards po-faced and reverential,
      Light verse seems horribly inconsequential.
      There is no literary substance to it,
      No lasting value; any fool can do it.
      Take up the burden that distorts your soul,
      Crack it and tip it out into a bowl;
      Chuck out the yolk and then with merry vigour
      Whip up the white and add a bit of sugar.
      This is a recipe that can’t go wrong;
      A little biscuit melting on the tongue,
      Tickling the idiot’s fancy like a feather
      Making him laugh and clamour for another.
      No one expects us amiable asses
      To seek to reach the peak of Mount Parnassus.
      Therefore, dear heart, let us write fast and louche
      And give the common man his amuse-bouche.
      Write light. Let rip with a poetic fart.
      That way they may conclude we have no heart
      But they won’t hear it break.


Tim Love's picture

 I agree. Here are some extra points, some borrowed -
"Rhyme changes what you first thought of" -  This is a symptom of the way rhyme is taught. The later that rhyming issues are introduced into the writing process, the more forced they will appear. You can see this at its simplest in a rhyming couplet - if you finish the first line before considering rhyming issues, the second line's going to be a struggle. Ideally sound and sense should be in tandem as the poem is surfacing into words. Rhyme is too often an "afterthought" nowadays.
"Rhyme draws too much attention to itself." - mannerist fashions change. The poems where words are scattered around the page seem flashy to me. Free verse "Shape poems" where all the stanzas are same-sized rectangles seem flashy to me, each line-break drawing attention to itself.
"the need for rhyme makes a writer mix in the mind registers and topic fields in an unpredictable way and this enables surprising and imaginative expressions to be developed", Peter Dale,  "An Introduction to Rhyme"
"I would suggest two particular effects of rhyme: rhyme makes experience from within the body and so can produce unreasoned intimacy; rhyme destabilises the hierarchies of sense and so lends itself to radicalism", Gillian Beer, "The Guardian", January 13, 2007
"The chief pleasure of rhyme is the rage it inspires in its opponents", Valery
"I rhyme/To see myself, to set the darkness echoing", Seamus Heaney, "Death of a Naturalist"