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Rhyme Driven

By A.E. Stallings

As a poet who works in form, I weary of seeing in critiques–either in on-line workshops or in published reviews–the complaint that a poem or phrase or line is “rhyme driven.”
Of course rhyming poetry is rhyme driven. Rhyme is an engine of syntax. If rhyme is in the car I want her stepping on the gas, minding the wheel, eyes on the road, shifting the gears. I don’t want her there as mere ornament, nattering on her cell phone, putting her mascara on while gaping in the rear-view mirror.


OK, OK. I know that when people say that, what they mean is that it is obvious the whole purpose of the line is to arrive at some obvious predestined chime, like the set-up of a punch line. Which is certainly putting the cart before the horse (to keep with the transportation metaphors…) But it seems to have become an immediate and unthinking response to lines that rhyme that are in any way out of the ordinary–particularly anything that has the slightest whiff of “inversion”–that is, out of “natural” English word order–which is often interpreted as the blandest, strictest of simple declarative sentences. If you’re going to use something as dandified as rhyme, the suggestion seems to be, you had better have everything else as “normal” as possible. (Regarding form in American letters, there seems to be a huge “anxiety of competence” in both critics and poets–that an inversion is there because the poet couldn’t rhyme it away rather than because it is there for some other purpose.)
Of course, let’s admit it: rhyme is something of a special case in English. In inflected languages (where word endings change based on their grammatical usage) rhyme is going to be everywhere, a soft incessant chiming, almost hard to avoid. In English, rhyme pairs are scarce, but pair up widely across the parts of speech. A noun might rhyme with a participle, or a verb with a pronoun, or an adjective with a preposition. This provides some interesting possibilities.
Frost (about whom more shortly) has many interesting things to say about rhyme. For instance, that it is whole phrases rather than words that rhyme (individual rhyme pairs–say “death”, “breath”–are not tired in and of themselves, if they come about in interesting ways). And he suggests we should be aware of trying to rhyme different parts of speech.
A rhyming poem that seems to clunk along is probably, among other things, rhyming a lot of nouns together (cat, mat, hat), which suggests a sameness of syntax across lines, similar sentence lengths, and a lack of enjambment.
I can tell something about the sophistication of the syntax of a rhyming poem almost just by looking at the end rhymes. If there are adverbs, prepositions, nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives in the mix, the syntax is probably moving sinuously and interestingly over the line. Which also suggests to me complexity of thought as well as execution. Rhyme should be driving the poem along, not stopping and waving at the end of every line, Look at me! No hands!
(Not to say I think rhymes should be seen and not heard, like good little Victorian children. I want to hear them singing each to each!)
Steve mentioned Longfellow’s “Snow-flakes” in his snowstorm post. I’ve been thinking of this poem a lot lately–not that we have had any snow of course, but because it was sent out on a postcard from the Academy of American Poets and I’ve had it taped on the bathroom mirror. I shudder to think what would happen if it were presented in a workshop (Inversion–a big no-no! Wouldn’t we rather say, “shaken out of the cloud folds of her garments”?) It begins:
Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
It’s thrillingly rhyme-driven. Like snowflakes driven on the wind.

Comments (24)

  • On January 13, 2008 at 2:08 pm Susan McLean wrote:

    Rhyme is also ear candy, as are alliteration, assonance, consonance, refrains, and other aural effects that are frowned on in many circles if they are used in ways that are noticeable. If they are so subtle as to be barely perceived, that is often taken as a good sign. One of the Puritanical sides of much contemporary poetry is that aural pleasures, which are immediate and accessible to anyone, are most suspect. But I don’t hear poetry just with my mind or my eyes, and neither do most people. Many people want poetry to sing to them. Good free verse can sing, but most people get their word-music from actual songs because poetry is not providing it. I am not advocating rhapsodies of nonsense or of platitudes, but just a little more valuing of the sensual appeal of sounds in patterns, from the most serious and abstract ideas to the frivolity and wit of light verse.

  • On January 13, 2008 at 3:25 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    This is hilarious, Alicia:
    “If rhyme is in the car I want her stepping on the gas, minding the wheel, eyes on the road, shifting the gears. I don’t want her there as mere ornament, nattering on her cell phone, putting her mascara on while gaping in the rear-view mirror.”
    You have such a menagerie of characters in your head! I’ve written a couple of “car” poems lately, so naturally, I started thinking of the form as the car. I was also thinking today how useful the workshops have been for me – all those dear critters giving endless crits on how things are supposed to be in poems, so that I know precisely what I need to do to prove them wrong. Or at least try to prove them wrong. One of my experiments from a couple years ago was called The Rhyme-Driving School-Bell Charms of Mary’s Mocking Muse.
    Thanks for this blogette, it made me laugh a lot.

  • On January 13, 2008 at 9:32 pm Jim Finnegan wrote:

    Sometimes I consciously try to read without hearing the rhyme. Otherwise so many of the verses/turns come with kind a dread attached: Oh god, what clever word choice is the poet going to be plunk down on the end of some successive line to complete the rhyme. Rhyme is such a ‘noisy artifice’. Then, of course, once one knows the typical patterns (the usual set of forms), reading the poem becomes a cycle of resolved expectations. No chance of ‘chance’ intervening once the form is set spinning.
    It’s really gotten to point for me that rhyme makes even a serious poem into a kind of light verse. The only way for me to subvert this feeling is to try to turn down or mute the rhyme sounds in my head. When reading I try to encounter the rhyming words more on the basis of their meaning and their look on the page, and this is more satisfying than hearing the cycle of expected echoes.

  • On January 13, 2008 at 9:57 pm Dale Smith wrote:

    You open this entry by claiming to be “a poet who works in form.” I agree in many ways with your discussion of rhyme, though I keep going back to this basic assumption: you are a poet who works in form. This notion of form and rhyme needs some further reflection.
    Frankly, poet or not, how can one use language without recourse to form or rhyme? Or are you talking about regular patterns? Traditional prosody? And after a century or more of vernacular uses of poetry (not to mention an Anglo-Saxon tradition inspired by stress–and indifferent to rhyme or meter), why trudge this old biz out in the air? I agree that certain people jump on poets who employ what is considered to be traditional prosody. And the opposite occurs too. But none of this is worth jerking any tears over. What’s interesting is that a poem can do anything at all well–within the given contexts of its operation. I just find the concern with form beside the point. Prosody provides a tool kit to use and/or discard as one sees fit. Other things are at work. Like maybe there’s something “to say” to “someone.”
    D

  • On January 13, 2008 at 11:23 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Wait a sec!! Not to toot my own horn, but your Ms. Driving Rhyme is making an appearance at Soundzine in a couple of days. She turns the wheel and taps the brake, singing a tune for Sally’s sake. I’ll post the link when it’s live.
    Hi Susan, well said. I do worry about whether the poems I set to music are still actually poems, or maybe they never were poems. Is it possible to go overboard in the aural effects department? My taste is for the visible, audible, immediate, accessible – not just in sound – but in form. Barely perceptible form often seems timid and weak to me, if not downright awkward. Of course, I’m a beginner in form, so maybe subtlety comes later. At the moment, I agree with this statement – especially the part about allowing the reader to recognize the pattern.
    That is, meter must involve measuring or counting something that is inherent in the language, and must allow the hearer or reader to recognize the pattern.
    http://www.arsversificandi.net/backissues/vol1/reviews/mahoney.html

  • On January 14, 2008 at 1:06 am Brian Watson wrote:

    I just flipped randomly through some of the poetry on my shelf — Larkin, Millay, Shakespeare, Donne, Frost — and verified that they do use a mix of adverbs, prepositions, nouns, verbs, pronouns, & adjectives for their rhymes. I never noticed that before. Thanks.

  • On January 14, 2008 at 2:57 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for these comments. Dale, you’re right, I should probably edit this to say “poet who works in traditional or received forms or some such, but that sounds so clunky, and is also a bit limiting… Hmmm. I have to find a new way to idenitify myself.
    Sure, prosody is a tool kit. But can’t we talk about the tool kit? Don’t we think about the tool kit? (Sorry, Henry! I’m doing it again…)
    I thought rhyme might draw out some responses! I agree with Susan that some (not all of course) of the leeriness of rhyme (or, as I actually prefer to write it, “rime”) is at base Puritanical, part of the general Anxiety of Artifice.

  • On January 14, 2008 at 6:52 am Steve wrote:

    I’ve been thinking about Longfellow’s “Snow-flakes” lately because southern New England has been shut down by an immense snow-storm— even the day care has (as Longfellow did not quite put it) despaired of opening. The snow is sticky and it’s everywhere, like rhyme in Romance languages (but not in English).
    Empson points out somewhere that the small remnants of verb tense-endings in English affect the relation between parts of speech in rhyme, since you can’t usually have a full rhyme between a noun and the verb whose subject the noun becomes: either (here’s his example) the nerves swerve, or else the nerve swerve. On the other hand, the fish wish, the sheep sleep, and the fox locks her clocks, so maybe you just have to choose your nouns carefully– these sort of effects are more important to comic or to children’s poetry than to other kinds of rhyme, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find them in Byron’s Don Juan. Alicia, you’re living in Greece and thinking about rhyme: how often do you think about Byron?

  • On January 14, 2008 at 8:51 am Andrew Shields wrote:

    Susan McLean’s comment: “One of the Puritanical sides of much contemporary poetry is that aural pleasures, which are immediate and accessible to anyone, are most suspect.”
    That reminds me of Marilyn Hacker’s comment on why she uses rhyme and forms: because she is a hedonist. 🙂

  • On January 14, 2008 at 10:00 am Tom Jardine wrote:

    Rhyming poetry is ultimately dead – however, this does not mean not to love it in its previous glory. Every now and then a new poem may come about in perfect form and perfect meter and perfect rhyme, and even I attempt it, these days as well, but I, after 30 years of rhyme have come to the conclusion that there are some very interesting fields to explore – fields that go further than what is even considered “free verse.” Advanced literi (is that a word?) will never “go back” and embrace formal poetry as a “now thing” equal to whatever is considered modern. They won’t do it because they don’t have a choice. New must be new and any form of rhyme in any shape or form even in farfetched or wild will be considered a borrowing. Objection to rhyme is partly a fad, and so many things are fads, or style of a time, which does not mean a present day poet should not use rhyme, but they do so with tremendous risk. One reason would be the claim that the poet was limited, which is of course would be an odd judgment, since formal poetry is so much more difficult. I’ve always said that the big objection to rhyme is simple – hardly anyone can write a decent formal poem, so they trash the form. Anyone can get away with calling some sort of free stuff ‘poetry.’
    I love rhyming poetry, much as I am fascinated by perfect diamonds. Most mall jewelry stores such Z___s and K__s sell junk. Privately owned stores in malls may or may not carry clear and well cut diamonds. The analogy here is that perfect diamonds and flawed poorly cut diamonds are still made of diamond, but one is great and the other is junk.
    I mostly read formal poetry, because at least good effort is put forth, where free verse always seems to have that dashed-off feel, with even less subject matter.
    And those who trash formal rhyming poetry often seem to be the ones who “can’t” write formal poetry. A true wordsmith can write in any form.
    Tom

  • On January 14, 2008 at 10:01 am Tom Jardine wrote:

    litterae?

  • On January 14, 2008 at 11:39 am Susan McLean wrote:

    I disagree with Jim Finnegan’s statement, “Then, of course, once one knows the typical patterns (the usual set of forms), reading the poem becomes a cycle of resolved expectations. No chance of ‘chance’ intervening once the form is set spinning.” Though form does create certain expectations among readers (and form can subvert them, too), for writers, rhyme often drives them places they never expected to go when they started the poem, so the element of chance plays a very large part in the writing of rhymed poems. The minute you write a line that ends with a word you need to rhyme, you start thinking of any possible rhyme word that could pair with it. The unconscious often kicks in and makes a connection that the conscious mind would not have, sometimes even that one’s inner censors might not have let pass otherwise. I often wind up saying things that surprise me, particularly in intensely rhymed poems such as villanelles, in which one really has to stretch to find enough rhymes for the form.

  • On January 14, 2008 at 3:48 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Don’s thread on dictionaries got me started with V. Woolf again, after decades apart. I found this marvelous resource. How delightful to discover that in chapter one of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf quotes from these two poems, the first by Tennyson, the second by Christina Rossetti. “…in those days [people at luncheon parties] were accompanied by a sort of humming noise, not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of the words themselves. Could one set that humming noise to words? Perhaps with the help of the poets one could…”
    There has fallen a splendid tear
    From the passion–flower at the gate.
    She is coming, my dove, my dear;
    She is coming, my life, my fate;
    The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near’;
    And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late’;
    The larkspur listens, ‘I hear, I hear’;
    And the lily whispers, ‘I wait.’
    ~~~
    My heart is like a singing bird
    Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
    My heart is like an apple tree
    Whose boughs are bent with thick–set fruit,
    My heart is like a rainbow shell
    That paddles in a halcyon sea;
    My heart is gladder than all these
    Because my love is come to me.

  • On January 15, 2008 at 12:13 am Major wrote:

    Regarding form in American letters, there seems to be a huge “anxiety of competence” in both critics and poets–that an inversion is there because the poet couldn’t rhyme it away rather than because it is there for some other purpose.
    Thanks Alicia. Well worth the ride:

  • On January 15, 2008 at 6:36 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks, folks, for more interesting thoughts on this subject. I absolutely agree with Susan that far from being a constraint, rhyme can open up a poem to posssibilities the reader might not otherwise entertain. A rhyme might give “permission” as it were for a poem to go in an unexpected or even unwanted direction. They are associative in subconscious sorts of ways.
    Some criticism of my own work has centered on the fact that poems rhymes–the suggestion being that the poems did say and do interesting things, but that they would be better without the rhymes. I am always thrilled to write a good rhymeless poem, of course; but these criticisms show me that the critics do not fully understand how rhyme works. What those rhyming poems say and do is because of, not in spite of, the rhymes. Otherwise they would not exist–I would have written something else. Such criticism suggests that a poet knows what she wants to say and then just gussies it up with rhyme and meter–versifies it. Not so. At least not for me. The rhymes are engine, not ornament.
    As a reply to Jim–I think that how rhymes look on the page and what they say is just as important, of course, as their chiming. If rhymes appear to be predictable, however, it is surely the thoughts that are predictable. Surely this is not good rhyming poetry. And rhyming is something of a tightrope act. Do it badly and everyone can see you wobble.
    Criticism of rhyme is a lot older than free verse, of course. There is Milton saying it is a matter of taste and that since the ancients didn’t use it for epic, neither should we. (He had no problem rhyming lyric.) And there is Pope’s delightful “Essay on Criticism”:
    While they ring round the same unvary’d Chimes,
    With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
    Where-e’er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
    In the next Line, it whispers thro’ the Trees;
    If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
    The Reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with Sleep.
    But look what he does here. The rhymes are predictable because the verse is dull and unoriginal, he seems to be saying. And yet at the same time he carries off the very rhymes he criticizes by putting them into a new–satirical–context, so that he shows us how it is done well even as he tells us how it is done badly.

  • On January 15, 2008 at 6:52 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Steve,
    you know, I don’t think I have thought consciously about that quirk of English before–that nouns tend not to perfectly rhyme with their verbs–though it is something I often work around (to avoid a very ugly effect). The truth is, a noun and verb are likely going to be separated by some sort of clause if they rhyme. And it is very easy to put a verb into the infinitive to “fix” the problem, or to use a singular noun instead of its plural. In other words, there’s no excuse!
    I do think about Byron all the time! He’s close to my heart. Here he is of course a major historical figure as well as literary one–streets are named after him, there is a beautiful statue of him receiving the blessings of Hellas in the center of town, etc; his name inflects as though it were an ancient Greek one. In the West, Byron’s service to Greece is often dismissed as a celebrity stunt, but his aid was real and pragmatic (he ploughed his personal fortune into the war, without which the Saronic shipping houses would never have entered the navy), and I think hard to overestimate. There’s a terrific and insightful book on this subject you have probably read (I think you must read more in a week than I do in a year!), On a Voiceless Shore by Stephen Mintna about Byron and Western Greece.
    And of course Byron may be the best rhymer in English ever. OK–there are the stunners like “intellectual” and “hen-pecked you all”. But my personal favorite:
    If Pindar sang horse races, what should hinder
    Himself from being as pliable as Pindar?
    (The delightful and deliberately ironic set-up to the Isles of Greece…)

  • On January 15, 2008 at 9:30 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    I have great respect for your art, so please don’t get me wrong. To say you are “a poet who work in form” is like saying a plumber works with plumbing. Your bone with “rhyme driven” is cool to read about. But is it at the expense of overlooking that there are various ways poems rhyme that go beyond conventional or familiar rhyme schemes. Internal rhymes, slant rhymes, visual rhymes. In that sense, given all the ways people fuel or build and destroy the poem’s sonic machinations these days, rhyme driven seems like a healthy tool to understand how one poem is working over another.

  • On January 15, 2008 at 10:11 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks, Aaron. Maybe it isn’t clear here, but I adore internal rhymes & slant rhymes & off rhymes & pararhymes and mosaic rhymes & rime riche & eye rhymes and all that jazz. True rhyme interests me too as a subspecies. I am also interested in how one sets up and then fulfills or overachieves or subverts or even disappoints expectations, which is part of the excitement of rhyming.
    Yes, ” a poet who works in form” is a tautology–I guess I was just trying to avoid that dreaded -ist word again. Trust me, I am the queen of tautologies!

  • On January 15, 2008 at 11:28 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    Ms. Rhyme is crushed that Tom thinks she’s dead and not a literi, and she has a bad case of stage fright. Nevertheless, she said she would, so she’s posting the link to Soundzine. Ms. Rhyme can be found driving her rhymes here in the second song.

  • On January 16, 2008 at 8:19 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Great voice, Mary!
    Andrew, I love that quotation from Hacker. Yes, maybe instead of a “formalist” I should go around telling people I am a “hedonist”…

  • On January 16, 2008 at 11:56 am Steve Mackin wrote:

    Alicia, remember the first rule of Creative Writing 101: Don’t tell ’em; show ’em!
    Maya
    Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things
    as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand.
    For a second you see – and seeing the secret,
    are the secret. For a second there is meaning!
    A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Act IV
    Eugene O’Neill
    Often I’ve stared at liquid in motion,
    at water seeking to reveal its nature,
    and thought I saw electricity. Then heard
    reason tell me it was all an illusion,
    a trick of light upon swift sluicing surfaces.
    But I believe that I touched something truer,
    what lies beneath the skin known by senses,
    immaculate, immutable existence as essence.
    But the gadfly reason always calls me back
    to the corroding narratives of the intellective,
    to beginnings and endings, to good and evil,
    to joy and despair, to pain and pleasure, to
    belief and doubt, the banal templates we use
    to shield us from the paralysis of meaning.
    SPMackin

  • On January 16, 2008 at 1:43 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    One of rhyme’s advantages : it can attune one to all the other sound effects going on. The very effort to avoid clunky or trite rhymes focuses attention on the whole line. It’s a kind of physical exercise – the “materiality” of rhyme seeps into the rest of it.
    Of course it works the other way, too, whenever lax writers lean too heavily on the end rhyme – like a prop supporting shoddy carpentry. And there’s also the problem of overemphasis – a belabored preciosity, when sound for its own sake takes the place of sense.
    In my case, rhyme seems to have become sort of second nature, for better & worse. I know how some rappers must feel. An example (from 10 yrs ago) :
    BALLADE INDUSTRIEL
    Now that the world is one great marketplace
    and all its treasuries (from sand and tar
    to elephant and diamond, outer space
    to ocean floor, urbs to jungle) are
    for sale–now Party is turned Commissar
    and Russia, China, even Cuba climb
    that pyramid (from serf to millionaire). . .
    Now is the time, O now is the precious time.
    Now that computers prowl at cheetah pace
    combing the earth for Cheapest Laborer
    and every digit in the human race
    must scrabble for superfluous welfare
    and bide no time, by coffeespoon or star,
    no time to dawdle, fiddle with a rhyme. . .
    (you’ve got to get those groceries in the car!)
    Now is the time, O now is the precious time.
    When hoary banks account your state of grace
    and future hands are cloning in a jar
    and skillful engineers can scan your face
    and clever churls can turn you into char
    while mafiosi split their wanderjahr
    between Manhattan and some sunburnt clime
    one mourning dove still murmurs from afar
    Now is the time, O now is the precious time.
    A lame albino gypsy cried: I lost my dear
    sweet darling’s ring–I’m liable for this crime!
    Lord, if there’s justice in this world–draw near.
    Now is the time, O now is the precious time.

  • On January 17, 2008 at 10:30 am Tom Jardine wrote:

    Mary,
    I had listened to your rhyme, and you do have a wonderful voice. The piece does sound, to me, like Appalachia, an old diddy from the hills with a touch of seafaring and old world English. I enjoyed it. But in essence reduced, it is retro.
    Is anyone doing anything new? Is there any new ground? Is anyone even trying?
    Tom

  • On January 17, 2008 at 3:01 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Alicia and Tom – thanks so much for your kind words. Tom, I may be too lazy to try anything new. It’s a full-time job just keeping myself amused. Alicia, if she’s not already doing it herself, will know what’s new in rime. (why do you spell it rime? easier to type, that’s for sure.) Now about the name — hmmm — ??? —
    Hacker Hedonist
    Stallings Sybarite
    Formal Hedonist
    Chiming Hedonist
    I could see calling myself something like this.
    PS: Good to read your poem, Henry!


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, January 13th, 2008 by A.E. Stallings.