TAKING THE NURSERY OUT OF RHYME
bY Eddie Morales
"Rhyming poetry is just nursery rhyme poetry," and, "Rhyming poetry is nothing but greeting
card verse," are two comments I often hear free verse poets make. In defense of rhyme, many
rhyming poets might say these people make such comments simply because they, "can't rhyme
worth a damn!" Although I must admit, I agree with this defensive comment, I also have to
agree that the free-versers, as I call them, do have a point.
The majority of poets I've encountered who write nothing but free verse, I find, couldn't rhyme
two sentences if their lives depended on it. For example, in one of the poems I reviewed for a
member of a poetry site I belong to, I found a way to turn the poet's free verse poem into a
rhyming poem, and after showing the poet how to do it, by applying rhyme and meter to the
first stanza, and telling the poet, "If you can follow this rhyme scheme and meter all the way
through the poem, this poem would be fantastic." A few days later, the poet emailed me back to
say all attempts to follow the rhyme and meter failed, but thanked me for the suggestions
anyway. The poet simply couldn't do it. This example may seem to prove the rhymers are
right, but now, to be fair, let's take a look at it from the free-verser's point of view.
I've noticed, having attended many poetry readings, conventions, and festivals, that there is a
preponderance of poems written in the "couplet" or "quatrain" form. The couplets are usually
two complete sentences with end rhyme, where pairs of couplets make up the four line stanzas
(aabb), and the quatrains are usually of the "abab" or "abcb" rhyme scheme. At one such
poetry reading, I couldn't help thinking how many of the poems sounded like the nursery
rhyme, "Mary Had A Little Lamb."
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
Listen to enough poems of this type and you can see the point the free-versers are trying to
make. After a while, all you hear is:
Ya-da Ya-da Ya-da Ya
Ba-ba Ba-ba Ba-ba Ba
Ya-da Ya-da Ya-da Ya
Ba-ba Ba-ba Ba-ba Ba
That's enough to drive free-versers and masters of rhyme to drink. So, are you rhymers
starting to get the picture? Well then, how do you fix this?
My first suggestion is to do some research and find the different types of rhyming forms that
exist. Compile a list and find an example for each form. Some rhyming forms are more
common than others, like the sonnet, the villanelle, or terza rima. Others are not so common,
like the pantoum or rondeau. Nevertheless, even if you don't eventually write in all the forms
you find, you'll become aware of the similarities and differences between one form and
another. Take it as a challenge to learn as many forms as you can. But remember, just like
anything else you truly want to be a master of, you have to practice writing in the different
forms. Practice is the key to mastering them.
Secondly, get rid of the notion that your sentences have to end with the end-rhyme. I once
had a poet review one of my sonnets, as an exercise on how to use scansion to take a poem
apart, and to give it a grade on a scale of one to ten, and because many of the sentences took
up two lines, instead of one, many ending with a period in the middle of the line, she took
points away for, "not rhyming the poem where you were supposed to." I informed her of a
particular element of poetry that many poets use, and of which, she was unaware. This
element is called enjambment. Enjambment is the continuation of a line of verse onto the next
line without a pause. This brings me to my next suggestion.
Learn, and practice using, as many of the elements of poetry as you can. Poetry is not just
simile and metaphor. It is syntax, grammar, alliteration, onomatopoeia, diction, anachronism,
imagery, persona, point of view, anaphora, and a host of other elements, including
punctuation. Knowledge and use of these elements has helped the free verse poets with their
poems, and they can only help you with your rhymes. Of course, now you have to perfect your
Finally, we get to the actual rhymes. Rhymes come in various types, which many novice poets
are not aware of, and it behooves any rhyming poet to learn what they are. Below, I give you
information about all the different types of rhymes. A rhyming poet needs to learn them, and
practice using them. The only way you'll get better at rhyming is through practice.
A GLOSSARY OF RHYMES
The following terms occur frequently in discussions of poetry and critical writing, but not with
absolute consistency. It may be tempting, simply because the terms are listed here, to get
overly scrupulous about fine distinctions between, for example, "identical" and "rich" rhyme, or
"broken" as opposed to "linked" rhyme, but these are distinctions that rarely find practical
sanction in critical usage and are often much more useful for the writer. Nonetheless, it may
be useful to consider the various terms that do appear in the literature. Even more, it may be
useful to gather and describe a range of rhymes available in the English language.
English is often said to be poor in rhyme, as opposed to, for example, the Romance
languages, but this glossary and definition of terms will point to a rich variety of choices. This
list is adapted from Poetic Designs, by Stephen Adams (Broadview Press, 1997), and Manual
of English Meters, by Joseph Malof (Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1970).
The rhymes are distinguished by usage in the following ways:
Rhymes Defined by Nature of Similarity
Rhymes Defined by Relation to Stress Pattern
Rhymes Defined by Position
By Position in the Line
By Position in the Stanza or Verse Paragraph
Rhyme across Word Boundaries
RHYMES DEFINED BY NATURE OF SIMILARITY
Perfect rhyme, full rhyme, true rhyme:
These terms refer to the immediately recognizable norm: true/blue, mountain/fountain.
Imperfect rhyme, slant rhyme, half rhyme, approximate rhyme, near rhyme,
off rhyme, oblique rhyme:
These are all general terms referring to rhymes that are close but not exact: lap/shape,
Eye rhyme (or sight rhyme):
This refers to rhymes based on similarity of spelling rather than sound.
Often these are highly conventional, and reflect historical changes in pronunciation:
A word rhymes with itself, as in Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could not Stop for Death":
We paused before a house that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground--
The Roof was scarcely visible--
The Cornice--in the Ground.
Rich rhyme (from French rime riche):
A word rhymes with its homonym: blue/blew, guessed/guest.
Rhyming with similar vowels, different consonants: dip/limp, man/prank.
Rhyming with similar consonants, different vowels: limp/lump, bit/bet.
Rhyming on words with limited rhyming alternatives: whisp/lisp, motionless/oceanless.
Macaronic verse uses more than one language, as in medieval lyrics with Latin refrains.
Macaronic rhyme is also bilingual: glory/pro patria mori, sure/kreatur, queasy/civilisé.
RHYMES DEFINED BY RELATION TO STRESS PATTERN
One-syllable rhyme, masculine rhyme:
The norm, in which rhyme occurs on the final stressed syllables:
Buckle my shoe
Extra-syllable rhyme, triple rhyme, multiple rhyme, extended rhyme, feminine rhyme:
These all refer to rhyming double or triple or multiple extra-syllable endings:
dying/flying, generate/venerate, salubrious/lugubrious.
Rhyming of a stressed syllable with a secondary stress: frog/dialog, live/prohibitive.
Rhyming of a stressed syllable with an unstressed syllable.
This often occurs in ballads and folk poetry, often on conventional words like lady/a bee.
RHYMES DEFINED BY POSITION
By Position in the Line
End rhyme, terminal rhyme:
All rhymes occur at line ends (the standard procedure).
Initial rhyme, head rhyme:
Alliteration or other rhymes at the beginning of a line.
Rhyme that occurs within a line or passage, whether randomly (as below, on "flow" and
"grow") or in some kind of pattern:
A heavenly paradise is that place,
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
These cherries grow, which none may buy
Till "Cherry Ripe!" themselves do cry.
Leonine rhyme, medial rhyme:
Rhyme that occurs at the caesura and line end within a single line, like a rhymed couplet
printed as a single line:
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers
Caesural rhyme, interlaced rhyme:
Rhymes that occur at the caesura and line end within a pair of lines--like an abab quatrain
printed as two lines:
Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harp-string of gold,
A bitter God to follow, a beautiful God to behold?
Or the following unusual example, an In Memoriam stanza (abba) printed as couplets:
Upon the mat she lies and leers and on the tawny throat of her
Flutters the soft and silky fur or ripples to her pointed ears.
Come forth, my lovely seneschal! so somnolent, so statuesque!
Come forth you exquisite grotesque! half woman and half animal!
By Position in the Stanza or Verse Paragraph
Crossed rhyme, alternating rhyme, interlocking rhyme:
Rhyming in an abab pattern.
Rhyming every other line, as in the standard ballad quatrain: abcb.
Envelope rhyme, inserted rhyme:
Rhyming abba (as in the In Memoriam stanza).
Rhyming that follows no fixed pattern (as in the pseudopindaric or irregular ode).
Sporadic rhyme, occasional rhyme:
Rhyming that occurs unpredictably in a poem with mostly unrhymed lines.
A line left without rhyme in a generally rhymed passage.
(There are ten thorn lines among the 193 lines in Milton's irregularly rhymed Lycidas.)
RHYME ACROSS WORD BOUNDARIES
Rhyme using more than one word:
But-oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all?
Or rhyme in which one word is broken over the line end:
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
Dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…
Rhyme that depends on completing the rhyme sound by enjambment over the line end:
But what black Boreas wrecked her? He
Came equipped, deadly-electric,
Rhyming a line end with a penultimate syllable:
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
As you can see, there is a lot to learn about rhyming poetry, and a lot of ways you can take the
nursery out of rhyme, and the only way you're going to do that is to practice, practice, and
practice. It's the only way you'll get perfect at it. Here's a poem I wrote to illustrate my point:
A New Door Opens
Love’s not denied — when purely given,
But falsely driven draws contempt.
Attempt to pass beyond the wake —
Retake the love to mend the break!
Re-define your own cognition, to fruition,
For no fate is truly sealed…none to fell a hope;
For every Phoenix takes the stroke,
And dares invoke the spark, the flame,
To laud its fiery fame,
Rising up in recognition
Of a spiritual connection,
Always dauntless, never tame!
Now that you've read the poem, can you identify the different types of rhyme I used? Looking
at the end of the lines, there's really no fixed rhyming pattern. You could say I have an
envelope rhyme if you look at the last four lines. I also have a few couplets with wake/break,
hope/stroke (which also uses assonant rhyme), and recognition/connection. There's end
rhyme, a "thorn line" in the second line, internal rhyme, imperfect rhyme, and there's also
alliteration in the first line with all the "n" sounds (with the words: not, denied, when, and given),
and the "f" sounds in the sixth line (with the words: for, fate, and fell). In addition, the line
lengths vary in their syllable counts.
Now, there's no way anyone can tell me this is a poem that sounds like a nursery rhyme.
Oct 24, 1886 - Jul 6, 1914
|Jun 5 1898 - Aug 19, 1936