There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The same could be said of rhyme, giving the genre’s critics a field day. Fair of face and full of grace, rhyme in smooth step with meter has the capacity to charm and captivate. Given free rein, though, she is prone to wreak havoc, like an undisciplined child screaming for attention. Having observed (and employed) rhyme on her best and worst days, I’ve given much thought to the various triggers that seem to set her off on a tangent, and have narrowed them down to a manageable checklist. Keeping in mind that any rule of poetry exists to be broken by skilled poets who have earned the right, I offer a horrid example and brief discussion of each for your consideration.
- Dead Weight
- Close Encounters
- Anachronistic Confusion
- Article Deprivation
- Toolbox Domination
Enjoyment not will readers find
as backward sentences unwind.
In a wee wise being long ago in a galaxy far away, convolutions like that are endearingly comical. In a poem intended to be taken seriously, it is painfully inept to twist syntax for the sake of an easy rhyme. This is not to disparage the skillful use of an occasional poetic inversion, which can be an effective mood enhancer.
Your precious lovely smile, my darling Alice,
beams brightly on this shiny golden chalice.
Bring on the cement shoes. No matter how unexpected the rhyme pair may be, it will groan under the burden of overblown adverbs and adjectives that have been done to death. Strong nouns and verbs are energy shots — go easy on the modifiers.
Am I just an old hat on your wall
that you have forgotten to call?
I didn’t write this one — it comes from a local singing group who shall remain nameless. OK, it’s not horrid, nor is the forced rhyme so intrusive as to spoil the pretty song. However, I get a jolt every time I hear this line because it plants an image in my mind that doesn’t make sense in the context of the metaphor. How does one go about calling a hat?. Would it sound like ringing up on the phone, or whistling for a puppy? I want to ask the writer if it couldn’t be an old coat on your chair that you have forgotten to wear. Or, if the hat is absolutely essential, why not one that is too obsolete to recall? “Close enough” for rhyme’s sake is not good enough — there is always another way to say a thing.
Ye looketh through the glass and stand apart
from whence thee dust assail mine bleeding heart.
I wouldn’t care to debate the merits of archaic language, but I suspect that if the ancient masters were writing today, their work would reflect the speech patterns of our era. In any case, grammar and spelling errors stand out in any century. (The correct pronoun/verb combos are “thou lookest” … “thou dost,” and “thine” or “mine” should only precede words that begin with a vowel.) Poets perpetuating KingJamesese should at least learn to use it properly.
Now looking back behind me I did see
some useless words just looking back at me.
Padding lines with empty calories to flesh out the meter adds nothing of substance. Common culprits are do, does, did, well, now, just, so, and oh. I knew a cowboy poet who was fond of inserting “you see” at the end of any line where he needed an iamb to rhyme with e. Use some of that prime metrical real estate to advance the poem with meaningful morsels.
Treetop sways as chipmunk scampers
over panoply of campers.
Omitting a needed “a,” “an,” or “the” can result in an abrupt halt. Stilted, unnatural phrasing is not a fair trade-off for rhyming or metrical precision. Such a dilemma can often be resolved by switching cases (plural to singular or vice versa). Wouldn’t “Treetops sway. A chipmunk scampers over an array of campers.” work just as well? Or something like “Treetops sway as chipmunks scamper over an abandoned camper.” might even lead in a more interesting direction.
My mother said when she was wed
my father led her off to bed.
Pee-yoo — enough already! These lines are devoid of distinguishing characteristics that elevate poetry above ordinary conversation. Ho-hum-lazy worn out pairings get entirely too much exposure, and will crowd out creativity if given half a chance. Rhyme is only one among many muscular poetic devices at our disposal, so let’s give them all a good workout.
In short, any rhyme that’s full of itself begs a lesson in humility. Agree?
Incidentally, meter can get along fine without rhyme, but rhyme without meter is rather sad. To anyone having trouble with either, I’d say put rhyme on the back burner until you master meter.
© Mary Boren, 2011