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.

The Red Wheelbarrow

By Reg Rumney

Not much depends on the red wheelbarrow
Not much today and little tomorrow.
The red enamel’s glazed with water. So?
The chickens, white or black, bestow
No meaning on the scene, nothing profound.
Two colours, two objects, things found
In the yard, but who or when, why or what?
Left out the picture, out the plot.
We’ll never know and simply have to guess
Or torture the symbols till they confess.

The birth of a new poetry book

Megan Ross in conversation with Sibongile Fisher, at Love Books

Once again, I was surprised, and more than pleasantly, by the launch of a book of poems by a poet whose work I had not yet encountered. As is my habit, I flipped open Milk Fever and chose a short poem at random and found this.


Our bodies
all the time

It’s okay
I love you
Please don’t

Megan Ross exudes energy and self-confidence and it emerges in this, her debut volume, along with empathy and enthusiasm for the kind of playfulness of poetry that Harry Owen has talked about.

It isn’t easy to pin down what the poems are about – this is poetry after all – though their topics are identifiable, and as you can guess from the book’s title, a central concern is the aftermath of childbirth. Intensely personal, honest, the memories, dreams and insights are embedded in imaginative and exuberant skeins of words, some easier to penetrate than others.

D. How do I mourn myself?
In a bathroom I wash without the light
Cannot bear the hanging jacket of flesh /
This unborn death hollows me like a gem squash:
Dark’s green shell, sunlight’s yellow seeds
Somewhere else / now

The imagery is often vivid, with a spontaneity that stretches out towards finding meaning in the mundane.

There’s a lot of adventure in Milk Fever. If you are going to depart from the conventions of metre and rhyme, why not make your verse truly free? Experiment with emphasising pauses and absences, caesuras; use white space; use the page in landscape. Some of the experiments will work, some will fail. What’s important is that they are backed by a love of what words can achieve and a knowledge of their limits.

At the launch, at Love Books in Melville, one of the members of the largely women audience asked Megan if men could appreciate this book. She answered along the lines that common humanity should enable them to. She might well have answered that poetry that doesn’t transcend boundaries isn’t poetry.