Points Will Be Deducted if it Rhymes.
Yes, I really do say that to my creative writing students, as I present the rubrics for their first major project of the semester, a short poetry collection.
Normally, I wouldn’t make such threats. I don’t believe in using grades as motivators, since grades distract learners from the satisfaction of mastery. But as a disincentive to help break unhealthy habits, I believe it may be justified.
Some might accuse me of hypocrisy, since I myself write rhyming poetry at times. Sonnets by the dozens. Odes. Villanelles. Triolets. Terza Rima — trust me, that one is a bear. My objection is not to the use of that poetic tool, but to its use by novice poets who have no clue how to use it with finesse.
The new apprentice in the woodshop doesn’t start off on the scrollsaw, making fancy curlicues. He starts off sanding boards, then graduates to measuring and cutting them.
New poets need to start off in the same way, learning how to choose words for their nuances of meaning, because there is no substitute — in any writing genre — for the word that means exactly what you want to say.
But if they have the preconception that a rhyme will make their writing sound poetic, they will use the word that rhymes instead of any of the words that fit their message. Worse, they may adapt the message to the rhyme.
And since they have yet to develop the mature vocabulary that good poetry requires, they’ll give up saying any of the fresh, exciting, and insightful things they want to say. It’s like the child who had a wonderful story she just couldn’t wait to write about a chimpanzee and a giraffe, but since she couldn’t spell those animals, she wrote instead about a dog and a pig.
Worst yet, in their quest for the poetic sound that they believe will make it beautiful, they write lines that are instead painfully predictable. If the reader can predict the last word of the line, he probably won’t even notice all the words before it.
Few sins are worse in writing than cliché, but cliché isn’t only found in hackneyed phrases. The term is equally applicable to too-familiar words and images (heart, soul, love, storm, stars, fire, butterfly, pain) and overworked rhymes (love/dove/above, heart/part, ever/never, youth/truth).
This, I suspect, is why so many literary journals specify in their submission guidelines, “no rhyming poetry.” It’s not that editors hate rhyme, but that new poets have to get away from rhyme so they can start composing serious poetry. Poetry, that is, that will appeal to other people who love poetry.
But how are you to feel poetic if I take away your rhymes?
First, you need to trust yourself. What makes you a poet isn’t your ability to rhyme, which nearly anyone can do, but that you have something to say, and that you choose to say it in a poem.
Note that I’m not saying you’re a good poet, though you may be or may become one. I am saying that whoever writes a poem — of whatever quality — is by definition a poet. And no one has the right to tell that poet that their writing isn’t poetry. I don’t think everything I see on canvas is artistic, but I know it represents someone’s creative impulse. I don’t get to say what is and isn’t art, or what is and isn’t poetry.
So trust yourself, and trust your message. Search out the words that will not only spell out what you need to tell the world, but the words that will let readers feel what you are feeling, what makes the message necessary. Part of the definition of poetry — go ahead, look it up; I’ll wait. Back already? Okay — is that the language of the poem is crafted to provoke or inspire a feeling in the reader.
In short, a poem is designed to make a reader care.
The figurative language — imagery appealing to the senses, simile and metaphor, symbol and synecdoche, allegory and personification — all those tools are potent ways to help the reader see what you see and experience what you experience. You’re doing it in poetry because that is the quickest and most efficacious way to draw your readers’ minds away from where they’ve been before and take them someplace new.
Most of the other poetic elements are what I classify as soundplay. Rhyme is in this category, but (in my opinion) it’s the hardest to use well and — when used poorly — the quickest to destroy the effectiveness of your writing. Other ways to use the sound of language include meter, cadence, percussion, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia.
Soundplay adds punch to the burst of concentrated meaning that is the essence of your poem. Cadence makes it slip across the tongue with minimal resistance and stick inside the mind that hears it. Meter makes it easy to remember; assonance and alliteration please the ear. But what it all does is to hypnotize, to lower the resistance of the audience by focusing attention on the sound, so that they will more readily be drawn into the little universe the poem creates.
Not convinced? Still hooked on rhyming? Fine, then go for it. Write for your friends and family.
Or use your rhymes in settings where the goals are more in tune with rhyme. Write greeting cards, song lyrics, raps. Write limericks. Write light verse like Ogden Nash or children’s poetry like Shel Silverstein.
But if you turn it in for Project 1 in my class, you’ve been warned.