Rhyme, Quaint and Contemporary

So I kind strayed from the topic when talking about rhyme question.   So a student asked: Is exact rhyme “quaint”?  And the answer is that “Yes, many, if not most contemporary “serious” readers of poetry think so.  Why?  Because 1) most “serious” academic-type poets write in some version of unrhymed verse, and 2) most people who do exact rhyme in poems are writers who are a) nostalgic for times and poetries past or b) closet song writers and influenced greatly by contemporary pop songs and not by contemporary poetry.

Now, the question beneath this is:  are the “serious” readers of poetry correct?  Is exact rhyme “quaint”?  And my answer is no.  It is quite possible to write engaging interesting verse that rhymes that does not sound quaint.  For instance, go to the anthology Rebel Angels:  25 Poets of the New Formalism, edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason.  Here is the beginning of the poem “The Red Hat” by Rachel Hadas:

It started before Christmas.  Now our son

officially walks to school alone.

Semi-alone, it’s accurate to say:

I or his father track him on the way.

He walks up on the east side of West End,

we on the west side.  Glances can extend

(and do) across the street; not eye contact.

Already ties are feeling and not fact. . . .

It goes on for another seven rhymed couplets, mostly exact rhymes.

Now this poem begins with a rhyme that is not exact:  son/alone.  But then, you can see the couplets that follow are exact rhyme. They don’t seem quaint to me.  But I can say that End/extend and contact/fact are more clever that say/way.  If the entire poem were of the kind like say/way, we might have a little problem.

And so the answer to the quaint question is if you want to do rhyme, don’t be quaint. Find rhymes that fit a contemporary voice (which this poem has), and find rhymes that the reader won’t expect.  Don’t be predictable.  The enjambment at line six really helps.  It puts the rhyme in the middle of the sentence, not only at the ends of the lines.

A second book, related to our topic is Missing Measures:  Modern Poetry and The Revolt Against Meter by Timothy Steele (who is a New Formalist and included in Rebel Angels).  I read this book about 12 years ago, when I was going through a catching up with Post Modernism phase in my life.  I disagreed with a lot of the book at the time, but still it is a very interesting attempt by a formalist poet to come to terms with the shift in modern poetry away from meter and rhyme, and arguing for a return to it.  What I disagree with is the idea that I think runs through it that only formal poetry is true poetry, and that poetry would be better off if free verse had never existed.  He never really says this exactly, I don’t think.  But it seems to me, even rereading a bit of it now, that there is a nostalgia for a blissful time when people believed in tradition and didn’t question the authorities.

In my opinion, free verse saved poetry because poetry had become predictable, sentimental or totally obscure with classical references, and it sounded false and weak.  In addition, for good or ill, free verse is a democratic and open form available to everyone–I put it on the par with the democratization of music, of our schools and colleges, of home ownership, etc, etc.  It is just what happened in the twentieth century (along with a lot of horrible things).  Poetry ceased to be elite.  Poetry could be written in normal language about normal things by normal people.  To hell with classical references, heightened emotions, rhymes, iambic pentameter, funky syntax to get the rhyme, and all that.

Two poems to google:  “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams  and “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara.   These poems give us permission to write about our everyday lives in a language and style that is accessible to everyone.

Having said this:  there were plenty of poets from the 1920s to the 1990s who did not give up everything listed above.  H.D  and Robert Duncan kept the classical references, Ginsburg was pretty emotional, Richard Wilbur and others kept meter and rhyme.

The poet Robert Creeley, who was one of those guys from the fifties and sixties (he recently died) who broke with the tradition and followed William Carlos Williams and not T.S. Eliot, and certainly not Frost.  He said something like “Form is content/Content is form.”  And this is where I end on the form/rhyme question.  I know some people will disagree, but it seems to me that the form of the poem and the content/emotional power of the poem go together.  Maybe we can write a sonnet about a parent beating us as a child, but I wonder if it will be as powerful as a free verse poem about it.  In any case they won’t be the same poem, with the same impact.

Anyway, I hope this helps and gives some direction.

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.