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 attraction of the Villanelle

Poets are perverse. In the mid-19th century William Ernest Henley wrote what he intended to be a self-descriptive poem about a strict verse form called the Villanelle. How strict is the Vilanelle? Let’s just say the Villanelle is as artificial as a Fabergé egg. It repeats, not merely two rhymes, but two whole lines throughout the poem. Henley’s message in his villanelle is that the Villanelle is unfit for serious poetry.


A Dainty Thing’s the Vilanelle


(William Ernest Henley)


A DAINTY thing’s the Villanelle,                      a1

Sly, musical, a jewel in rhyme,                       b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


A double-clappered silver bell                        a

That must be made to clink in chime,             b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1


And if you wish to flute a spell,                      a

Or ask a meeting ‘neath the lime,                  b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


You must not ask of it the swell                     a

Of organs grandiose and sublime —               b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1


And, filled with sweetness, as a shell             a

Is filled with sound, and launched in time,    b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


Still fair to see and good to smell                   a

As in the quaintness of its prime,                   b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle,                        a1

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


As if to prove Henley not only wrong but lacking in foresight, several well-known poets have produced powerful poems in the verse form, Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, being the most notable. Its first tercet is instantly recognisable.


Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Is the Villanelle a viable verse form? James Fenton in his 2002 “An introduction to English poetry” makes the claim, “Few poets have written a Villanelle worth reading, or indeed regret not having done so.” I’m not sure in the 21st Century that he is correct. Enough evidence exists of other outstanding poets, attracted to rhyme, at least trying on the corset of the Villanelle, including WH Auden and  Sylvia Plath.

And a host of others, influenced by the New Formalism have followed suit. Amanda French, who has gone to the lengths of publishing a website dedicated to her dissertation on the Villanelle, writes: “I have compiled a list of villanelles indicating that over a hundred villanelles have been published in reputable literary journals and books since 1985, and I am not so simple as to suppose that this constitutes the entirety even of published villanelles from that period.”

Fenton’s broader point, however, is that the poet’s choice in writing is not between the chains of artificial forms like the Vilanelle and free verse, but in finding through experiment with form the right method of expression for our particular needs: “The choice is between the nullity and vanity of our first efforts, and the developing of a sense of idiom, form, structure, metre, rhythm, line — all the fundamental characteristics of this verbal art. Of course our first attempts will be vain. They will be vain because they must be ambitious.”

For me the attraction of the Villanelle came with picking up a slim volume of William Empson’s verse and chancing on this 1937 poem:

Slowly the Poison the Whole Bloodstream Fills


William Empson


Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


It is not your system or clear sight that mills

Down small to the consequence a life requires;

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.


They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills

Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires;

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills

Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.


Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.

The complete fire is death. From partial fires

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


It is the poems you have lost, the ills

From missing dates, at which the heart expires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


I was struck by the sheer vigour of the poem, its emotional and intellectual force. Strict verse, however, needs skill not to overbalance. Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song begins:


I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)


The poem’s central idea is brilliant, but this is far from the edgy poetry that propelled Plath into a singular fame. It is perilously close to Wendy Cope’s light verse in tone. This is the risk of formal verse

Many poets today will choose free verse, the dominant form in the English-speaking world, unfettered, unchained, wild. Superb, affecting poems are written in free verse all the time, by poets who have long forgotten rhyme and metre, which they consign to limericks and other humorous expression. But much free verse is flaccid, meandering and timid. Often it displays a deliberate obscurity, as if to conceal the vacuous nature at the heart of the exercise. Fenton also comments in his book on modern poetry’s desertion of music and of voiced performance in favour of the printed line. I wonder whether, in addition, the discipline of rhyming verse might not reveal to would-be poets themselves the weakness of the some of the lines they pen.