Poetry Part 2: Rhyme in the grand scale of things

Rhyme is a tricky element of poetry.  Rhyming dictionaries abound, but there’s more to rhyme then well… rhyming.

Getting things to rhyme is easy… until it isn’t.  Sometimes the best word isn’t one that rhymes and you have to make a decision: is the rhyme the best word for the job?  Can I be more effective with the rhyme or without it?

A good example is a set of lyrics I did.  The goal was to come up with a PG13 Bawdy Ballad – it was being performed at an SCA feast where there would be children present.  We were performing, and serving in shifts in a ‘tavern’ setting and the person running it wanted a family friendly feast with bawdy ballads. That’s where I came in.

I am easily embarrassed when it comes to such things and so was the perfect performer for the job– we hoped.  While there were plenty of ballads out there that would have been appropriate we wanted something new… what I ended up with was “Seven Days on the Road”

The refrain was easy:

Seven days on the road me boys
Seven days on the road you see
When I am sober it takes me three
So it’s seven days on the road for me.

It had a catchy rhythm and tune to back it up, and it was easy for the listeners to sing along, so by the end of the song– they were singing along with me.

Now came the hard part: Rhyming and being… ‘appropriately bawdy’

Verse 1

I made my fortune selling wool
I’ve lost it all now, playing the fool
I’ve wasted time, a laying in bed
wishing someone would give me…. bread

The rhyming pattern was simple: aa-bb, the twist… I would lead the listener in one direction to get them to supply what they thought would be the rhyme … and then fill it in with something… more innocent.

Ta-da… bawdy without bawdy…

I maintained this pattern through out, some verses better than others, some people were stymied for what the ‘bad’ version should be… some were clear as day such as:

I spied a shepherd down by the brook.
He was asleep so I took a look
There he was with muscles like rock
All day long I’m watching his… flock.

The nice thing was, with this song– being lighthearted and silly, it was perfectly acceptable to substitute not just a rhyme but extra syllables as I ‘recovered’

A good example:

I met a man as sweet as a dove.
All day long we’re making… a glove.

In this case changing the rhythm worked in my favor, and I used it once or twice, and the break in rhythm worked.  The trickiest part of the song, and the tale behind the song was the final verse.

When I got home, my husband to see
I knew how things, were going to be.
But when I saw him, boy was he vexed
Telling me that I’m over…

Now there aren’t a lot of ‘exed’ words I could use there – and only one of them would actually make sense… and so I relied on the same sort of trick I mentioned when talking about rhythm: I changed it up a little… so while people were trying to come up with something as well… I tossed in something that made perfect sense… but didn’t rhyme… and because it was the only verse where I did this – it was far more effective.

When I got home, my husband to see
I knew how things, were going to be.
But when I saw him, boy was he vexed
Telling me that I’m over… … … due.

So, rhyming was a tool that was used to great effect with this song, including the use of forced rhyme because it was meant to be humorous. But if you do that in something serious… it will pull the reader/listener out of the spell of sound and meaning you’re trying to weave around them. So you, as a poet, must ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the rhyme necessary?
  • Does the rhyme fit the rhythm?
  • Does the rhyme fit the poem
  • Is there a word that would work better?
  • Does it help the poem flow, or does it make it break the flow?

These are decisions you must make – just like any sort of writing: you have to decide what the rules are for the poem and when to break them.

As for finding rhymes, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got on poetry was also from song writing in the SCA: invest in a rhyming dictionary.

That’s about all I can tell you since my poems rarely rhyme.

I hope this gives you something to think about… until the next time.

Please note: if you have missed previous parts of my discussion, I have summarized the work here: Poetry Workshop

May 2, 2014

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