Traditional Publishing

Rhyme or reason – what makes a good poem?

By J. Paul Dyson
Managing Editor, – Friday May 26, 2006

If you ask people who write poetry what makes a good poem it’s amazing how few can actually think of an answer. For a lot of people, however, a lot of importance is placed on a poem rhyming. In this article I’ll be looking at why this can be a misleading and even dangerous focus of attention.

Let’s start by dispelling the common myth that “proper poetry” has to rhyme. There seems to be an impression among many that, traditionally, poetry rhymed, and that unrhymed poetry is the result of crazy post-1960 liberalism, and comparable with modern art. This isn’t true. The history of poetry stretches back over thousands and thousands of years, and – traditionally – it hasn’t rhymed. Ancient Greek poetry – going back to Homer’s Iliad and the like – used strict metrical rhythm – but it didn’t rhyme. Nor did the Latin poetry that would come after it; and Old English poetry likeBeowulf was based on alliteration, not rhyme. The fashion for rhyme in English poetry only cropped up relatively recently in the Middle Ages, and had no real precedent in English or Classical poetry.

Even for the few hundred years that rhyming poetry did become popular, its coverage was hardly blanket. Milton shunned rhyme, and it was also in this period that a certain William Shakespeare, generally regarded as the greatest poet in history, began to write – but of course the majority of his poetry did not rhyme. Though he did write many rhyming sonnets, the bulk of his work – the plays, for which he is best known – were written in unrhymed blank verse: they were still poetry – they still had metre, rhythm, and structure – but they didn’t rhyme. Later, it would become the convention for plays to rhyme, and dozens of inferior rhyming plays that no-one would ever really remember were written, but this is one area where the fad for rhyme has already passed away.

Rhyme is in fact irrelevant when it comes to poetry. It is one feature you may choose to use, like alliteration, but it doesn’t make “Jack and Jill” high literature any more than the lack of it makes Hamlet an artistic failure (though the later playwrights writing rhyming plays probably did consider Shakespearean plays inferior because they didn’t rhyme). The real work of making a good poem is done elsewhere – the danger is that by concentrating on rhyme you may well be taking your eye off the ball. A successful rhyme can lull you into the false impression that you’ve written some poetry, when in fact you may have simply made some prose rhyme.

That’s why I’d encourage anyone writing rhymed poetry to drop the rhymes for at least a while, so you can make sure that you’re writing poems that rhyme, rather than just rhymes you call poems. If you find that when you write unrhymed poems you’re still every bit as pleased with them, then you’re doing well and you can use rhyme freely as an extra ornament for your poetry.

If, however, you feel like your unrhymed poems aren’t as good as your rhymed ones, it means that you need to start thinking less about the rhyme and more about the reason: why break that line at that particular point, if not because you’ve reached a rhyme? Why choose that particular word, other than because it rhymes with the word at the end of the last line? All too often people allow the needs of the rhyme to dictate decisions like these, but in fact the content, the subject matter, and the form and flow of the poem need to dictate these considerations if the poem is to be successful. The rhyme should be a vehicle for the content, rather than the content being a vehicle for the rhyme.

If, after honing your unrhymed skills, you decide to start using rhyme again, you need to think carefully about how you do it. Remember to ask why the rhyme is suitable to the poem and to the content, and what sort of rhyme scheme would be appropriate. Make sure you know the difference between feminine and masculine rhymes, and be aware of the various rhyming systems there are, and the various connotations these will bring to your work. If you choose to use a sonnet structure you are automatically connecting your work to a whole history of romantic sonnets – why? How does that affect your poem, and, perhaps more importantly, what does your poem say about the history you are linking it to?

Above all, don’t allow yourself to be fixated by rhyme. Rhyme is the most gaudy, most superficial, and most obvious of all the properties of poetry. It is the easiest to see and easiest to understand, and though this isn’t a bad thing and won’t detract from your poetry, poetry which manages to do nothing other than rhyme – which ignores the properties of structure, metre, rhythm, form, language, content, etc. – will be very superficial. In fact, it won’t really be poetry at all.