Commentary: ‘To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?’

September 5, 2018 Updated: September 11, 2018

Imagine that you were lost in a wilderness and had to find your way out. Fortunately, you have with you a number of things, or tools, if you will. In the first instance you have a kit bag, which is itself useful. In it are various articles: a bottle of water, a knife, fork, and spoon, a map, lighter fuel, matches, a compass, a chocolate bar, some rope, scissors, a can opener, a wrap-up plastic raincoat, and a few more pieces too, like the watch on your wrist.

The question I would ask you is simply this: Would you, therefore, given that you are lost and are not sure where or how far the next safe port of call is, jettison any of these items or tools? Would you say, this item is irrelevant, and I don’t need it—I’ll never need it—get rid of it? And further, when you are safely back home and start writing of your experiences, will you be prescribing to other travelers in the wilderness: You must never take a bottle of water with you—it’s stupid, it’s cheating, it’s pointless? Or, argue that having a map with you means that you are not really lost, so you are not really making a journey?

Sound somewhat fanciful? Not really, for this is precisely what happens in all areas of modern art, and especially poetry. We have 3,000 years of tradition that has established a very useful toolkit in the armory of poetry (and read the same for art and music). Techniques like meter and rhythm, using rhetorical devices such as onomatopoeia, metaphor, simile, allusion, anaphora, and so on, have been well-established for millennia. And the reason for this is clear: These techniques, used judiciously, work! They create appropriate emotional (primarily) and intellectual effects in the listeners and readers of the work.

In English poetry, rhyme is a special example of one such special effect. In fact, rhyme is so ubiquitous that some less-informed people seem to think that poetry is just that: rhymed couplets. But because some less-informed people think erroneously about this topic does not invalidate its force.

The truth is that rhyme is a massively powerful adjunct of poetry, and this is demonstrated in two ways in the English-speaking world: First, children universally love nursery rhymes, and such rhymes are a brilliant device for aiding memory and recall. But second, advertising itself regularly uses rhyme—why? Because it works. One only has to think of one of the most memorable ads of the last 40 years: “A Mars a day/Helps you work, rest, and play.” We get it, and the message embeds itself in our consciousness.

Why, then, for heaven’s sake do we constantly get a stream of wannabe poets denigrating and banning rhyme, as if the use of rhyme were something no real poet would ever do? On the contrary, all significant poets have used it, and the very greatest poets do it a lot: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Yeats—need I go on? Even the high apostle of free verse, T.S. Eliot, did quite a bit of it!

William McGonagall (1825–1902), a Scottish weaver, actor, and poet, has been called the worst poet in the English language; nonetheless, his works are fun to read. (Public Domain)

Of course, rhyming badly is not good. William McGonagall has become a byword for bad poetry in which meaning has been wrenched by the necessity to find rhyme words. This, in his case, however, has become comical. People still want to read him for the pleasure of the forced rhymes. And here’s the weird thing: I would predict more people read and enjoy McGonagall for all its incompetence (there is still a pleasure to be had in rhyme!) than ever read those stalwarts of serious “free verse”: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and William Carlos Williams’s “Paterson,” and all this shapeless stuff that drones on in its own self-importance.

There is, as I discovered recently in a debate, a vociferous number of people for whom poetry is not poetry at all, but a political act. For them, rhyme is some sort of bondage (and that, of course, has a creditable heritage in Milton’s eschewing rhyme in order to write “Paradise Lost”), and they need to be “free” to write whatever comes into their minds as it comes, without any sense of form or structure or device or technique or tools.

Children love nursery rhymes, a reason to consider rhyming a potent literary form. “And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon,” from “Hey Diddle Diddle and Bye, Baby Bunting,” 1882, by Randolph Caldecott. British. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1882. (Public Domain)

And the result, of course, is that they don’t write poetry at all, although they promote it as such. And they never improve. No verse is free, said T.S. Eliot, for the man (read “person”) who wants to do a good job. They just do not get—and cannot discipline themselves to study and practice—that the tools, the techniques, are the very way we find our way out of the wilderness of emotional chaos (which is really their “freedom”) and get to the land of true meaning, which is our home.

All this requires patience, study, and craft. But all politics is too short-term for that: We want our freedom and we want it now! Look at this scribble. It’s art!


We need to move on from this infantilism. Rhyme is not necessary for poetry; but rhyme is an amazingly powerful technique when used appropriately and properly, and understanding the various aspects of rhyme that are possible is itself an education.

So let’s not be put down by these political activists proclaiming “freedom” and who, the while, are wasting poetry with their wanton graffiti. Use rhyme when you want to. You know, it can sound so good!

James Sale is a motivational speaker and poet in the United Kingdom. Edited and reprinted with permission from the Society of Classical Poets.