Some Thoughts on Rhyme

Though it is still the holiday season and most of my recent posts have been about food, I’ve been thinking about poetry and teaching, especially as we drive across country, listening to music. As we prepare to ring in the new year, I’ve been thinking about rhyme in song lyrics and in poetry. As a poet, you tend to learn to rhyme or to use sound by ear. You read great poets and listen to great music, and you pick up technique. As a teacher, you try to explain technique, and even though you can ‘do’ it as a poet, it can be virtually impossible to explain, especially to young writers whose ideas about rhyme are stuck in what they learned in grade school.

We tend to think of rhyme in terms of rhyme words. There are rhyming dictionaries that reinforce this notion. Yet I’m always dissatisfied with rhyme and with discussing rhyme in terms of the words that rhyme. Even good rhyme pairs can sound bad or predictable if they aren’t used well. I’ve noticed many of my students tend to use rhyme at the end of a sentence, and they tend to rhyme nouns. This leads to uninspired rhyming, since the words are very similar and the placement in the sentence is always the same. Even if the rhyme pair isn’t predictable, you know you’re coming to a rhyme word because you’re about to reach the end of the line and the end of the sentence. The phrasing also becomes monotonous, since every line ends with a full stop.

I’ve tried to convince students to write more enjambed lines, to write sentences that span two or more lines, regardless of whether they write with rhyme. This helps the pacing of the poem and if rhyme is part of the mix, it can help with the element of surprise. To rhyme an adjective with a noun or to rhyme a subject with the object of the sentence leads to poetry that is more inventive and playful. The best old song lyrics have this quality and often have quite dense rhyme.

So I have encouraged students to write with more internal rhyme and more techniques like assonance, consonance, and alliteration, so that their language is more dense with sound. This avoids the problem of rhyme becoming too much. If most of the line is boring until you get to the rhyme word, which is the only sound technique being used, then the rhyme hits you like a hammer over the head or the bell that sounded as you reached the margins of an old typewriter (I have to reveal my age when I pull out this example!).

All that is well and good, and it has helped some students ‘get it’ when it comes to rhyme (and others just avoid it, which may be better than sticking with elementary notions of rhyme). But I’ve been looking for another way to present the issue, and I may have come across an idea that will work. I may try it out this semester and see if it helps. That idea is to talk about rhyming within sentences.

I’ve noticed that many of the song lyrics I admire make use of complex rhymes, and that many of these happen within a single sentence. Rather than talking about rhyme as an aspect of poetry, I’m thinking of talking about rhyme as an aspect of good writing that is more pronounced in some kinds of poetry. When we talk about language in creative writing, we talk about choosing words that have the right meaning, the right connotations, and the best sound. That might be a good time to introduce rhyme and to get students rhyming within single sentences. Sentences would almost certainly have to be complex, combining an independent clause with several dependent clauses — or at least compound, joining two independent clauses with a conjunction. If you use parallel structures and words that rhyme, perhaps working on an AB rhyme pattern across the sentence, your language will automatically be more complex and rich. Students can concentrate on writing more interesting rhyme without having to think about writing in lines. It will also force them to rhyme different parts of speech or at least different parts of the same sentence (as opposed to always rhyming a direct object, for instance). Thinking about rhyme outside of poetry might make it easier for the rhyming poets to get beyond some of their habits, and it might help those who are terrified of rhyme see that it can be fun and worthwhile.

Then when we get to poetry we can talk about using end-rhyme and/or internal rhyme. We can look at different rhyme schemes and traditional forms that use rhyme. Yet hopefully students will still understand that rhyme is not a separate entity, but is intimately related to the sense and the syntax of the rest of the poem (or prose).

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