To Rhyme or not to Rhyme

To rhyme or not to rhyme, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer,

Seeking a rhyme for rhythm or for orange

Or to throw rhymes into the sea untroubled

And write free verse forever. Rhymes are for sheep.

No, but the poem without rhyme may drift

And if we seek to give the thing some shape,

Half-rhyme, alliteration, ordered feet,

Internal rhymes, those clever diamond shapes

May drive us mad. To rhyme is not too hard

But maybe trite and most unfashionable

But what’s unfashionable now may shortly be

The very latest thing – so I don’t know.


The question of whether to rhyme or not keeps coming up on LinkedIn poets’ groups and opinion seems fairly evenly divided. Most poets who have a clear answer for themselves don’t try to force it down the throats of other poets, but some do, believing unrhymed poetry is an abomination or that rhyme went out, out, out, at some unspecified point in the fairly recent past.


Both these ideological positions are rubbish. Some excellent poems continue to be written with rhyme and others without. In the U.S. particularly there seems to be a belief held by a significant minority that rhyme is outmoded, but good modern poets like Roger McGough and Benjamin Zephaniah continue to use it at least some of the time.


I guess I use regular rhyme in about one third of my poems. In some of the others, there is no rhyming scheme, but as the poem gathers force and coherence, rhymes begin to appear.


I do believe that a poem should be held together as an entity by some kind of pattern or glue, but that need not be a pattern found in any formula. I find that when I do not use a regular rhyming scheme I generally tie the poem together with internal rhymes (rhymes within the lines rather than ending them), half-rhymes, alliteration and other means. This I do unconsciously and naturally as I compose.


Not all cultures have used rhyme regularly. Anglo-saxon poetry, for example, relies on alliteration and scansion. But if those had continued to be the main organising principles, people would now be glorying in abandoning them.


Many bad poets produce bad rhymes. Many people who dabble in poetry have no understanding of rhythm (scansion) but believe a poem should rhyme, and produce forced rhymes which sound faintly ridiculous. This is probably one reason why rhyming poetry may suffer a slight disadvantage. But I’ve found my rhyming poems have had about the same level of success (getting published) as the unrhymed ones.


Apart from giving a poem an obvious structure, then, why may it be a good idea to rhyme? Rhyme is brilliant for irony, the neatness of the rhyme contrasting with the controlled anger of the poet. Some rhyming shemes, like ABBA, throw a lot of emphasis on to the last line – and if you can write last lines that stand the stress, the rhymes make them stand out more like the last line of an orator’s speech spoken much louder to stick in memories. The danger, of course, is that a weak line then sounds horribly bathetic. The neat predictability of the structure can be used to highlight by contrast something very different, chaos, anguish, injustice. Rhyme plus rhythm in a ballad-like form can achieve a kind of mesmerising force like an incantation.


But not rhyming not only avoids those mind-wringing halts searching for a rhyme, but can bring out natural shapes and patterns as your organising mind searches for other organising principles. My advice is – let both come.