To Rhyme, or Not to Rhyme?
What is poetry, and what makes a poem a poem? Some might say: “Rhyme, rhythm, and meter.” But are these the only criteria for judging a poem? There are many forms of poetry — narrative poetry, the ballad, the epic, the elegy, the ode, the sonnet, the villanelle, haiku, blank verse, free verse, the limerick. And there are as many reasons people write poetry as reasons for choosing the forms in which they write.
Much modern poetry is written in blank verse, or free verse. The difference between them is that blank verse is written in meter, but does not have the end rhyme — hence the term “blank”; whereas free verse has variable line lengths. But even free verse should have a rhythm, and discernible line movement and line division should bring out its meaning.
The underlying thought of the poem is important when deciding which form to use in composing it. Some poems are written simply to create a picture (e.g., haiku), while other poems convey a universal truth about the human condition (the ode or sonnet) or to tell a story (the narrative poem or ballad).
Sometimes people claim to be nostalgic for the days when all poems rhymed, or assert that modern poetry is just prose. They are forgetting that many classical poets of past centuries didn’t use a great deal of rhyme. Among these are William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
On the other hand, much classic poetry does employ rhyme. The ear delights to hear patterns of rhyming words; this is one way in which the language of a poem sounds “special.” Rhyming can help to accent key words and ideas. But if rhyme is used too heavily, there is the danger that the poem can become singsong and shallow, like a nursery rhyme. Avoiding this trite effect while still creating effective, “musical” verse is one of the most important skills a poet must acquire.
If you decide to rhyme, don’t twist the lines around to force a rhyme. Don’t use a word not because it is the best word, but just because it rhymes. Another problem with rhyme is that writers with a limited vocabulary tend to use the same rhymes over and over; their work begins to sound like those sappy greeting cards where you always see “year” rhyming with “dear.” If you like to write rhyming poetry, invest some money in a rhyming dictionary and explore some new combinations.
What makes “bad” poetry? A poem is a poor one if it lacks a discernible point, or sounds just like prose when read aloud. Poetry should not be just a gushing forth of random thoughts scattered on the page, with equally random line breaks. It should not be a “greeting card” verse, just flowery fluff revealing no creativity, no fresh viewpoint. Bad rhyme is worse than no rhyme at all!
What makes “good” poetry? An effective poem has a point, and a purpose. It is well written with a concise and accurate use of words and strong figurative language. The reader can tell that the poet has done his or her homework, and hasn’t just hastily scribbled jumbled thoughts onto paper. The poem’s words are used in context, and are spelled correctly. The verse is imaginative, lifting the reader out of the ordinary through artful use of simile and metaphor. A good poem enlightens the reader in some way.
To improve your skills, read other poetry including the classics, the works of the masters. Study and try the various forms. Write often. Avoid trying to explain too much in your poetry, but also avoid being too obscure. Never cling to your words out of stubbornness, refusing to consider revisions.
Poetry is the expression of human experience in such a way that others can relate to it and take it into themselves. The poem is a lens through which we can see the world and its people in a different light. In much the same way that music does, an effective poem expresses that which cannot be expressed through ordinary speech. As someone has said, “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.”
©2014 Laudemont Press