Rhyming in Poetry
By Brian Buckley
Note: all poems used in this article were written by myself (Brian Buckley) unless otherwise noted.
Welcome! This guide gives a basic overview of how to write poems that rhyme well. Note the word 'well' at the end there - it's important. Rhyming, much like writing in general, is not difficult; creating poetry that rhymes well is the tricky part. What do I mean by rhyming well? To begin, I'll give an example of what NOT to do, just to demonstrate:
The elven girl came outside and saw a star
It was very far
And it glowed like a firefly in a jar
She stared at it for hours, amazed
And all the people who saw her thought she was dazed
Then she went back into the bar.
What, exactly, is wrong with this poem? The short answer is: everything. But let's be more specific. One major problem is that it does not have a consistent rhyme scheme. I'll start with that.
1. Always choose a consistent rhyme scheme when writing a rhyming poem.
Of course, there are no absolute laws in writing. Every rule ever written about poetry has been broken countless times by countless poets, and many times the results are outstanding. These rules, however, are a starting point; master them first, then decide if and when you want to ignore them. Anytime you break a rule in writing, you should not only be aware that you are breaking it but also have a very good reason for doing so.
But what do I mean by a 'rhyme scheme,' anyway? Well, take a look at the example above. Look at how each line ends: star, far, jar, amazed, dazed, bar. Lines 1, 2, 3, and 6 all rhyme with each other, and lines 4 and 5 also rhyme with each other. This means the overall rhyme scheme for the whole poem is AAA BBA. All lines with the same ending rhyme are given the same letter.
Now, notice how the first stanza (group of lines) has a different rhyme scheme from the second? They're not consistent. The reader reads the first three lines and sees that they all rhyme with each other; then, when the first two lines of the second stanza rhyme, he's expecting the third line to rhyme also. When instead it jumps back and rhymes with the first stanza again, the spell is broken. It doesn't 'fit.' Make sense?
By the way, there's nothing wrong with having parts of a rhyming poem that don't rhyme, as long as these are consistent also. Many perfectly good poems are written in the format AXAY, where the first and third lines rhyme with each other, and neither the second nor the fourth has anything to do with anything as far as rhyming goes. Again, the crucial idea here is consistency. Whatever you decide to do, stick with it.
Ok, so now we've decided that we're going to keep a consistent rhyme scheme. With this in mind, let's try another poem. We pick a good, consistent rhyme scheme - say, ABAB CDCD - and go with that.
A dragon sunned itself outside
Its skin was green
Huge, shiny emeralds covered its hide
The most beautiful you've ever seen.
Its wings were brilliant red
And covered in rose petals
(Or so it's said)
And they shone like precious metals.
This is a little better, but it's still pretty awful. So what's wrong with this one? Look at the number of syllables in each line. Try counting them. What do you get? 8-4-10-9 6-7-4-8. It's a mess. This brings us to our next guideline, and you can probably guess what it is already:
2. Always pick a consistent pattern of syllables when writing a rhyming poem.
EVERY stanza should follow EXACTLY the same pattern of syllables. This may sound strict, but the end result is much better-sounding poetry.
Does it matter which syllable pattern you choose? Well, some sound better than others, of course, but you'll work this out through experimentation. There's nothing wrong with having a very simple pattern; 10-10-10-10, for example, is a great one. 8-6-8-6 will also work, or 10-10-8, or any of countless other variations. The important thing is that once a syllable pattern is chosen, the poem sticks with that pattern until it's finished.
All right, we're armed with the knowledge of consistent rhyme schemes and consistent syllable patterns. Let's try this 'poem-writing' thing yet again, and see what happens!
I adore thee with every fiber of my soul
My passion cannot be expressed in these mere words
Without thee, darling, my heart can never be whole
Thy speech is like the melody of singing birds.
Some people ask the gods for silver or for gold
And both of these are very beautiful, it's true
But these leave just worthless money when they are sold
And money can't hold its value compared to you!
How was that? Better, yes, but still not as good as it could be. We're still missing something. In order to get it, we're going to have to be even more picky. A big part of writing is just that: being picky. Try not to dismiss small, finicky rules as unimportant; when they're followed, they make your writing seem just that much better.
So what rule do we need to follow to make this poem sound better?
3. Always pick a consistent pattern of syllable stresses when writing a rhyming poem.
So what does that mean? I'll show you. Let's examine the words 'happy' and 'explode.' Both are two-syllable words, but try saying them out loud. The first comes out as HAP-py, while the second is ex-PLODE. 'Happy' stresses the first syllable, but 'explode' stresses the second. See the difference?
There are four basic 'metric feet,' or stress patterns, in poetry. They are as follows:
Stress pattern: unstressed, stressed
Example: The hero drew his sword
Stress pattern: stressed, unstressed
Example: Answer all my riddles
Stress pattern: unstressed, unstressed, stressed
Example: In the heart of the rock
Stress pattern: stressed, unstressed, unstressed
Example: Glorious victory
This is a lot to absorb at once, but the basic concept is fairly simple. It isn't really necessary even to learn the names of the four types of feet, as long as you understand the idea behind them. The message here is that rhyming poems should keep a consistent metric foot throughout their entirety. Personally I almost always use the iamb, just because I find it the easiest.
Let's try this yet again:
I fought my foes as bravely as I could
My blade was stained incarnadine with blood
I led the charge, as every captain should
And beat a path for justice through the mud.
My horse was as a creature born of light
Before my lance the storm of darkness fled
The day was mine, and yet before the night
I too will lie beside them, cold and dead.
Now, look back at the poem in the beginning of this article. There is simply no comparison between these two in terms of rhyme and structure. These simple guidelines make a world of difference. Of course, the poem above is still not perfect, but in terms of structure and how it sounds to the ear, it does the job nicely.
I have one last guideline to share about writing rhyming poetry.
4. Do not compromise the poem's content for the sake of following the rules.
This is where things start to get really tough. Even when you're obeying all these complicated laws, you still have to make the words and the meaning of the poem sound completely natural. If you write something like this:
He lived inside a small and cozy house
He stood much taller than a tiny mouse
...your audience will sense the problem instantly. The second line sounds completely contrived. Of course he's taller than a mouse - that's obvious! Why would a poet say that? He says it because he is looking for a rhyme. Writing this way might be tempting, but don't give in. Keep thinking until you've found a line that really, truly fits what you're trying to say, as well as all the other guidelines listed above. This isn't easy, and there's no simple trick to it; it just takes practice. Writing a poem in this way is not always quick. You may have to agonize over a single stanza for hours or days (or even longer) - but what you finally have at the end is something that really rhymes well, and in my opinion that's worth the extra effort. One thing to keep in mind is that nothing you've already written is set in stone. If your first line ends in the word 'siren,' and you just can't think of anything good to rhyme with that, try rewriting the first line with a word th at is easier to rhyme. You can also buy rhyming dictionaries to help with the process, although I personally don't use one. One technique I've found helpful is to simply go through the alphabet, sticking the ending sound on every letter to see if anything fits. For example, if I want a rhyme for 'sight,' I can do the following: a-ite, b-ite (bite!), c-ite (kite!), d-ite, e-ite, f-ite (fight!), etc. Of course, this only supplies one-syllable rhymes - you're not going to get the word 'termite' using this method - but I still find it useful as a writing tool.
Some people might look at all these rules and say, 'What's the point? Why can't I just forget about all this silliness, ignore all these so-called 'laws,' and just write? I'll never have any freedom to express myself if I'm worrying about this stuff all the time!' It's true, these methods do restrict the artist's freedom to some degree - but the benefits in quality far outweigh the initial restrictions. Consider Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Imagine if he had said this - if he had decided to stop worrying about all these silly ideas of 'getting the proportions right' and 'doing the shading properly' and simply let himself paint, unhindered by such considerations. He could've had complete freedom just to splash paint around. It would've been faster, easier, and probably a lot more fun. But which would you rather have - a splattered canvas, or the Mona Lisa?
I will end with a poem that showcases all the techniques I've mentioned and manages to be a masterpiece of depth and emotion at the same time. For a work like this I turn to Percy Bysshe Shelley. He doesn't have a gallery in Wyvern's Library (dying in 1822 will do that to you) but you may enjoy his writing nonetheless.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said--'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert....Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
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