Rhyme is just one in a whole bag of tricks the poet takes to every poem.

Some people like to show it off, let it jump around merrily making a scene; others prefer to have it sit quietly and strategically amongst the crowd. Rhyme can mean the difference between meanings, twists and emotions in poetry. I couldn’t go as far as to say the same was true of rhyme used outside of poetry, but seeing rhyme everywhere in our day-to-day lives – from adverts to shop signs to turns of phrase – there’s no doubting the power that it’s yielded probably for as long as we’ve had language at all and been able to use it effectively and creatively.

We’ve probably heard it a hundred times: “He’s a poet and he didn’t even know it.” Try explaining to the person who likely said this that “know it” is a trochaic multi-syllabic rhyme split over two words and he’ll no doubt look at you blankly. But it just goes to show how deep-seeded rhyme is in our culture – sometimes without us even knowing it (dactylic).

Nowhere is rhyme more controversial than when it’s at home: when it’s used intentionally and skilfully (or unskilfully) in poetry. Whereas with advertising rhyme is used seemingly with no serious concern for the tool’s finer points, rhyme in poetry is something that poets spend their whole careers trying to master. It can mean the difference between a bad poem and good poem; between a good poem and great poem. Maybe it can’t be mastered. That which to one person is the perfect punch of meaning or significance gained from the positioning of certain words over lines, can be for the next person something too much – something dated, cheesy or simply too obvious. Of course, much of poetry – you could argue all of poetry and its value – is subjective. This is why conventional ‘proper rhyme’ isn’t always taken seriously today. Still, it can be done well. Take the following two examples. They’re centuries apart but still equally as effective, despite their straightforward rhyme schemes:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils 1

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round. 2

Effective use of rhyme in all its forms in poetry is almost so commonplace that it’s considered strategic when there appears to be none at all. This subtle use of rhyme is often more difficult and takes more care, but when it’s done well, it can sometimes be even more effective. So we go from conventional a-b-a-b end rhymes to the more internal workings: half rhymes meeting over the span of a few lines or more, alliteration, consonance, assonance, pararhyme, reverse rhyme, etc. A few more great poems to end. Notice the internal rhyming in the first poem, the half rhyme in the second and the less obvious stretch in the third.

Comes home dull with coal-dust deliberately
To grime the sink and foul towels and let her
Learn with scrubbing brush and scrubbing board
The stubborn character of money. 3 

Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do,
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fool’s day,
O high-riser, my little loaf. 4

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her […] 5

Notes

[1] William Wordsworth, ‘Daffodils’
[2] Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’
[3] Ted Hughes, ‘Her Husband’
[4] Sylvia Plath, ‘You’re’
[5] Sharon Olds, ‘I Go Back to May 1937’

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