A student will always ask about rhyme.  Should we or shouldn’t we?  It is a huge question–one of those elephants in room–for contemporary poets.  I am going to give you my opinion.  In my opinion,  everyone of us must wrestle with this question him or herself.  Everyone will have an opinion.   Maybe I should describe these “opinions” as studied stances, but there are many people who advocate for one type or another of poetry. My view is that it’s all good, if it is good.  This, it is good if it moves me, if I feel some artistry in the language.  It is bad if I roll my eyes because it is predictable.  

Therefore, my opinion, is that exact rhyme is perfectly fine–if it works.  The problem is that there is history and the development of poetry through the centuries.  My personal story:  in 1978, I quit writing poetry for 5 or so years because I wrote poems like AE Housman and Heinrich Heine.  I realized that if I were going to be a serious poet, which I wanted to be, I should not be writing, in 1978, like people who wrote in 1900 or 1850.  The world already has AE Housman.  It doesn’t need another poet writing like Housman.  Styles, for good or ill, move on.  We do not need contemporary composers writing like Mozart–so we have Philip Glass and John Adams.  We do not need artists painting like Poussin or David or Gainsborough.  So we have Chuck Close or whoever it is that is rocking the artistic world today.  So in poetry, we did the exact rhyme thing–check out the poems by Burns and Stevenson or Frost.  But over the twentieth century, many poets “moved on” or “abandoned pure poetry” (whatever your politics is).  Pound, Eliot, WC Williams, Ginsburg, Bly, Olds, on and on, abandoned rhyme and regular meter for free verse or some version of it.  (Also remember Blank Verse, which for centuries was unrhymed verse (but it was iambic pentameter.))  In 1985, I began writing poetry again, and I began with free unrhymed verse.   Now thirty years later, I write poems in form, with and without rhyme, and I write free verse, and concrete poetry.  I try to do it all, but in my way.

So is it okay to write with exact rhyme?  Of course, but you must be ready for some criticism.  Many people will smile and be condescending. Others will smile and enjoy it.  For me, the question is what do you want to be as a poet, and what do you want from poetry? (I am going to be using “you” but I mean “me”  and everyone else.)  It is perfectly fine to be a hobbyist, and write like Shakespeare or Tennyson or Housman.  But everyone will know you as a hobbyist, and not a serious poet.  But you can’t write like Shakespeare and expect everyone to fall at your feet and call you the best poet in the world.  If you write like Shakespeare and that is what makes you happy, then write like Shakespeare.  Go to the Renaissance Festival and do an act.  That audience will love it.  But you are not going to get a scholarship to UT’s graduate creative writing program, most likely.  (Maybe you will get a scholarship to UT’s English department as a scholar in Early Modern Literature  (the name of Shakespeare’s time period, these days.)

This may sound harsh.  It may sound elitist.  I’ll accept that I am being harsh.  But I won’t accept “Elitist.”  I mean it–do what makes you happy.  But it is perfectly fine for academia to have its standards.  And it is perfectly fine for poetry slams to have their standards.  It is fine for Cowboy conventions to have theirs.  But just as we can’t expect Sci-Fi audiences to proclaim “Lie to Me” as a great show, we shouldn’t expect academia to proclaim an Edgar A. Poe copycat as a great poet.  There are cowboy poets who have thousands of fans and wouldn’t trade them at all for a gig reading at UT grad school.

I haven’t really answered the question, but this is a start.  To be continued.  But I will end with this:  Many of you in this class are college graduates.  Those of you who aren’t are still pretty smart cookies.  When listening to teachers, your duty is to figure out why they say what they say.  For instance, lots of high school and college teachers will say, “Don’t use ‘I’ in an essay, or don’t start a sentence with ‘and.”  These are not rules about good writing–you can write great essays doing both of these things.  Teachers made up these rules because there were so many “bad” essays that happened to include these behaviors.  Inexperienced writers, un-self-aware writers very often use ‘I’ in an essay as a disguise to avoid writing about the real subject of the essay.  So rather than take the time to walk an inexperienced writer through his essay pointing out where he focused on himself rather than on whatever the topic really was, teachers said, “Don’t use ‘I’ in an essay.”   They got rid of the behavior; the student wrote better than before.  But nobody learned anything about choices in writing.

So I say the same thing about rhyme.  There is a lot of bad, simple poetry written because a young writer or sentimental old one is stuck on “moon/June,” “blue/true.”  It is very, very hard to write with those rhymes and surprise and amaze an audience who knows the history of poetry.  But there are people who can do it.

I continue talking about rhyme in this post.

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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.