Apr 132011


There’s nothing wrong with rhyming if you do it well. Our own new director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, is a great proponent of rhyme. Lewis Turco, the author of The Book of Forms and The New Book of Forms, is a wonderful craftsman and strong proponent of both forms and rhyme.

However, there is a way to tell good rhyme for bad. One common test is to ask, when you read your own or another poet’s poem, whether the rhyme is there to help make a point, or whether, instead, the poet is working hard to rhyme than say what he or she means.

If a poem is obsessed with rhyming, if the rhyme is clearly there in the way of saying what the poet means, it can be said to be a bad rhyme. This, of course, assumes that the purpose of the poem is to say something to the reader and that the message comes before the rhyme.

An example would be a poem which clearly breaks from normal syntax for the sake of ending lines with rhymes.

“Why can’t it be/ that everyone can see/ what has happened to me?” consists of three lines which flow normally to say something (if unremarkable) and each line ends in the “e” rhyme. As rhymes go, therefore, it isn’t bad.

“For goodness sake/ for a rhyme to make/ you must give me a break,” on the other hand, is a bad rhyme because it has forced the middle line into an awkward sentence construction to keep the “ake” as a rhyme scheme.

Generally, if your rhyme comes naturally, flows with your normal pattern of thought and syntax, and adds to your meaning, it is a good rhyme. If you find yourself forcing the lines so that they rhyme, you are writing bad rhymes.

As a way to expand your skills, why not, if you rhyme, assign yourself to read and write some poems which don’t rhyme at all. In place of rhyme, most modern poets substitute a large measure of imagery—which also cures another common complaint in poems: “Don’t tell me, show me.”

Of course, if you don’t ever write rhymed poems, you owe it to the tradition of poetry to try some. They say you aren’t a “real man” if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall of China (with apologies for Chinese male chauvinism). Perhaps it can be said that you aren’t a “real poet” until you have rolled up your sleeves and sweated to create a sonnet!

Writing rhymes, or as the prominent poet and anthologist more aptly spells them “rimes, ” is bedrock for poets, who, after all, come from an ancient and honorable oral tradition. And sometimes, as with the wonderfully clever Ogden Nash, it is just fun to fiddle with rhyme.