Reason as the Leading Motive

Is Poetry Only That Which Rhymes?

Posted by Jerry on January 25, 2006

John has an essay that attempts to answer the question, “Is Poetry That Which Rhymes“. It is an interesting read, and I was surprised to discover his more “serious” works of poetry besides the funny couplets he has on each and every one of his posts.

Clearly, as evidenced from his blog, he has a bias towards rhyming verse. Hence, his essay invariably leads him to propose (though, he does it rather timidly) that writings that do not have a rhyming scheme is ” for most part… either an inferior species of poetry, or not poetry at all.”

Ofcourse, if my creative-writing blog is any indication, my position is in stark opposition to John’s. In his insistance that “poetry” should have rhyme that “stirs the soul”, and that it is only or mostly accomplished by words that have a certain rhythmic “sound effect”, John has, I believe, obfuscated the purpose and nature of what poetry is and can be.

Interestingly, Rand had once declared that free verse was on a level “lower than free lunches” (Ayn Rand Answers: Q&A)

So, Rand would presumbly have agreed with John’s requirement that poetry be necessarily constituted of rhyme and rhythm.

However, I believe that John’s argument that poetry as art should have rhyme reduces the expansive breadth of poetry-writing into a juvenile caricature. I think John is isolating one characteristic of poetry and holding it as its most essential constituent. In committing that fallacy, I think John opens the door to any self-professed “poet” to peddle any work of writing of substantial length with a catchy rhyme as poetry that is art. However, to give John his proper credit, he does expressly state that not all rhyming constructions can be considered poetry. And similarly, I argue that not any random collection of metaphors and alliterations can be accepted as poetry either. Note that the fallacy in accepting indiscriminately any construction of rhyme or any collection of metaphors is the fallacy of isolating a constituent from the context and whole that gives it its proper meaning.

What differentiates poetry from regular fiction is not only that poetry has a rhyme — though it is certainly one possible differentiating property — but also that poetry seeks to express values in a medium and method not typical in common parlance. Poetry deals heavily with metaphors, abstractions, and emotive tools. Other forms of writing — whether fiction or non-fiction — cannot so exclusively and heavily depend on metaphors and abstractions because by their very definition, they are seeking to convey reality as it is (in the case of non-fiction) or as imagined to be (as in the fabrications of fiction).

Novels, as an example, cannot be drenched with metaphors and abstractions or esoteric references that steal the objective purpose, theme, plot, and motive out of the story, such that the reader is honestly lost and cannot decipher those elements of the story.

On the other hand, poetry as art combines and integrates convincingly elements like rhythm, sound effects, rhyme, metaphors, personifications, abstractions, etc., without giving any of these constituents undue emphasis or priority over the other. Poems have the liberty of being esoteric, while still maintaining their unique expression of values — those values have the freedom to be expressed in rhythmic metaphors, unsual placement of words, unique construction of lines, etc.

The specific set of constituents that a poet chooses to use will dictate the kind of poetry that will be created. Poems that can be considered art should be the ones in which it is unequivocally clear that the poet has skillfully, deliberately, and creatively used a group of, or a set of, poetic tools that convey the predominant ethos in the piece of writing.

Rhyme, in of itself, cannot legitimize a piece of writing as poetry, just as a collection of metaphors in and of itself cannot. Similarly, requiring that every poem have rhyme is as vacant as requiring that every poem have metaphors. Reifying any one constituent exclusively or heavily while compromising others accomplishes only a feeble grasp of the vast landscape of expressiveness that the medium of poetry provides.


8 Responses to “Is Poetry Only That Which Rhymes?”

  1. Colderidge said: Prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.

    Poetry hasn’t had to rhyme in over 100 years. If you need example of poetry that “Stirs the soul” in free verse, I suggest Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

  2. Ergo Sum said

    I agree.

  3. Ergo Sum said

    Oh. Though I’m not a big fan Ginsburg’s poetry — his works have a very morose, morbid ethos cloaked sometimes in humor… I think he had issues with being gay or whatever.

  4. Ergo, thanks for the spirited review of my essay! I’ll provide a response a bit later this evening. Right now I’m scheduled to go out and give blood.

  5. Mostly, I want to point out that the essay answers the title question in the negative, on 2 grounds: there are rhyming things that are not poems, and there are poems that do not rhyme.

    This can be missed, I suppose, in my emphasis on the central importance of sound effects in poetry, effects which are somewhat peculiar to a given language.

    Free verse isn’t a free lunch, at least it need not be. But if it is to attain “musical” effects, it has to lean on sound effects other than rhyme and meter. In my book of poems, I think I included a couple of “free verse” poems. Here’s one of them:

    For Emily Dickinson

    Before her form
    Of gossamer,
    God shrank –
    Became a fly.

    But his buzzing
    In the background
    Of your music.

    You fingered
    The strings
    And in
    Your webs

    Danced for you

    Here’s another:

    Michigan Dunes

    The wind sweeps the sand
    away from the lake.

    Thus stand the dunes.

    In time, every grain
    moves. The wind swoops down
    and mountains of splendor
    shift in the sun.

    I still like these two and feel they have a hypnotically musical effect, but they’re not rhymed or metered, at least not in an ordinary way.

    Insomnia mentioned Ginsburg and Ferlinghetti, and I do want to say I studied them extensively in my youth. Both of them have striking sound effects in their own ways. Ferlinghetti often has a lot of internal rhyme.

    And finally, I say again, trust your own ear. It’s not rocket science – at least, not yet. It’s an art.

  6. Ergo Sum said

    John, I fully agree with

    “there are rhyming things that are not poems, and there are poems that do not rhyme”

    And a part of my own argument was to point that very fact out. I guess, I must have misread your essay, though I am still confused then as to why you say that writings that have no rhyming scheme is for the most part either an inferior species of poetry, or not poetry at all.

    If by that, you meant writings that have no quality of a sound-effect, then I might agree with you… still, I’d like further clarification of how you differentiate Poetry as an art form in itself from Lyrics which are part of Music/Song which is a different art form in itself.

    I would disagree with you if you said that all Poetry is the same as Lyrics to a song.

  7. Sorry my essay wasn’t clear enough! If I wrote it today, I’m sure I’d do it differently!

    Poems are meant to, and able to, really stand on their own without notes, without musical accompaniment, without tunes.

    Lyrics usually need a tune to sound good. Once in a while some song lyrics look okay on their own, but it is rare.

    Sometimes someone will set a poem to music, too.

    But usually lyrics don’t look good on the page by themselves.

  8. Just to add to the semantic confusion about lyrics and poetry, poems of a personal nature that do not tell a story are called “lyric poetry.”


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