What makes a poem good: rhyme

Written by Joel Everett

To start answering the question ‘what makes a poem good?’, we have to ask: what do we mean by good? Well, as with any form of art, good is entirely subjective. Keeping this in mind, we have to also recognise that good poetry is commonly agreed by professionals and critics. So here, rather than trying to police poetry and categorise it into good and other, I shall explore some of the techniques that are used by the good poets and how you can use them (as well as how to not use them). It’s worth remembering as you read these articles that poetry isn’t something that comes naturally, it takes years of refining, editing, and practice to improve! This article isn’t meant to discourage anyone from writing, but instead it should inspire. So, without further ado, let’s get into the technique:

Rhyme

When you mention the word poetry, a lot of people’s first thought is ‘rhyme’, therefore, ignoring the fact that a lot of poetry doesn’t rhyme at all, it is worth starting here. So what is rhyme and how is it used in poetry? Rhyme is a property of words in which their sounds are corresponding, or similar. Rhyme, as a technique, was used, before the invention of the printing press, in order to help people remember spoken word poetry; it was through this medium that allegories and other such tales were spread and remembered. The property of rhyme’s repeated sounds allowed us to remember words far easier than without. Since then, rhyme has evolved to become a technique that poets use to dictate how a poem is read, how it is shaped, and how the poem translates to a reader’s understanding of the poem (though every poet uses rhyme in a different way, to achieve different results). Rhyme can be categorized into styles of rhyme; the most common of which are listed below:

  • Masculine/feminine
  • Full/slant
  • End Rhyme/Internal

If you are unfamiliar with these terms, I implore you to familiarize yourself with them, as I shall be using them as we move ahead. It is also worth recognising that the left-hand column of styles are more obtrusive than those on the right, meaning they have a more amplified effect.

Example

Having established what rhyme is and why we use it, let’s jump into an example and break down how a poet may use rhyme and what effect it creates. The first example here comes from former poet laureate, Philip Larkin.

Climbing the hill within the deafening wind

The blood unfurled itself, was proudly borne

High over meadows where white horses stood;

Up the steep woods it echoed like a horn

Till at the summit under the shining trees

It cried: Submission is the only good;

Let me become an instrument sharply stringed

For all things the strike music as they please.

Looking at this stanza we can easily extract the end-rhyme scheme(abcbdced). The use of this rhyme scheme gives the poem a flow, it leads one rhyme into the next. On top of these end-rhymes, Larkin places internal rhymes into the mix, with ‘blood’ and ‘woods’. The addition of internal rhyme ties the poem together, by taking some emphasis away from the end-rhymes.

To expound upon what I mean by all of this, let me give another example of a poem: when you read this, recognise how you read the poem and how it reads compared to the first.

I gave a man with a dog my keys

I told him, ‘hold on to these

Would you?’. He asked me, ‘what’s the magic word’

And, desperate, I said ‘please’

You’ll have noticed, when reading this silly little rhyme, that you put more emphasis on the rhyming words that fall at the end of the line (‘keys’, ‘these’, ‘please’); what’s more, the rhymes aren’t coherent with the punctuation, so when you put emphasis on ‘these’ you’re neglecting that the sentence is only half finished: ‘Hold on to these would you?’ vs. ‘Hold on to these… would you?’. This is, objectively, a bad poem. Looking back at Larkin’s poem we can see where he avoids this awkwardness, his rhymes are either unobtrusive, or they are supported by the diction of the sentence (ie. ending a masculine rhyme where the sentence ends). But what do I mean when I say he uses unobtrusive rhymes? Well, let us look at slant rhyming.

Slant Rhymes

Slant rhymes are a rhyming device in which the words in question are similar in their sounds, but not quite true rhymes – an example from Larkin’s poem would be ‘stood’ and ‘woods’. A better example would be two words that don’t share a sound at all, but have similar sounds, MaryOliver gives the examples of ‘down’ and ‘noon’ in A Poetry Handbook. These rhymes are gentler, giving, as in our example, a gentle tie between lines. An incorporation of rhymes and slant rhymes that don’t necessarily fall at the end of a line give a lot of depth to a poem – therefore I would highly recommend practising this technique.

Summary

All in all, rhyme is, at best, a powerful technique which elevates a poem and, at worst, a tacky trope. Because of this, it’s really important to practice using rhyme, and to read poetry (this cannot be stated enough).Try looking at your own poetry in contrast to Larkin’s poem and ask yourself how they sound. Questions you may like to ask yourself are: ‘is my rhyme dictating how my poem is read?’ and ‘does this rhyme feel forced into the line?’. Hopefully this has been a useful introduction to the uses of rhyme in poetry and can help you in your own writing.

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