Is Poetry That Which Rhymes? (As Published long ago in NOMOS)

By John Enright

When I was a child, I learned to love rhythm and rhyme in my native tongue -- English. I knew this thing I loved by the name of poetry. Ask yourself: was I right or wrong? Is poetry that which rhymes? It's a simple idea, and one that many have held in their hearts.

By my first year in high school, I was forced to drop this notion. Poetry that which rhymes? Very naive! But if not that, what is it? I looked into the matter, mulled it over, tried things out. By the time I graduated college with my B.A. in English, I'd returned to my original idea. It needed some modifications, and it didn't look quite the same, but when I picked it up and weighed it, it sure did feel the same.

But rather than anticipate the outcome, let's start with the simple form of the hypothesis, and trace how troublesome questions might fairly be met. Question: Are commercial jingles poetry? Would anyone dare associate the Muse with the Burger King? Shall we invest the following lines with the sacred mantle of poetry?

Croisan'wich beat the stuffin'
Out of Egg McMuffin.

The telling point here is that not all rhymes qualify as fine art -- things created simply to be contemplated. Some rhymes are utilitarian in function, their usefulness consisting partly in their memorability. The advertiser hopes that you won't be able to get those silly lines out of your head. The three-year-old child finds that counting from one to ten is easier when the numbers are locked together in the march of "one, two, buckle my shoe."

Following usage, let's restrict "poetry" to rhymes that stir the soul. It's a worthwhile distinction. But it seems more a borderline than a chasm. Even "one, two, buckle my shoe," can provide some measure of esthetic delight. At least it does for me.

Question: What about blank verse? Blank verse doesn't rhyme, though it has a regular rhythmic pattern of five dah-DUM's per line. It sounds like this:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed.
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This is the only witchcraft I have used.
Here comes the lady. Let her witness it.
(Othello, Act I, Scene iii)

Shakespeare's plays and Milton's "Paradise Lost" are written in this meter. Dare we say that these treasured works are not true poetry? Well... suppose we say that they are fiction? Fiction mainly, and only partly poetry. The interesting thing about blank verse is that it was best used for telling stories, but that these same poets, Milton and Shakespeare, wrote their short poems, their poems that were just poems, in rhyme. Ditto for Marlowe, Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson, the other blank verse stars of English Literature.

Question: What about poetry in foreign languages? Japanese haiku don't rhyme. The classical poetry of ancient Greece and Rome did not rhyme. Even the poetry of the Old English Anglo-Saxons did not rhyme. Here I must concede, and I am forced to reformulate my thesis by generalizing it further: poetry is the fine art of speaking with sound effects. Different sound effects go with different languages.

Rhyme is a major poetic device in some languages, but not in all. Consider Japanese. According to the introduction to the Penguin Book Of Japanese Verse, the language has only five vowel sounds, and every Japanese word ends in one of those five vowel sounds, or in an "n". Thus "...rhyme becomes so simple and monotonous as to be pointless."

This is not an issue of "Eastern" versus "Western" world views. Classical Chinese poetry did rhyme, although you wouldn't know it from most translations. I don't know why rhyme wasn't used in Classical Latin, or Old English poetry. Maybe because it hadn't been discovered yet by Europeans. Putting rhymes at the end of lines, as a systematic way of writing poetry in Europe, was a development of Medieval Latin verse, and from there it spread to the various Romance languages as they split off from Latin. It was brought to England by the French, via the Norman Conquest. - 2 - From the time of the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century, rhyming dominated the poetry of Western culture. This spontaneous sweep included Italian, Spanish, French, English, German and Russian verse. It seems people liked the way rhyme sounded.

Despite the shared use of rhyming among these related Western languages, many difference remained in the sound- effects used in them. This was especially true in the way rhythm was heard. For instance, in English we tend to mark rhythm in patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables -- dah-DUM'S and dah-dah-DUM's. This would not work in French, which puts approximately equal emphasis on each syllable in a word or sentence. So in French time is kept simply by counting syllables per line.

Due to vocabulary differences, languages also differ in the number and variety of rhymes available. For example, one-syllable rhymes, like mad and glad, predominate in English poetry. But two-syllable rhymes, like ira and lira predominate in Spanish poetry.

Question: What about free verse? It has no rhyme, no regular rhythm -- no rules at all! Yet it is the dominant poetic form of the twentieth century. Yes, indeed. The century that brought you paintings that look like nothing in particular, now brings you poetry that sounds like nothing in particular. Free verse is printed in uneven lines on the page, so you can tell it from prose by eye, if not by ear. No, it doesn't all sound the same; but even prose doesn't all sound the same. Some free verse makes sense. Some doesn't. Some free verse makes moving statements through beautifully constructed metaphors. Some rambles incoherently through a succession of violent images. But the same can be said for prose. It will not do to point out that some sound-effects can be found in lots of free verse. Some sound effects can be found in any good piece of prose. The question is whether a given piece of writing has sufficiently striking and soul- stirring effects to merit classification as poetry. There is no way to judge this, but by ear. When it comes to free verse, my ear mostly says no.

I say this as one who has written the stuff. In my teens, in the sixties, there were two or three years in which most of my poetic efforts were in free verse. I definitely tried to infuse certain sound-qualities into the work. Relying on the "instinctive method," I made liberal use of parallel phrasing, and consonant and vowel repetition (alliteration and assonance). But I purposely avoided regular rhythm or rhyme. The sound I achieved always struck me as flat, downbeat and discordant, and it seemed to me at the time that this was the way this stuff was supposed to sound. It wasn't supposed to sound nice. The universe was not orderly, it was wild and chaotic, and any attempt to fit it into the straitjacket of traditional verse was doomed to failure. Or, at least, doomed to being unfashionable in literary circles.

For those seeking to express themselves, the promise of free verse is strong. Little or no technique to master -- just look within and speak. Poof! You're a poet. Even with free verse, it's not as easy as it might sound. Expressing one's soul, in words of any kind, is always hard work. But consider the difficulty added when you are asked to take your innermost feelings, and make them rhyme without sounding silly. Free verse represents a rebellion against rhyme, with nothing in particular to offer in its place. A few unrhymed pieces do achieve striking sound effects, but they seem to do so by increased application of other standard poetic sound effects like rhythm, alliteration and assonance. However, most free verse seems to have a reduced use of all sound effects. I conclude that for the most part it is either an inferior species of poetry, or not poetry at all.

Are you still with me after these troublesome questions? Poetry is an art form that uses the built-in sound-effects of language to stir the soul. In English, and in the other major Western languages, the most powerful such sound-effect is rhyme. I've come a long way from saying the poetry is that which rhymes -- or have I?