On the subject of Rhyming

& Trophy Rhymes

I guess this post is going to fall under the rubric: me & my opinions. But here goes: I’ve always admired anyone who can do something I can’t do – artists, athletes, writers, poets, musicians, composers, etc… This is the reason why the majority of modern art and poetry does little to nothing for me.  As far as I’m concerned, “originality” is one of the 20th century’s greatest con jobs (and, ironically, it’s most “original” contribution to the history of art). Obviously, geniuses are few and far between. So, what’s a generation to do? Simple. Redefine artistic accomplishment and transcendence as “originality”. Suddenly, the 20th & 21rst centuries example more artistic geniuses than at any other time since God created Earth.

rhymesComposers like Bach and Mozart were not original in a modern sense. They refined and synthesized what they inherited until the sum exceeded the parts. Bach created no new musical forms and neither did Mozart. For that matter, neither did Beethoven. Shakespeare and Milton also didn’t invent any new forms or invent a new language. They did what everyone else was doing, but better; and the same for Keats, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The difference between originality (as a goal in and of itself) and the originality of “genius” (a more organic byproduct of a powerfully creative mind) is a fine one. My opinion is that the difference is conveniently confused. There are a number of poets and artists whose works are undeniably “original” but which, despite being a flavor never concocted before, are not that good. I’ve already mentioned some of them in previous posts and time will tell whether I’m right. I might not be.

And this brings me to rhyme. The vast majority of 20th century poets don’t use rhyme. Even translators translating rhymed poems can’t be bothered. Part of the reason, possibly, is that rhyme is seen as “unoriginal” (which misses the point). It’s gotten to such an extreme that for some poets using a recognizable language —let alone English— is unoriginal. Literally. The result for me is that the vast majority of contemporary poems bore me to tears. I like to be wowed and impressed. All else being equal, free verse does neither. Rhyme (and meter) is to poetry what the half-pipe is to snowboarding. It turns snowboarding into an Olympic event. Without the half-pipe an amateur can look an awful lot like a pro. Frost’s quip concerning nets and tennis comes to mind. For example, Ted Kooser’s generic poems bore me to tears. They do nothing that the millionth paragraph doesn’t do, but I’ve read that this is exactly how Kooser wants them — as ordinary as doormats. He’s succeeded.

Among those poets who do write rhyme, however, there is also division. In my own poetry, the rhyming often isn’t very noisy. I once sent some of my poems to the poet Fred Chappell. He criticized the originality of my rhymes and I wrote back that I don’t write trophy rhymes (a term of my own coining and a lie). Back when  I wrote about Emily Dickinson, I summarized most of the rhymes available to poets (using rhymes from Emily Dickinson’s own poetry), but the one rhyme that I left out, because it’s not truly a unique kind of rhyme, is the trophy rhyme. The term can be dismissive (I can’t think of a lasting poem that has endured because of its novelty-rhymes), but can also signify the importance of the rhyme (because entire poems can be built on it). Fred Chappell’s short poems, which I enjoy reading, often have a tongue-in-cheek, sardonic or irreverent tone. The first poem from the book C makes a nice example:


In such a book as this,
The poet Martial says,
Some of the epigrams
Shall have seen better days,
And some are hit-or-miss;
But some — like telegrams —
Deliver intelligence
With such a sudden blaze
The shine can make us wince.

Did you see what happened there? The whole poem/joke was built around the trophy rhyme: epigrams and telegrams.  Limerick’s do the same thing. In Limericks, in fact, you will find some of the English language’s most successful trophy rhymes (which is, after all, the whole point of the limerick).

Said Edna St. Vincent Millay,
As she lay in the hay all asplay:
“If you make wine
From these grapes, I opine
We’ll stay in this barn until May

The New Limerick p. 27

In both the poems, the rhymes draw attention to themselves. The poem serves the rhyme. That’s okay if that’s the kind of poem one wants to write. Conversely, what makes trophy rhymes so useful in limericks, their cleverness and unexpectedness, is what can make them problematic in other kinds of poetry. My own approach to rhyme is a bit different from Chappell’s (and poets like him). For me, rhymes are not meant to be noticed. If they’re noticed, then I’ve done something wrong. If you don’t want rhymes to be noticed, it’s probably best to steer away from the “original” rhyme, the novelty rhyme or, as I call them, the trophy rhyme. My opinion is that too many poets (and teacher’s of poetry) put emphasis on the novelty of rhymes without really understanding the different effects rhyme is capable of (mostly because they’re not that familiar with the art).

So, if I don’t want rhymes to be noticed, why do I write them?

Because I prefer them to effect the reader or listener at a more subliminal level. I want the rhymes to feel organic. If you’ve listened to an unfamiliar poem, without knowing that it rhymes (and if it is well written) you might not have noticed the rhyming at first. You might have noticed a certain musicality to the poetry, only gradually realizing that the poem rhymed while eventually guessing at, or recognizing, the ending of lines and the actual rhyme-scheme. This kind of rhyme doesn’t draw attention to itself. At its best it serves to emphasize the poetic currents, emotion and thought driving the poem. The effect that rhyme has on thought process, mood and development can be discerned in the differing rhyme schemes of the Spenserian, Shakespearean, Petrarchan sonnets. The epigrammatic sting of the Shakespearean Sonnet’s closing couplets, for example, encourages an entirely different kind of mood and argument than the more self-enclosing rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet.

To a greater or lesser degree, and if the poem is written with skill, the rhymes will reinforce the current of thought and mood in much the same way that a skillful composer (or a band like the Beatles or Bob Dylan) will unite word, meaning and musical phrase (where less talented musicians and bands fail).

By way of example, consider Frost’s great poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Not one of those rhymes is ‘original’. They’re as well-worn as an old saddle; and yet Frost managed to write one of the greatest, most beloved and memorized poems in the English language. What does that tell you about rhyming? Everything you need to know.

1.) The originality or novelty of rhymes is unimportant. No, really.

2.) English is a finite language. There are a finite number of rhymes.  Searching for the trophy rhyme can stilt ones poetry just as unnaturally as contorted syntax.

3.) A trophy rhyme is a prima donna. It’s always going shift the spotlight from the content of your poem to itself. Rappers count on this because the trophy rhyme is intrinsic to their art. The rhymes demonstrate their skill and prowess with the language. Likewise, in the right poem, a trophy rhyme can add a little sparkle.

4.) If someone tells you your rhymes are predictable, what they’re really saying (knowingly or not) is that your lines are predictable. There is no such thing as a predictable rhyme (inasmuch as all rhymes are predictable). What matters is the line. If you twist the grammar or otherwise contort your phrasing for the sake of rhyme, then the rhymes are going to feel predictable and “rhyme driven”. (Notice how many of the lines in Frost’s poem are not end-stopped but enjambed.) 

The trophy rhyme lends itself to satire, humor, wit, irreverence, sarcasm, the tongue-in-cheek, light-heartedness while, in a form like rap, it draws attention to itself by underscoring the importance of the relevant words. The poem Departmental, another poem by Frost, is a beautiful example of how trophy rhymes emphasize a poem’s satirical bent, humor and wit. Shell Silverstein regularly based his poems on a given trophy rhyme. In the following, it’s bear and frigidaire.

Bear In There by Shel Silverstein
There’s a Polar Bear
SsilversteinIn our Frigidaire–
He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He’s nibbling the noodles,
He’s munching the rice,
He’s slurping the soda,
He’s licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he’s in there–
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.
As for myself, trophy rhymes were exactly what I needed in á la Maison:

a la Maison - Version 2So, if you’re going to rhyme, think about the kind of poem you want write. Don’t be bullied into novelty-rhymes for the sake of originality. Making a poem out of ordinary rhymes that is transcendent and unforgettable? Now that is originality. Making the extraordinary out of the  ordinary and the every day is, to me at least, the half-pipe of poetry.

For another nice take on rhyme, read A.E. Stallings razor sharp Presto Manifesto.

9 responses

  1. This post on rhyming is quite nice,
    So smartly charming and concise.
    Oh, look, a rhyme concerning rhyming;
    I’ll switch to prose, you’ll thank my timing.

    Besides our usual disagreements about the quality of modern poetry, I think we’re in complete agreement when it comes to rhyming. For me, it’s just another poetic tool amongst all other poetic tools, and we know that only bad craftsmen blame their tools for their failures. I’ve always thought it looked badly on any artist when they denounced the tools of their trade, since, depending on what work you’re trying to create, there’s always ideal and less ideals tools for the job. Besides being musical, rhyme can also help to “tell the poem in miniature” as Paul Fussel (I think) said. Basically, in most of the best rhyming poems you can just read down the right column to the end-rhymes and get a good outline of what the poem is about.

    I also like what you have to say about trophy rhymes, but, fwiw, I’ve never bought into the notion that rhyme (or any artistic tool) should not call attention to itself or, if it does, it can only do so for humor or irony. So many of my favorite works are blatantly, audaciously artificial, and most of my favorite artists don’t believe in trying to make form invisible. Perhaps this comes from my hyper-sensitivity to artificiality to begin with. EG, you talk about poems where rhyming is so “organic” that it’s barely noticeable, but I have honestly never read a rhyming poem where I didn’t notice the rhyme and, equally honestly, I wouldn’t want to. So, for me, it does not matter whether the rhyme feels “organic” by, eg, using enjambment and natural syntax or whether it feels “forced” by, eg, using end-stops and contorted syntax. In fact, I feel the loss of syntactical flexibility is a bigger loss in modern poetry than is the abandonment of end-rhymes (oddly enough, I still encounter a lot of free-verse that makes copious usage of internal rhyme).

    On the subject of “originality” versus “doing what everyone else is doing, but better,” it was TS Eliot in Tradition and the Individual Talent that argued that originality was born more out of the immersion, synthesis, and even blatant theft of tradition. Most of the greatest works of art are those where one can feel deep roots of tradition nourishing the branches of originality. Eliot’s own Waste Land is a paradigm of taking so much that’s old and traditional and combining it in a way that makes it feel new. Mozart didn’t invent new forms, but he synthesized and extraordinary wealth of musical influences that he absorbed from wherever he visited (and one can mark his compositional progression by noting where he was visiting at the time and what the popular “styles” were in those places), and the result was something that sounded new even while working in the rigid classical forms. Same thing goes for The Beatles and Dylan, or Hitchcock and Welles in film.

    The kind of originality that attempts to make a clean break from the past typically doesn’t catch on. There usually has to be something recognizable, something familiar for audiences to latch on to by which they orientate themselves. Even in a poet as radical as Ashbery there is a strong current of the surrealist tradition. Surrealism itself is one of the rare examples of a movement attempting to make a clean break from what came before and actually lasting long enough to develop its own standards and an appreciative audience. But for every Surrealism there are dozens, if not hundreds, of “movements” that fall by the wayside.

    One final note on originality is that I often think we confuse our ignorance of tradition with originality; ie, often the works and artists we think of as original are actually just working in or synthesizing traditions we’re unaware of. Many people today speak of Citizen Kane’s “originality,” but there isn’t a single technique in that film that was invented by Welles, but to know that you’d have to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic traditions up until 1941. When it comes to poetry, I don’t know if complete originality is even possible given the enormous amount of tradition in literature from all cultures and times. Is it really possible to think of a way of writing that nobody before has thought of?

    BTW, I really love your “a la Maison” poem; did you ever send it to a publisher? I

    • //I’ve never bought into the notion that rhyme (or any artistic tool) should not call attention to itself or, if it does, it can only do so for humor or irony.//

      When I write that my rhymes shouldn’t call attention to themselves, I mean that the lines shouldn’t appear contrived for the sake of rhyme and that the rhymes do not take ones attention from the content (unless, as with the nature of trophy rhymes, the very fact of their novelty contributes to the content). That still may not be acceptable to you, but I thought I’d explain my meaning.

      After a reading, I have sometimes had attendants ask me whether my poems rhymed. (They weren’t sure but the “musicality” of the lines must have registered.) The fact that they weren’t sure, but heard just enough to ask, is exactly the kind of effect I’m looking for and what I mean when I saw they shouldn’t make noise.

      P.S. Loved your little intro. =)

  2. This is a fantastic article.

    I go for “trophy rhymes” without question. Not in every piece, but, I do like including them from time to time. Obscure (ish) words, copious internal rhymes, and multi-syllabics are deliberate traits for me. Basically, my unadorned thoughts are not enough to warrant sharing, in my opinion, so I like the feature of meter and rhyme. Within that, I focus on certain aspects of presentation much, much more than others. Rhythm, rhyming, and wordplay are a better attempted showcase for me than suspense, storytelling, imagery, et cetera. I have huge admiration for people who can pull together a piece using many skills, and can freely admit that my own deficits are why I have such admiration.

    • //I go for “trophy rhymes” without question.//

      Your deadpan honesty made me laugh. When I first coined the name, trophy rhyme, I had in mind the big game hunter on safari. Your opening sentence put the image in mind: you in your khakis, an 1866 Remington Rolling Block Rifle with a tang sight, and a trophy rhyme unsuspectingly browsing under some baobab trees.

  3. Oh my, Patrick, you seduced me good and proper.

    You said a few days ago you’ve not been terribly active of late on the blog. And I’ve not been doing any poetry myself, having spent the last 19 months deeply immersed in the 2012 election. With such considerable success that we’ve restored the legislature to sanity. No good deed goes unpunished, however. Our success led to a demand that the issue analysis the committee I’ve been on and now chair resume its work in the new context and invent a two year cycle of work to extend our impact. To that end I’ve just finished reading a volume on moral psychology (whose pretensions were greater than its outcome), and I was about to write an e-mail by way of review to the student who, knowing that I had seriously tried to reach across the chasms which divide us by talking with the the opposition, suggested I read it. Before I did, as always, I checked my e-mail, and instead spent the next half hour with you and your respondents,

    Clear, informative, convincing. And I, too, liked “a la Maison”!

    AND your metaphor in response to Jack!

    Good work!

  4. Pingback: Publications by Friends & Readers « PoemShape

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