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.