Rhyming poetry is one of the most divisive topics among modern readers. There are those who love the melodic qualities that rhyme can bring to a poem, and there are those who instantly dismiss rhyming poetry as amateurish or infantile. It’s definitely a love-it or hate-it type of situation, with strong feelings being held by some people on the extremes of the divide. So, I guess I should add parentheses to the title, and say ‘well, not literally everyone’, but the hatred towards rhyme among the online poetry community is pretty widespread, with not a lot of rebuttal.
(The type of rhyme that people are referring to here is structured end rhymes – where the ends of lines in a poem echo similar word endings in a set sequence. There are several other types of rhyme – such as alliteration, or ‘front rhyme’ as it is also known, and internal rhyme – but the specific type that most people think of when they hear the word are end rhymes. These also tend to be what is known as ‘perfect rhymes’, in that the final syllables of the lines contain exactly the same sound (as found in bin/tin/grin/sin). End rhymes can also be slant or half rhymes, but generally, it is these perfect rhymes, used as structured line endings, which is the point of contention. As this is the specific type we are talking about here, and it is universally used to mean this type of rhyme, you can assume from here on that wherever I refer to rhyme, it will be in reference to these perfect structured end rhymes.)
There was a question about rhyme that was asked in a poetry-related YouTube tag game (where various people answer a set group of questions), which asked “Rhyme. Talk about it. Yes? No? Not anymore?”. I watched as many of the videos responding to the Tag game as I could find, and the vast majority of people who answered were against the use of rhyme in modern poetry, although when listing their favourite poets of all time, were not against including several traditional poets who did use rhyme quite extensively.
There are a few reasons people give for not liking rhyme, but basically it tends to boil down to one of three –
- It is seen as outdated because poetry doesn’t ‘HAVE’ to rhyme anymore.
- It is seen as childish, because people associate structured rhyme schemes with nursery rhymes and children’s books.
- It is seen as amateur, because the writer is assumed to have only ever read traditional styles – probably only what they were made to read at school.
In this article, I’ll take a look at each of those reasons and try to offer some sort of counter argument in defense of rhyme. Why? Because I just happen to be a massive fan of rhyme (which is probably quite evident if you read any of my own poetry), and I believe that – when done well – it can still be a powerful, useful and enjoyable device that poetry readers and writers should embrace.
Poems Don’t HAVE To Rhyme – So They Shouldn’t (?)
Rhyme has been incredibly important in the history of poetry, beginning as a way to make stories more melodic and memorable so that they could be passed down between generations, keeping records of local and family histories or passing down mythologies. It has not always been an essential element in all poetry (Shakespeare wrote entire scenes in blank verse – using the rhythm of iambic pentameter without using end rhymes), but it was definitely much more common and found in the vast majority of poetry before the American transcendentalism movement of the mid-1800s.
The movement generally condemned conventional social structures and celebrated the uniqueness of the individual. This was reflected in the poetry being produced, with new forms and structures being introduced which refused to conform to the expectations of past traditions. One of the most famous and influential of these poets is Walt Whitman, who is generally considered to be the father of Free Verse. He completely abandoned rhyme and meter in his work, writing poetry which was ‘free’ of the rules or constraints of the poets who had come before him.
While this rejection of traditional styles and forms was hugely influential and important for the evolution and creation of new styles of poetry, it is this point in the history of poetry that causes some of the divide among poetry readers. It was always common that newer styles were (and are) routinely criticised and questioned for their validity as poetry, but this dramatic shift away from the old forms and techniques has created a subculture of poetry readers who seem to hate any modern writers still employing the old forms and techniques (especially rhyme). These people seem to generally be against poetry which adheres to any formal structure, as they fully embrace the individualism and convention-shunning attitude of the transcendentalists. It tends to be the prevailing opinion among this crowd that because poems don’t necessarily have to rhyme anymore, then they shouldn’t ever rhyme.
To me, this is a bit ridiculous. If I was about to bite into a chocolate bar, and someone said to me “you know, you don’t HAVE to eat that,” I’d probably just think to myself, “well, yeah, I know I don’t HAVE to eat it. But I like chocolate, so I’m going to eat it anyway”. In the same way, I know that the poetry I read or write doesn’t have to rhyme, but I happen to like rhyme. You don’t HAVE to read or write poetry at all, but if you enjoy it, then you should read it as much as you want. If you enjoy rhyming poetry, firstly you’re not alone in that, and secondly you shouldn’t be made to feel bad because you enjoy something that we are predisposed to naturally enjoy. It’s actually something we are scientifically proven to respond to in various positive ways, as explained in the video below from the Seeker YouTube channel:
You can also learn more about why we find pleasure in repeated patterns in language, particularly in rhyme, in this video from TED-Ed:
The debate surrounding this has brought attention to an organisation called The Queen’s English Society, who appeared in articles for the Guardian newspaper in 2008, then for Huffpost in 2011. The society has been campaigning for decades for the return to traditional forms of poetry, which they insist should include meter and rhyme. Although their harsh stance against free verse poetry is as ridiculous as modern poets attacking formalism, they do make a strong case for the protection of traditions in language:
“a commitment to standards should not preclude the possibility of grammatical change; nor does it mean, however, that change should be mindlessly celebrated for its own sake.”
Even Ezra Pound – a key figure in the popularisation of free verse poetry – believed that the traditional linguistic conventions and tools of poetry were still important, even if they were not always necessary or required for each individual poem. He wrote that “poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the music.”
I should also extend the earlier analogy a little to say that just because you enjoy a particular linguistic device or tradition, then that doesn’t mean you should use it all the time – just as you shouldn’t try to live on chocolate alone, no matter how much you might enjoy it. People who enjoy rhyming poetry should definitely still seek it out, no question about it. They should also read some blank verse or free verse poetry to expand their horizons. Likewise, those who prefer free verse should not be so quick to dismiss all modern rhyming poetry (or classic rhyming poetry, for that matter). As long as something is done well, then it’s something worth exploring.
Rhyming Is For Children (?)
The next criticism of rhyming poetry is that it is childish or infantile, mainly because some people associate it with children’s books and nursery rhymes. While it’s obviously true that rhyme is used a lot in literature for children, there are lots of good reasons for this.
There was a video I watched recently on YouTube(which unfortunately I was unable to find when putting this article together) where one of the hosts said something to the effect of “Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstien ruined rhyme for everyone”. This was said in the context that because those writers had done such a good job of utilising rhyme in children’s books, that it’s now almost impossible to read a rhyming poem and not link it, at least subconsciously, to those two writers, and therefore to children’s books. As far as compliments go, I’m sure Seuss and Silverstein have had more glowing praise heaped upon them (and rightly so), but it can’t be bad to be considered so good at what you do (or did) that you transcend your medium, and become so synonymous with a linguistic device that people believe your skill can’t be surpassed.
One of the points I would make here is that there is a vast world of poetry out there which employs rhyme (in various forms) that is definitely not written for children. Then, there are also poets and poems which are generally dismissed as being only for children, but that are really just written for people of all ages. Dr Seuss and Shel Silverstein both fit into that category – at least, some of the time. While the overall aesthetic, the heavy use of onomatopoeia, the structured rhymes, and often the actual subject matter are all kid-friendly, a lot of their work has underlying messages and themes which actually have a much more universal appeal than they are given credit for. (Slverstein’s “Where The Sidewalk Ends” is one of my personal favourite poems of all time.) The same can be said of poetry from the likes of Robert Prelutsky, who writes poems about fantasy and dragons, but also about the power of reading and imagination – a message that all readers can relate to. (I recommend searching for “I Met A Dragon Face-To-Face”.) There is actually quite a wide range of poetry which tends to be marketed exclusively to children which is really enjoyable, entertaining, thought-provoking and powerful for all ages. Works by Edward Lear, Spike Milligan, Julia Donaldson, Tim Burton (yes, the iconic filmmaker), and many more amazing poetry books have been too quickly dismissed as being “just for kids”.
Even in nursery rhymes themselves, there is often a surprisingly dark story or origin behind the rhymes and upbeat meter. While maybe not the masters of the macabre that Edgar Allen Poe managed to become with his own dark, lyrical rhymes, these tales are often more disturbing and horrific than most people think.
With this in mind, saying that rhyme seems infantile or reminds someone too much of nursery rhymes really means that the person might not be giving those ‘children’s books’ the credit they deserve, and maybe need to give those old books of children’s poetry another chance to see if they view them differently through the lense of experience.
Rhyme Is The Hallmark Of An Amateur Writer (Or Inexperienced Reader) (?)
Lastly, there are the poetry readers who see rhyming as perhaps a sign that the writer is fairly amateur, or inexperienced in the poetry they have read. The latter usually seems to be an unfounded assumption made by some readers after only reading one, or a small selection of someone’s poems. This group tend to have a lot of crossover with the first, as they often roll their eyes and point out that poems “don’t HAVE to rhyme”, but some ultra-condescending people that I’ve witnessed on social media have gone so far as to start recommending that the person read some free verse poetry, sometimes even suggesting poets that might “educate” the other person in more modern styles. This type of exchange is quite common, and always exclusively based on the assumptions of the commenter.
Now, if the rhymes being used seem contrived or laboured, then by all means say so if the person is seeking feedback, but don’t assume that because they’ve written something in the style of Blake or Byron that they must never have read Whitman and Bukowski. It’s just as likely that they enjoy modern poetry as well, but that either this particular poem, or even most of their poetry, is more influenced by traditional writers. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, having a wide range of influences should be applauded, and classics are classics for a reason – they have survived the test of time to still be considered worthy of reading and sharing – so how can it be a bad thing to be influenced by literature that has survived centuries of scrutiny? Yes, innovations and advancements are incredibly important too, but they don’t destroy the works of the past, they add to them.
Rhyming being seen as the hallmark of an amateur writer is also an assumption usually based on very little or no information. People who oppose it will often sneer at rhyme because they associate it with the early poetry that most teenagers write in their bedrooms, usually influenced more by song lyrics than by poets, and usually just some cathartic emotional release without much substance. Where do they get this idea? Well, usually it’s because they themselves were that frustrated tenager, writing garbage poems about being misunderstood, probably while pilfering lyrics from some depressed band and weaving them among desperate cliches and shallow observations. And because that’s what they wrote when they started out, they assume that anything remotely similar to that must be written by someone who “doesn’t know what they are doing”.
(Side note – There is nothing wrong with getting influence from music and song lyrics, but there are big differences in how they are constructed and how rhymes can operate in song as opposed to spoken or written poetry. For instance, songs can include elongated syllables and give the singer the option of stressing or unstressing syllables that would be read differently to how they are being sung – allowing for ‘wrenched’ rhymes, which would not work in poetry. These can include words like ‘warning’ and ‘ring’, which finish with the repeat of vowel and consonant sounds in the final syllable, but it is the first syllable of ‘warning’ where the stress naturally falls when reading or speaking, not the end of the word, so the rhyme doesn’t work.)
Now yes, we have all seen those posts from people who are sharing their first poem, and the vast majority of them do try to use rhyme, but not all. Those who do use it sometimes end up using generic rhyming words or clearly struggle their way into clumsy phrasings to accommodate the rhymes.
What tends to be more of a problem is that people who are starting out, and maybe don’t understand much about the tools and conventions of poetry, tend to write things that only contain rhyme, and no other poetic devices. This is the kind of poetry that tends to give rhyme a bad name, not because it rhymes, but because the rhymes are either awkward or predictable, and they especially stand out if they come without any sense of rhythm or meter. In these cases, it is usually not the rhymes that are the problem, but the fact that the writer is seemingly unaware of any of the other elements which create and strengthen poetry.
But then, you also get some awful free verse poems, and masterfully written poems which rhyme. There are just as many wannabe Bukowskis out there as there are wannabe Emily Dickinsons, so rhyming might be common in newbie poets, but it is definitely not exclusive to them.
To Rhyme Or Not To Rhyme?
While rhyme is not dead in modern poetry, it is definitely not its old self. It is essentially looked down upon by a lot of modern readers and writers of poetry, and the attitude against it is only fuelled by growing misconceptions about it as an art form.
People who don’t read poetry and have little interest in it usually seem to think that rhyme is the only thing that makes something a poem (and unfortunately quite a few of them seem to have tried their hand at writing and sharing their own ‘poetry’). The proliferation of bad poetry being published online has been growing since the internet first became widely available in the 1990s, and the combination of this and the common misconception that poetry should rhyme just seems to be further fuel to the rejection of rhyme from modernists. This freedom of information has also brought attention to some incredible artists and allowed the world to become more familiar with some incredible wordsmiths, so the internet should definitely not take all of the blame.
Regardless of whether you are a traditionalist or an advocate of free verse, it cannot be argued that rhyme, when used correctly and skillfully, is as useful and effective as any other linguistic device. Although it should not be seen as essential to poetry, it should not be completely dismissed either.
Richard Wilbur describes rhyme as “a way of making important words all the more important,” and says that its melody and energy make poetry that is “closer to dance and other spirited forms of art.” In a 2011 article, Wilbur, who was described as a ‘formalist’ due to his adherence to traditional forms, was said to have “always disliked the formalist label, because “nobody breaks into smiles upon hearing the word. It sounds grim. The delight of rhyme and rhythm is utterly concealed by that word.” Still, Wilbur is a representative of an older, more rigorous tradition.”
While we can all understand why some people may be put off by rhyming poetry on the surface, it is possible that some may be judging the convention too harshly – possibly based on understandable reasons, most likely stemming from bad or disappointing experiences. Even so, to completely rule out an entire poetic language device because of a few bad apples is extreme, and those people are potentially denying themselves some incredible literary experiences because of a harsh prejudice against rhyme.
The real message here is that rhyming poems are like novels – because they are not going anywhere and there are some amazing ones out there if you know where to look. There have been hundreds of thousands of bad novels written over the centuries, but I wouldn’t stop reading novels altogether just because bad ones exist. Nor would I stop reading books for myself now that audiobooks exist, because the new way of doing something doesn’t necessarily replace the old way, it just gives us new alternatives. There are great rhyming poems being written today, just as there were thousands of years ago, but now you can also find poetry in a whole range of interesting and unique forms. The variety available to us is actually quite staggering in terms of scope and volume.
So if you like rhyme and you want to read and write poems that incorporate it, then you should feel free to do so. Just as the modernists are free to reject or ignore the traditional styles and forms, the traditionalists can enjoy the melody, comfort, playfulness or emphasis that good rhymes can provide.
I hope that you enjoyed this article and found it informative, helpful, motivational or entertaining. Please check out some of my own poetry (both rhyming and free verse) by clicking here. Thanks for reading.