No.4 - June 2019
I’M A POET. I KNOW IT.
Why rhyme? Well, it’ll do a lot of things for you. It tells the world you’re writing a poem, for one thing. But there are other ways of doing that. But of course you know that, but you want to work with rhyme, anyway, because says something to you, and it says something for you. But what? Why do you choose the rhymes you do, and what do they do for you?
A number of years ago, I wrote a book-length poem, a novel in rhymed quatrains called Situations. Situations was a mock epic, light, fast-moving, satiric, clever, and to make it work, I needed clever rhymes—rhymes that called attention to their own cleverness. I used multisyllabic rhymes:
"The only thing we need now's a diversion,
To break down Trisha's power in totality.
Naturally, what we have in mind's perversion;
And they say Trisha can't surmount orality."
I rhymed the titles of bestsellers from the 1950s:
She listens to the works of Allen Drury;
I Was a Communist for the FBI;
None Dare Call It Treason; I, the Jury;
Masters of Deceit; Live and Let Die;
I even wrote two lines in which four of the five metric feet rhymed:
Too often calumny can lurk behind
A portrait drawn too well in a bland mask—it
Hides motives cruel and dark. I fear you’ll find
Your friends have gone to hell in a handbasket.
The rhymes underscored that the story was not to be taken seriously, and they showed what a clever fellow I was—or, if they turned out not to be clever enough, what a second rate poseur I was. Probably the master of the clever rhyme was Byron. He had no shame. There was no cheap trick of rhyme he wouldn’t stoop to, and his cleverness never flagged, and he’s still being read a couple of centuries later. The cleverness starts with his opening invocation:
Bob Southey! You're a poet, poet laureate,
And representative of all the race.
Although 'tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
And now my epic renegade, what are ye at
With all the lakers, in and out of place?
Now I find myself doing it again, writing a book-length poem in rhyme—this time two separate stories, both of them retellings of medieval French romances. And I realized as I got into it that, without consciously planning it in advance, that I was assiduously avoiding clever rhymes. This was a different kind of story. I was creating my own version of it, but I wasn’t trying to be arch or hip or contemporary, and clever rhymes would send the wrong message.
So rhyme can be used to bolster a light, comic tone. Or not. If the rhymes come close together, that can add comic punch, as with Dorothy Parker’s dimeter:
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
Or the even briefer monometer of Ogden Nash:
Ogden Nash also employed very long lines with tortured scansion for comic effect:
I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
The daily paper is so harrowing that it is costly even at the modest price of two cents;
It lands on your doorstep with a thud and you can't bear to look at it but neither can you forbear, because it lies there with all the gruesome fascination of something that fell or jumped from the thirtieth floor and lit on a picket fence.
And you think that perhaps a leisurely perusal of some unsensational literary magazine will ease the stress,
And there you find an article presenting a foolproof plan for the defense of some small nation which unfortunately happened to get swallowed up by a nation not so small just as the article presenting the foolproof plan for its defense slid off the press.
And you furtively eye your radio which crouches in the corner like a hyena ready to spring,
And you know that what you want is Baby Snooks or Dr. I.Q. and you know that what you will get is Elmer Davis or a European roundup or Raymond Gram Swing.
Wherever you turn, whatever escapist stratagem you use,
All you get is news.
And just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like to get the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.
Which looks easy until you try to do it,
And then you discover that Nash had uncanny ear and a mastery of sprung rhythms which make your attempts at pastiche look like so much uncongealed suet.
One doesn’t normally think of John Donne as a barrel of laughs, but one of his best-known poems uses monometer.
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
Comic effect? Hell, yes. Even with Donne. There’s bitterness in this poem about the fickleness of women, but there are all kinds of clues, one of them being the monometer rhyme, that he’s having fun with it.
Hip-hop lyrics, like this one by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, use rapid-fire rhymes, end rhyme and internal, to keep the action of the rap driving. Rap is so programmed to shock that the shock is expected and not shocking, so often the humor carries it:
My beats are slammin from the rugged programming
My man Bob Marley hey my man I'm Jammin
You could never touch the stamina, while I'm rammin the
Hip-hop crowd makes me rrrah rrrah rrrah
Other MC's got flipped with the ease
Beggin me for burnt cigar, stop the music please
No, cause I'm a PRO, rap to the conVO
Make a crowd say HOE, at a strip SHOW
Then, there’s this:
There goes my baby, with someone new,
She sure looks happy, I sure am…
I don’t have to fill in the end of the line, do I?
Too obvious? Too sappy? But people are still singing it 60 years after it was written, so it must have something. Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote “Bye, Bye Love,” wrote the line deliberately that way. He believed in end-stopped lines, whole rhymes, obvious rhymes. Yes, the listener will know where the line is going before it gets there. But for Bryant, that was the whole point. If your listeners can sing the end of the line before the singer does, they become your co-writers, part of the creative process.
As poets, we can’t do that. Our audience is too sophisticated (and smaller). But we do. We’re more subtle, but we do. Look at Frost:
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
We may not exactly be able to predict how that line is going to end, but we know it will be a rhyme, and there haven’t been any slant rhymes in the poem, so almost certainly a whole rhyme. We know, from the question in the penultimate line and the dash at the end of it—and the fact that it’s a sonnet, so there has to be one more line, even if we’re hearing it and not seeing it on the page—that there’s more to come, and that what’s to come will do something to the question. Answer it, amplify it, twist it. There’s also a very cool metric thing that Frost does here. The whole poem is in iambic pentameter, pretty regular. The previous line is quite regular – “What BUT / deSIGN /of DARK / ness TO /apPALL?” (You can argue that the first foot is inverted, but it doesn’t have to be). Then the next line starts out so tangled that you almost can’t scan it: “IF / deSIGN / GOVern…” It holds you up, saying “Wait for it…wait for it…”
Of course, not all rhyme is calculated to draw us in with its predictability or inevitability. Byron charms by digging himself holes you think he can’t possibly get out of: what’s he going to rhyme with “Laureate”?
And, as Boudleaux Bryant shows us in “Bye Bye Love” and Frost in “Design,” not all rhymes are comic, subtly or otherwise. So why else, and how else, does one use rhyme? I’ll take that up next
©2019 Tad Richards
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