Why do poets rhyme all the time? (they don’t)

Why write in rhyme when free verse is firmly established as a format? Why cage your emotions and thoughts artificially? Why do I find myself attracted to the rumpty-tumpty rhythms of traditional poetry, the iambic pentameter and others that they teach you at school?


For me, the choice of traditional formats is an extension of the freedom to express myself in any way that makes my writing better.


It depends on the piece of verse, and what form I unconsciously (most often) feel is right rather than consciously decide to adopt. Sometimes I will choose a difficult, artificial form when I am grappling with a difficult idea or feeling or observation or set of ideas, feelings or observations.


Sometimes free verse seems right. Sometimes (though rarely, because it is associated with Shakespearian plays) blank verse is the thing, sometimes even prose poetry. Sometimes the over-used format of the sonnet presents itself, sometimes the villanelle (and many poets try their hand at one, at least). At times, I feel the need to employ complex and challenging mixtures of feet.


Sometimes strict end-rhymes line up and wait for marching orders, sometimes half-rhymes insist on being used. Usually, the metric scheme is iambic pentameter, the most familiar metre and the rhythm that English seems to fall most naturally into. Rarely is it trochaic, or any of the other metres we learn about in school, though I have tried, and will try, to use these more as my taste for experiment grows. I have not tried accentual metre, which measures the number of beats, but not syllables, per line and may suit more versifiers than any stricter forms.


Sometimes I ditch metre entirely – or try to, since this is hard in English – when I write syllabic verse, using the artifice of lines longer than those that allow iambic pentameter to naturally slip in. And sometimes I will opt for something entirely arbitrary, such as using discrete lines of only six words.
In sum, format is part of the exciting game that is verse. These are the mental hurdles we put in our path so we may jump higher, the Houdini chains we bind our art in. They are chosen not for mental exercise – though as poetic exercise they can be both enjoyable and helpful in learning the craft – but as a way of breaking patterns of expression to find new ones. What comes to mind is the Oulipo school of writing, where arbitrary structural constraints predominate, and where the hurdle can be as random as writing a novel without using the letter “e” at all.


Formal verse structures can quite easily fall into the category of doggerel. And indeed, some of the formal verse I have constructed I do fence off into a category of what I call “poetic jokes””. The use of certain forms alerts the audience to the tone and type of verse. The limerick form cannot – though here is a challenge! – be used for anything other than humorous and usually vulgar verse.


And in the end the choice of verse form may be almost invisible to most of the audience, who are looking to poetry to learn about life, love, and our place in the universe. Form is interesting for those of us attempting poetry, and not a few of us want to write verse, if only for ourselves and our friends.

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