Forgive the tongue-in-cheek title…
Let me give some quick blog updates. First, the GRE went well; at least, I felt good enough about my scores to send them to my prospective schools (again). Simultaneously, my company (which has been in impending merger for a year) is finally rolling out all their fringe benefit things as part of the parent company like opportunities to work in Europe/Asia, and flexible freelancer hours. (This week, though, has been illustrative of the principle that there are times when no fringe benefits, I think, could make me truly love my job. So we’ll see what happens in ten months.) Meanwhile, NaNoWriMo is finished; final count of 51,345 words. Of course, the novel itself is not done, and my new goal is to finish it before Christmas, but at least I won the challenge. It feels great to be writing prose again as well. And today is World AIDS Day, which has me a little bit down, thinking about Nicholas. I wonder if today is the day to begin the warped elegy for him that’s been languishing in my mind since August.
But enough business chat. Down to the Reverie.
This week: “euphony, eyephony, we all phony…“
…for homophony? Or whatever you will. I want to talk about sound structure today, not necessarily sound symbolism, but the nuts and bolts of using different sounds in your poems. There’s two threads I want to pursue: formal and free verse. In formal verse, people often think that if they can just fit the rhyme scheme required by the poem, and the meter, they don’t have to worry about all the words leading up to the end. (Sometimes an inspired bit of alliteration might slip in there too.) But in fact, it can be helpful to think about all the words working together, not just the ends of lines. Conversely, in free verse poets sometimes believe that rhyme has no place in their work, when in reality the careful use of sound can pack a wallop.
Firstly, rhyme. Rhyme is really just matching sounds, but what people think of as rhyme is often technically a perfect masculine tail rhyme. So “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree” fits the bill for this: same vowel sound, different consonants, stressed syllable, at the end of the line. But let’s pick this apart: perfect implies imperfect, masculine implies feminine, and tail implies head. Here are a few quick pointers:
1. Perfect rhymes are those which the final stressed syllables of two lines match vowel sound and differ in consonant (…see, …tree)
2. A masculine rhyme, like the one above, contains the whole rhyme in one syllable. Feminine rhymes have an additional unstressed syllable which shares vowel sounds, and can have the same or different consonants in the second syllable (…acquainted / …painted, …pleasure / …treasure)
3. Tail rhymes come at the end of a line. If we strictly consider the rhyme to be a match of sound, we could include alliteration (head rhyme), consonance, assonance, etc. to be other kinds; but for our purposes, let’s treat these as separate phenomena.
Poets often fall into the trap of writing according to how they pronounce the lines. Naturally, you want it to sound right to yourself, but when you pass it to another person, they don’t always pick up the same patterns that you articulate. Try this: take a poem of yours that features some kind of rhyming device (but doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it) and record yourself reading it. Then give it to a friend and have them read it. How similar is the reading? Chances are it will be at least a little different. Bear this in mind when setting up your sounds: little words like for or and can have flexible pronunciations, while several substantives (leg, hour, orange, water, bath) change from dialect to dialect. Write in your own dialect, but allow yourself to be a little bit flexible. I have several North Jersey friends who would rhyme leg and egg with plague and the Hague, while South Jersey is often lampooned for water rhyming with (do-)gooder. You can take advantage of this with forced rhymes: allow your line endings to shift their vowels ever so slightly in a plausible direction. Check out Wikipedia for several examples of “mergers and splits” that happen in English, and don’t let “proper pronunciation” stand in the way of word choice. This is the first kind of “imperfect rhyme”.
Two other possibilities are slant rhyme or weak rhyme. The first is essentially rhyming consonants rather than vowels: hand and bend, wrist and test. (If you match the consonants but change the vowels, that’s called pararhyme: hand/hound, wrist/rest.) The second is rhyming unaccented syllables, because remember, if you have a meter that’s not iambic or anapest, what will you do for a rhyming form? Note the difference between this and a feminine perfect rhyme: under and thunder is feminine perfect, wastrel and scoundrel are weak rhymes. (But they still work really well: try shouting, “A wastrel! A scoundrel!” in a quiet cafe a few times like I just did. You’ll see what I mean. Lovely amphibrach.) And then you have near rhyme, which matches a stressed and unstressed syllable, if that’s your thing: solvent and went, deadly and spree. But this is somewhat rarer as a tail rhyme when your meter is consistent.
Now for the other side of the coin. As I’ve alluded to before, I dislike when people think that free verse “can’t” or “shouldn’t” rhyme in various ways, that every line should just be pulled from the ether and dropped onto the page. I’ll quote — as I am wont to do — Laura Dern as Poet Laureate on the West Wing: “An artist’s job is to captivate you for as long as we’ve asked for your attention.” I have faith in y’all’s abilities to come up with beautiful imagery and language to describe it, but if you can get the sounds to carry your reader even further, it’ll be a hat trick. It’s what makes for fantastic poems. Let me present you with my three cardinal rules about rhyme in free verse poems:
1. It’s okay to have two lines rhyme, at the end, just as though it were a formal poem. You might want to avoid an iambic pentameter couplet at the beginning, so the reader doesn’t feel misled, but if the imagery and language demands it anywhere else in the piece, rhyme!
2. Your rhymes do not have to fall at the end. We’re disregarding alliteration and the beginnings of words for this Reverie, but by all means, use them. And by equally all means, allow the ends of the third words of each line to have a rhyme scheme, or every prime-numbered syllable, or whatever. Internal rhyme is a hallmark of great free verse poetry.
3. A lot of experimentation that may seem out of place in a sonnet or terza rima is welcome in free verse. Try repetition or rhyme chains as a device: “the tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells,” or “a lean green mean machine“, for example. (But maybe better than those examples I just used.)
Think of it this way as well: formal verse rhyme schemes are predicated on the end of the word, but at least in modern poetry, enjambment causes a lot of the discrete clauses to flow together more smoothly. When you hear a poet read, do you count the syllables, and mark exactly where the rhymes will fall? I’m a fan of doing my creation secret sonnets, which are iambic, 140 syllables, and with particular rhymes every ten syllables, but otherwise they are arranged just like free verse. If the flow of a read poem is relaxed about where the rhymes fall in the pattern of speech, why shouldn’t you be? Make use of internal rhyme if it serves you; and in free verse, you have the option not to if it doesn’t.
Ultimately, you must also consider why rhyme is done in the first place. Big reasons include: it adds connective tissue between lines to associate images with each other; there is the principle of euphony, where the beautification of sound signifies art rather than just talk; and in forms, well, you just have to. Rhyme should be seen neither as a chore nor as a panacea: use it in just the right amounts that you must and want, throughout the lines you need to, for whatever purpose of making the poem sing beyond its literal content. Metre plays an important part for this is well, but rhythm is only part of a song.
I recommend some reading:
- Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill“, because it’s a free verse poem bursting at the seams with alliteration, assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme of all sorts.
- Pretty much everything by Emily Dickinson, I think, has slant rhyme in it. Check her out.
- James Falen’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I read in college and has stuck with me since. Other languages have all their own rules when it comes to rhyme, and 19th-century Russian poetry gets particularly elaborate. Check out just the beginning; the whole novel (a verse novel!) is like that, and Falen maintains the scheme nigh-perfectly.
Then come back and write! If you’re into formal verse, try messing with the rhyme schemes; if you’re into free verse, get some sound repetition into the works; and either way, allow yourself to do internal rhyme and use difficult sounds that you wouldn’t ordinarily use. I humbly offer my secret sonnets or this poem, with holorhyme (rhyming entire lines rather than individual words) for some ideas. And maybe you want to try different combinations of punctuation, building on the Reverie from last week? See what marinates in your brain, what sticks and what doesn’t, then come back and share. Happy December!