I trust everyone in my generation (Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations) will recognize these lyrics:

Jenny, Jenny, | who can I turn to
You give me something | I can hold onto
I know you think I’m like | the others before
Who saw your name and number | on the wall

Note the rhymes. The uninitiated will immediately smile, thinking: “Ah, primitive.” The wise know better.

Words that don’t rhyme in isolation (“before” | “wall”) but that secure the rhyme effect in practice—these ought to be regarded as having special authority. They should be accounted graces, not flaws . . . .

Jenny, Jenny, | you’re the girl for me
You don’t know me but you make me so happy
I tried to call you before | but I lost my nerve
I tried my imagination | but I was disturbed

I say these rhymes have “authority.” I mean the authority peculiar to rhymes that must have arisen from spontaneous composition without pen and paper. Rhymes given to us by the gods.

Look, we all know the rhyme-finding apparatus of the human mind does not locate “wall” in connection to “before” UNLESS it is operating under a kind of desperate pressure. The rhythm, the melody, the chords, the other people in the room demand the rhyme effect RIGHT NOW. And we must give the rhythm what it wants. And the people.

Heaven knows we often try to mimic spontaneous, oral-culture conditions when we are alone at the laptop, but it is not easy. A guitar is helpful. Or an interlocutor.


Here is a set of rhymes copied off a bathroom wall in the Modern Languages Building, University of Arizona, 1994:

With stuffy nose:
He aristophasneezes.

He wipes his face
With panty hose
And talks in exegesis.

He likes his sleep,
He likes his clothes,
He’s into Reese’s Pieces;—

He’s pretty good,
But goodness knows
He’s not exactly Jesus.

Observe the quadruple rhyme {sneezes | exegesis | pieces | Jesus}. I have always regarded those as having special authority, on account of their strongly divergent spellings (likewise: hose | clothes | knows).

Why should divergent spellings count as a source of “authority.” I say it is because these rhymes must have been located by the ear rather than the eye. They are hard to “see,” easy to hear. And so, again, the tracks of the rhyme-finding probe are the more covered up. There is a hint that the rhyme arose spontaneously from the language itself and not from the squeezed-up space between the poet’s eyebrows.

I’m sure everyone can multiply examples.


But I perceive a danger. My line of analysis above seems to run counter to one of the most important tenants of my cherished General Theory of Rhymativity, namely that 99.9% of the time a reader is not supposed to look at {the rhymes in a poem} in isolation. You are not supposed to look at them as rhymes; you’re not supposed to savor their particular qualities. The rhyme SPELL depends on your neither noticing nor caring that “before” and “wall” don’t really rhyme. I’m sure most of you never did notice it.

The exception case, of course, is “witty” (or “Byronic”) rhymes. Thóse you’re supposed to slobber over. The bathroom wall piece above counts as a sample, I suppose, but in 99% of rhyming poems, originality and wit within the rhyme pair itself is not an issue at all. Indeed, one of the many factors that contributed to rhyme’s downfall (in art poetry, I mean) (obviously not in songs) was the growing sense (among persons fundamentally out of sympathy with the Dao) that the “best” rhymes are little poems in themselves, full of code and cleverness—and that merely rhyming “glide” and “pride” is no good.

So, when I say I especially approve what I wanna call “oral-culture rhymes,” I would not have you think it’s because I believe they do more for the reader. I am speaking from the special vantage of a rhyming poet who is not content to merely see what time it is but must take the clock apart and see the gears laid out on a tabletop.

—Of this more hereafter.—

Originally Published: April 25th, 2013

Poet Anthony Madrid is the author of the chapbook The 580 Strophes (2009) and the full-length collection I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (2012). He has written in forms such as the ghazal and rhyming quatrain, bringing a contemporary, associative, and surreal sensibility to received forms. A PhD...