Monday, October 06, 2008

Avoiding Forced Rhyme — Martin

Back in March, in the session I taught at Write! London, I outlined many things that good poets should do. I only focussed on four things they should avoid. I have talked on this blog about three of them, so it’s high time I expand my thoughts about the fourth. The other three blogs can be found on this site:
“Avoiding Sentimentality” June 27
“Avoiding Didacticism and Predigested Ideas” May 27
“Avoiding Clichés” March 20

These three topics don’t just apply to good poetry, but to good writing as well. Today’s topic, however, is unique to poetry.

If I were to ask my young students to write a poem, without having shown them how, the most obvious mistake they would make would be to let the rhyme write the poem. This happens when the writer searches for a word to rhyme with whatever has gone before, and it is that rhyming word that determines what the writer ends up saying. How many songs about love, end up speaking about “the stars above”, or “heaven above”, not because that fit with the songwriter’s thoughts, but in order to rhyme? How often does someone sing about a dove, or fitting hand in glove, simply to rhyme with love? This tends to lead to more clichés.

Another related problem is when writers replace the normal word order people use in conversation, with an awkward word order — again so that the rhyming word is at the end of the line. This was acceptable in past centuries, but seems contrived in contemporary poetry. Let me wrap these concepts into a brief rule: Don’t include anything in the poem that wouldn’t be there if it hadn’t provided a rhyming word. Don’t rearrange normal word order in order to make it rhyme. If people wouldn’t normally say it that way, don’t write it that way.

Please don’t think I dislike good, rhyming poetry. I wrote some myself for my new book, Poiema (Wipf & Stock, 2008) including a sonnet and a villanelle. Often, however, I prefer to use internal rhyme — rather than end-stop rhyme — and to use other musical elements, such as alliteration, and onomatopoeia. My advice to young poets would be to refrain from writing rhyming poetry for the next ten years, before permitting themselves to return to it. Writing good free-verse is more difficult. Once they can do that, they’re better qualified to write rhyming verse.

D.S. Martin is Music Critic for Christian Week; his new poetry book, Poiema (Wipf & Stock), and his chapbook So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed are available at

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