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Thoughts on Rhyming Poetry - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Thoughts on Rhyming Poetry

Recently I got into a discussion of rhyming poetry with some editor friends of mine, and I figured it was worth retouching my contributions as a blog post.  Now, some editors love rhyming poetry and others don't.  Some would happily publish it, but feel disappointed with the quality or quantity of submissions in their slush pile.  They may or not write rhyming poetry themselves or understand what makes it work (or fail).  So here are some thoughts on the topic...


Poetry and Rhymes

First, a LOT of modern poetry sucks.  It's hard to find a good teacher; most teachers claim that bad poetry is good, which confuses and frustrates the students.  Finding a good guidebook is easier; I like John Drury's Creating Poetry and Suzette Haden Elgin's Science Fiction Poetry Handbook.  Many academic publications are just handshakes, you print mine and I'll print yours.  So it's also not that easy to find examples worth reading.  My favorite mainstream market (Mid-America Poetry Review) went down a while back, but I still recommend Star*Line because there's something good in every issue and rarely any junk.

Rhyming poetry requires more precision and attention to detail than free verse.  It's kind of like linguistic Tetris, because you have to fit the pieces into a specific pattern.  (Bear in mind that some form poetry is not rhymed or metered, and even some rhyming poetry does not have a regular meter.)  However, that conveys a certain advantage, because a strong rhythm and rhyme carry the verses forward -- you might paint yourself into a corner, but you're less likely to run out of steam.  Plus the finished poem is easier to memorize, if that's a consideration.  Like anything else, performance improves with practice.

How to Explore Rhyming Poetry
 
First, read widely.  It's easier to find good rhyming poetry in the past than the present.  I rarely like classics, but poetry is my exception to that.  I grew up with examples like Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Rudyard Kipling.  That's where I started learning about playing with the sounds of words, and how a powerful rhythm can create momentum.  Songs are worth considering too -- most of them are just lyric poetry being sung. 

Next, practice writing.  I started writing poetry when I was about six; the oldest one we have is in my parents' handwriting.  Then I started writing a poem every weekday when I was in junior high, and sharing those with classmates.  My current approach stacks most of my poetry writing in each month's Poetry Fishbowl, usually between 12 and 20 poems, with occasional extras on other days.  Sheer mass of practice produces improvements that nothing else will. 

Don't be afraid to use learning aids.  I still count syllables on my fingers.  If I'm writing a complex form, like a villanelle, I often put the pattern cues in the lefthand margin.  Another good exercise is diagramming the stresses with ' and ^ marks above syllables.  You can do that with your own poems or those by someone else.  Reading a poem out loud gives you a better sense of how its sounds work together (or not) and how it feels in your mouth.  That eventually teaches you what will be easy or hard to pronounce, so that you don't write things that look good on the page but sound awful out loud (allowing exceptions for poems that are intended only for visual effect).


Discovering What Poetic Forms Do

Each poetic form has a pattern that creates certain specific effects, so the different ones are good for different topics and goals.  Unfortunately this is one aspect of poetry that doesn't get much discussion.  You can see a little of this in form guides such as Lewis Turco's The New Book of Forms, but those mainly focus on practicalities rather than aesthetics.  It's a place to start.

I happen to love repeating/interlocking forms, so I've developed a whole bunch of "If you have X, choose form Y" pointers.  I actually wrote up an article pitch for that and sent it to one of the writing magazines, but haven't heard back.  I'll probably keep trying -- I think it's a useful bit of information that I haven't seen elsewhere. 

Similarly, there's a lengthy discussion of poetic and other literary techniques, plus poetic forms and how or when to use each of them, in my book Composing Magic.  You can just ignore the magical/spiritual trappings if you aren't Pagan (I wrote it mainly as a how-to-write-liturgy guide) and it will work fine for teaching the nuts and bolts of writing in general.  I wrote this book with the level of detail that I wish most writing handbooks would contain, so it's a very practical beginning-to-intermediate guide.

Also, I talk about the mechanics, aesthetics, and implications of poetry in my donor perk-posts.  (These are custom-locked on my LJ so that only donors can see them.)  Every month, the folks who chip in for my Poetry Fishbowl get a little essay about some aspect of poetry.  It usually deals with either that month's theme, or a technique or form that appeared in several of the poems I just wrote.  I often include examples from my poems and/or recommend outside references on the topic.  I started writing these perk-posts in early 2008, so there are almost three years of them, which amounts to a small book's worth of poetic discussion.  The cool thing about the donor posts is that, if you donate once, you can see ALL the previous posts as well as the current one, and I keep names on that list for 2 months.  So a dollar or two into the general fund gets you not only the current perk-post but also the next one, and all the earlier ones.  I've had a few folks tip me for the sake of accessing the perk archive.


Finally, I enjoy talking about poetry in general.  I've written a number of things based on questions that friends have asked me.  One of the more nifty examples in _Composing Magic_ actually came from a friend asking me to critique a poem of hers.  I looked back at what I'd written out and said, "Hey, can I put this in my book manuscript?"  So feel free to ask questions or make comments about poetry on this blog.

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Comments
(Deleted comment)
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: November 20th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, thank you, silly goose;
I do so cherish Dr Seuss...
:)

For me, meter is much more difficult than rhyme...
and I always concentrated on rhyme because songs rhyme,
and song lyrics are pretty much the only poetry that makes money...
dulcinbradbury From: dulcinbradbury Date: November 20th, 2010 07:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Most older poetry, poetry intended to be recited aloud, tended to rhyme, undoubtedly because of the fact that rhyme is easier to memorize.

Alliteration and meter also helped memorization. You'll see that in the oral tradition when you don't see rhyming.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 20th, 2010 09:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>Most older poetry, poetry intended to be recited aloud, tended to rhyme, undoubtedly because of the fact that rhyme is easier to memorize.<<

True, and those use other techniques as well to support the structure and oral tradition.

I have a half-and-half copy of "Beowulf" with the original and modernized versions. It's really impressive in the original. *laugh* There are fragments of it in the movie version, and that stuck in my head so much that I went straight home and wrote poetry.

>> There are some decent rhyming poems going back centuries. Perhaps it is indeed the classics where one should start looking for good rhyming poetry.<<

Sooth. It would help.

>>Good rhyme can be beautiful. Bad rhyme, forced rhyme, can be dreadful.<<

Yea, verily.

>>Love Dr. Seuss. I actually appreciate Dr. Seuss more now then I did when I was a kid.<<

I always knew he was brilliant. I could hear it and taste it. But now I know more about why and I can articulate it better.

>>Personally, I find writing rhyming poetry to be devilishly hard. I guess I don't often think in rhyme. I find it difficult to keep finding good rhyme, to keep the pattern going. I tried a villanelle once. While it was technically okay, it fell flat emotionally. However, I have had one or two rhyming poems published, a couple of my rare forays in rhyme. I guess, if I tried it more often, I might get better at it. <<

It does take practice. I've always had a knack for rhyme and meter, but my precision and charm have improved greatly over the years.

Have you got a good rhyming dictionary? I love my Random House pocket version, but there are some nice online ones too. This really helps in finding less-obvious rhymes.

>>However, free verse, blank verse, or free verse masquerading as blank verse, seem to work best for me on most occasions.<<

It's good that you know what works for you. Also, some forms are better suited to a certain range of topic or tone. Free verse is the most versatile: you can write anything in free verse.

>>So, you count syllables on your fingers, eh? Me, too! My wife and daughter can tell when I'm thinking about a poem when my fingers start going as I'm counting syllables.<<

Yep, and if it is a rhyming poem, I usually mutter it under my breath, too. (That habit drives people nuts. My partner will pull over, if we're driving at night and I start mumbling, so I can have light to write out the verses. Otherwise I have to keep them in live memory -- and I can do that for hours.) I can ad lib lyric poetry to some extent, using the momentum to create the next lines. However, I'm not the fastest or the best person at this: filkertom blows me out of the water. I've seen him do a filk challenge at a house concert where he took prompts like I do in my fishbowls, and filked those. I threw him "antidisestablishmentarianism" and he filked that.

>>I always recommend reading any form of writing out loud, to hear what it sounds like. It's amazing how many problems with flow can be caught and corrected by reading aloud. With poetry, I consider it a necessity (especially since I've been known to read my poetry at open mics on occasion).<<

It really does help. I wish more people would try this.

I enjoy listening to poetry. I don't like the way I sound when reading it, though. My public speaking voice is usually fine, but not for poetry. I'm happy to have someone else read my poetry, but every time I've done that an event where I was present, people gave me shit about it, so I pretty much don't do that anymore. I've had people ask for permission to read my poetry at events they were attending afar, though, and that's cool.
(Deleted comment)
hafoc From: hafoc Date: November 21st, 2010 12:40 am (UTC) (Link)
To craft a poem that rhymes can be quite hard
And teachers say that rhyming poems all lack
All thought; the form is only used by hacks
Like Spencer, Milton, Dante, and The Bard

My betters, then, will line up to attack
That place wherein my own poor talents lie
And would all deem it better far should I
Not write at all, than write upon that tack.

Well, joke 'em. If your muse gives you a verse
Then write a verse. Though all the experts say
It can't be good, it's not theirs anyway
And not to write at all would be far worse.

Write the poem you're given here, today,
Write your own truth, though it can never pay.
hafoc From: hafoc Date: November 21st, 2010 12:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Stinks-- not even saving a copy of this, but I had fun. Thanks. :D
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 21st, 2010 02:29 am (UTC) (Link)

*laugh*

Huzzah! That poem makes some good points.
the_vulture From: the_vulture Date: November 21st, 2010 01:57 am (UTC) (Link)
I can't say I'm in love with rhyme for the sake of poetry itself. Maybe it's because I've been bombarded by so much bad rhyming in recent years. I also don't find much challenge in writing it, which is also part of the problem for me, I suspect. When I write poetry for the sake of poetry, I challenge myself to construct poetic sensibility without using rhyme, instead relying on meter, repetition and form to separate the thoughts from verse.

This is not to say I do not have a use for rhyme. I find myself using it more and more in the creation of rites and rituals, mostly because it sounds better chanted or sung. There, it regains power for me.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 21st, 2010 02:40 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>I can't say I'm in love with rhyme for the sake of poetry itself. <<

That's okay. Not everyone has to like it.

>>Maybe it's because I've been bombarded by so much bad rhyming in recent years. <<

This is possible. If so, consider exploring some of the older material. That might clarify the cause, even if it doesn't change your mind. Huh, maybe one of these times I should do a "recommended poets and poems" post.

>>I also don't find much challenge in writing it, which is also part of the problem for me, I suspect. When I write poetry for the sake of poetry, I challenge myself to construct poetic sensibility without using rhyme, instead relying on meter, repetition and form to separate the thoughts from verse.<<

Yeah, that makes sense. I'm less impressed by things I find easy than by things I find challenging, or more particularly, things I can't do. Like art -- if it looks like I could paint it, then I'm not going to be impressed, because I suck at painting. It has to clear a minimum skill level to earn my respect.

>>This is not to say I do not have a use for rhyme. I find myself using it more and more in the creation of rites and rituals, mostly because it sounds better chanted or sung. There, it regains power for me.<<

Yes, I highly recommend rhyme and meter for ritual use. I talk about this in Composing Magic -- what makes good liturgy, and why, and how to design it. Have you looked up declaimed poetry? It's halfway between spoken and sung, not very common outside of ritual contexts. Some African forms are designed with this in mind. They do terrific call-and-response material.
judifilksign From: judifilksign Date: November 21st, 2010 02:52 am (UTC) (Link)
When I teach poetry, I use the conceit of writing the "how to" directions in the form of the poetry I am teaching the students how to write.



A Teaching Tritina

The Tritina is a structured poem
In which each last word
of the first three lines are repeated.

The way they are repeated
In the ten-line poem
Should give a new twist to each word.

To have the last word
Without lines being repeated
Adds creativity to your poem.

Poem ends with first stanza's three words reused in order, theme repeated.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 21st, 2010 04:28 am (UTC) (Link)

Wow!

>>When I teach poetry, I use the conceit of writing the "how to" directions in the form of the poetry I am teaching the students how to write.<<

That would be on the list of things I admire because they can be really hard to write. I enjoy reading them, though, and I've seen some good ones.

Also, the tritina is a new form for me! I like it. (I am a fan of sestinas already.) Feel free to drop this into a Poetry Fishbowl sometime.
the_vulture From: the_vulture Date: November 21st, 2010 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for the example! That looks like an interesting form to play with.
estaratshirai From: estaratshirai Date: November 21st, 2010 05:34 am (UTC) (Link)
<-More things like this please. Interesting and awesome.
aldersprig From: aldersprig Date: November 22nd, 2010 12:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I enjoy poetry with form (and sometimes rhyme) more than free verse, both to write and to read. Some of my poetry, I "write" in the car - this tends to be iambic quadramater (sp?) in rhyming verse w/ repetition - i.e., it has an easily memorizable structure, since "writing" it by reciting requires I memorize it as I make it up.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 22nd, 2010 12:29 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

I think tetrameter is the more common term for a four-foot line:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iambic_tetrameter

I sometimes compose in the car, too. Usually I get ballads then. Like you, I memorize as I compose, if I can't write it down immediately. I can do free verse that way too, but it happens less often and it's harder to hold.
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