Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rhyming Well

This is such a challenge that I often discourage first-timers from trying it.  Sorry to start with a downer, but it's true.

After all, the case against using rhyme in contemporary literary poems is strong.  I've read a good number of serious poems whose rhymes created accidental humor.  Doh!  I've also endured rhyme-machines, masquerading as poems, that wallop me at the end of every line.  Duh-da-duh-da-duh-BAM.  Duh-da-duh-da-duh-WHAM.  In these poems, rhyme bullies every other element, pushing the content around and locking even figures of speech in the bathroom.

But Rhyme can use his power for good.  A well-turned rhyme can take the reader's breath away.  Plus, rhyme is fun to work with.  And for spoken word and slam poetry, you gotta make this bully into a buddy.

Step 1:  Don't WHAM-BAM.  Enjamb!
Enjambment simply means breaking your line in the middle of a phrase rather than at the end.  Shakespeare did it.  You can too.  Here's an example from Sonnet 130.  It's a love poem that makes fun of love poems.  Shakespeare's always goofing around!  Here he talks about his beloved (italics mine):
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight (not done yet!)
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
Here's another example from hip-hop artist, Big Daddy Kane.  This is his response to the fierce competition between rappers (italics mine):
I relieve rappers, just like Tylenol
And they know it, so I don't see why you all (not done yet!)
Try to front, perpetraitin' a stunt
When you know that I'll smoke you up . . .
Notice how enjambment makes the reader wonder how the phrase will end.  That makes the poem less predictable and more fun.  Beginning poets tend to write toward that end rhyme, land on it hard, and stop.  This is "end-stopping."  Instead of all end-stopped lines, lend variety to your poems with enjambment.

Step 2:  Use long words for end rhymes.
A sophisticated rhymer goes beyond those one-syllable thud words.  Instead of great--wait, try ingratiate, calibrate, celebrate.  Happily, the Internet can help.  Click on for an easy search of 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-, even 6- and 7- syllable words and phrases.  When I typed in "great," they listed "circumnavigate" and the phrase "physiological state."  They also provide a search for near rhymes, such as laughter--bachelor.  Throw some longer words into the mix; you will sound and be more accomplished.

Step 3: Mesmerize When You Internalize
Poor rhyming words.  :-(  They get stuck out there at the end of the line every time!  Bring them into the middle once in a while.  Called, internal rhyme, this can give a free verse poem some juice.  It gives rhyming poems texture as well.  Here's a line from a poem I'm working on:
"Mom and I surf an escalator wave to the store's second floor where"
It's not an exact rhyme, but it's in there.  Store--floor.  Here's another example from the Academy Award-winning "Lose Yourself" by Eminem:
"All the pain inside amplified by the fact
That I can't get by with my 9 to 5"
He puts the rhymed words back to back.  Inside--amplified.  And he's using our Step 2 technique by using a long word like "amplified."  The point is that you can sprinkle rhymes in for flavor anywhere.

Step 4:  Don't Just Rhyme
Using enjambment, longer words, and internal rhyme will go a long way towards making a strong poem.  But don't let rhyming be the only trick your poem has up its sleeve.  Give it figurative language, interesting word combinations, and a point.  Give it concrete objects and people, sensory details, and voice.  Rhyme can't do it alone.

If you have a favorite poem that uses rhyme well, I hope you'll share it in a Comment.  Meanwhile, happy rhyming!

P.S.  Thinking of checking out some Shakespeare?  This is my favorite edition of the sonnets, loaded with scholarly discussion and dissent.  Original spellings and fonts, with modern font on the facing page.


  1. lots to think about. I think I'll leave rhyme to Dr.Seuss.

  2. More good stuff here. Ye gods you've re-energized my love for poetry!

  3. try as i might i just couldnt narrow it down to one favorite poem that featured rhyme..BUT..the three i included all have one thing in common, they all played a critical role in movies I LOVE...

    first from "The Outsider's", stay gold Pony Boy :)

    Nature's first green is gold,
    Her hardest hue to hold.
    Her early leaf's a flower;
    But only so an hour.
    Then leaf subsides to leaf.
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay.
    ---Robert Frost

    second from Richard Linklater's ridiculously great "Before Sunrise" (and dont miss the sequel "Before Sunset" has Nina Simone music)

    (this is just the section that was quoted in the movie)

    'The years shall run like rabbits,
    For in my arms I hold
    The Flower of the Ages,
    And the first love of the world.'

    But all the clocks in the city
    Began to whirr and chime:
    'O let not Time deceive you,
    You cannot conquer Time.
    --WH Auden As I Walkwd Out One Evening

    and finally from "Four Weddings & A Funeral"
    get a hanky..

    He was my North, my South, my East and West,
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
    I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

    -- W H Auden

    All amazing, and all equally unlikely you havent read before many times, but still worth revisitng