Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Writing Wednesday - Neither rhyme nor rhythm?


Despite the fact that I prefer writing prose to poetry, I was delighted to find an article in Mslexia magazine this quarter about rhyme in poetry. I had been intrigued by a reader's letter in the previous issue (48) that questioned whether rhyme is ever used in modern poetry, if it has been pushed to one side whilst blank verse takes over. It is creeping loss that I have noticed too.

I am no authority at all on poetry, but I do have a musical ear and love rhythm and rhyme. I loathe trite 'greetings card' type verse but a well-written rhyming verse can amuse or tell an excellent tale. For my O-level (yes, I am that old) English Literature I had to study narrative verse. My heckles were raised when my English teacher stated that if we didn't like Keats we weren't going to like anything - clearly wrong, given the enforced The Eve of St Agnes did nothing for me but Rudyard Kipling's Tomlinson and George Crabbe's Peter Grimes were fascinating.

Yet all these poems rhymed. They had a strict meter and rhythm, some of them a little forced but there nevertheless. I have been brought up with rhyming poetry, from nursery rhymes and songs, to hymns, to the many poems that my father has written. He is (in my extremely biased opinion) one of the best poets I know, able to whip up a poem from virtually nothing. He won a small prize last weekend for something he wrote when visiting us (a miracle in itself, with the chaos of our family resounding about him). Very little of his poetry is blank verse; but then again, his mastery of words and language is similar to Stephen Fry's.

What I don't like are poems that really should be written as paragraphs of prose. I'm sure the discipline of writing poetry forces an exquisite choice of words, but when done poorly these poems can be loose and appear to be the ramblings of a sad person. I say sad because that is usually how they appear: they all seem to be lovelorn or miserable! On the other hand, I do have some empathy, as when I am feeling low or some earth-shattering event has struck me I have sought solace by writing down my emotions in blank verse. I just don't often share it with the rest of the world!

The Mslexia article raised an interesting answer to the demise of rhyming poems. In the old days, poems were all aural. The rhyme helped people to learn the words and to recite them to others. This must have been particularly true of all those narrative verse I had to study (most of which dated back to the 18th or 19th century). Rhyme also helps children: why else do we know so many nursery rhymes and learn simple rhyming songs as young children? They are easy to pick up, to repeat and can get a lesson across easily. (For example, Five little speckled frogs/ sat on a speckled log...)

Nowadays, with the ease of written print, poetry can become a much more intellectual exercise. Add in to that the many different ways of rhyming, by the clever twists of meter and using words that sound similar but don't technically rhyme (oblique rhyme, such as 'one' and 'won') then there is much seemingly blank verse that has a lyrical quality to it.

Rhyming poetry certainly isn't dead. For example, Roger McGough writes much that is appreciated and most of the poetry I hear on Radio 4's Saturday Live is still in rhyme. Ah, but again that is aural. I still don't enjoy reams of unrhyming, unmetered verse (and I fear even Mslexia are guilty of praising and printing too much) but the concept of the battle between 'ear' and 'intellect' has helped me understand more of what I read and hear.

What do you think? Do you prefer poems to rhyme? 
What is your favourite poem?


1 comment:

Mark said...

I spent an interesting week with the poet David Constantine and one of the subjects we talked about was 'form'. He made a similar point - that much of what is presented as poetry would actually be better as prose. The key is not so much the need for rhyme but a 'sense' of whether presenting it as a poem adds anything - whether doing so makes the words more meaningful, poignant, attentive - if not, then it is best left as prose.

I don't think poems need to rhyme, though I do like poems with a clear meter.

And shhh.. but my sneaking theory is that a lot of writers I meet call themselves poets because its less words to have to write.

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