Should Poetry Rhyme?

(Letters from the Autumn 2004 issue of Poetry News, with additional responses below.)



I was interested in T.M. Clegg's letter. Some poems cry out to be written in rhyme, others fall naturally into free verse, and either can be good. It's perfectly possible that the best three poems in a competition could be rhymeless. On the other hand, I agree that there is some prejudice against rhymed verse, perhaps because there was too much of it in past times. You need a particular kind of talent to write it well; a bad rhyming poem immediately proclaims its faults, whereas a bad unrhymed poem might simply send us to sleep! But when it works, it's magnificent; think of some of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, 'Easter 1916', 'Strange Meeting', 'Not Waving but Drowning', 'Aubade', 'Eden Rock'.

Merryn Williams
(editor, The Interpreter's House)




The majority of great poets were also male and some not so very proper. I do not think we were consciously biased against regular form, as such. It just so happened the best poems were in free verse and I would agree that it takes a mighty talent to achieve originality in rhyme nowadays, a genius like Paul Muldoon for example. Women do not have to fall into the dominant patterns if they do not naturally do so.

Medbh McGuckian (National Poetry Competition judge 2003)






Over the last year I've picked up many volumes by writers I've never heard of before, joined the Poetry Society, starting writing poetry again myself, and I have to say that it all feels like a private club that on occasions I feel I've wandered into by mistake. Anything remotely accessible in terms of rhyme seems largely out of vogue. A flick through any of the features in Poetry News that looks at various publishing houses seems to highlight the fact that the majority of editors and publishers are in the business of printing what they like, rather than what the public may want to read. And the majority of this seems to be verse that has no rhyme at all, and little meaning to a wider audience. The summer 2004 edition of Poetry News seems to capture the issue well. I read that one of the tasks of the Next Generation of poets is to introduce more new readers to contemporary poetry and that research shows that most sales are currently for anthologies and classics. And yet how many of this new generation are actually trying to communicate in a form that new readers may want to embrace? There is precious little memorable or inspiring, humorous or popularist in much of the modern poetry I've read, so why should readers want to engage with it?

John Adcock






It seems that any fancifully worded piece is preferable to a well thought-out, right number of syllables poem.

As someone who has written both types of poetry I can, I hope, appreciate both genres and the excellent 2004 Hamish Canham Poetry Prize winner's poem, 'Changing Shape', is one of the best examples of free verse, but of the inspired, disciplined variety. Having read other winners' poems for several years, none of which rhymed, I have been afraid to enter competitions with my rhymed poetry, except if the competition required something on the lines of a villanelle.

It is, undoubtedly, easier and quicker to write free verse and just as satisfying if the right words are chosen, but is there any reason to ignore rhyming poetry in competitions?

Verica Peacock






I read much of today's modern poetry and it fills me with despair. Poems written a century or two ago by "the greats" are still read, quoted and enjoyed today. I doubt that much of what is written today will be remembered even ten years from now. I'm not saying there isn't a place for the modern offerings and indeed some of it must inevitably be of good quality. But there has to be room for both. Books on poems written in rhyme from many years ago still out-sell modern poetry books by a substantial margin. What is this telling us?

Unless quality story-telling in rhyme gains more respect from modern publishers / critics I fear that there will be a sharp decline in effort by poets to create such works of art, and that will be a sad reflection on how UK literature of today will be perceived in years to come.

Eric A Hollin






And additional reponses:


An important reason why rhyming became difficult to sustain is that after the enormous production of verse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were too few rhyme pairs left that were not overused and stale.

Beverley Charles Rowe






It's not, of course, that modern poets don't rhyme - many of us do - but often taking care to rhyme with subtlety so that it's not immediately obvious. We use near rhyme, or we soften our true rhymes with enjambment. Of course if a poem doesn't want to rhyme – and half the time it doesn't – a lot of us are happy to write free verse too. But by rhyming subtly, we find a way of avoiding the 'over-familiar devices or patterns' rejected by Pound and confront, instead, the unexpected. Rhyme can be liberating. The sorely missed (and expert modern rhymer) Michael Donaghy quoted Proust on good poets "whom the tyranny of rhyme forces into the discovery of their finest lines." (1) Subtle rhyme allows both structure and discovery without detracting from the natural flow of the language. For a beautiful (and female) example, look to Greta Stoddart's 'Greece'. You see, it isn't a gender issue either. In fact there are dozens of contemporary poets, male and female, rhyming and being published. Perhaps we are rhyming just a little too gently for Eric Hollin to notice.

Ros Barber


(1) from Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Bloodaxe, 2000)






Rhyme is addictive and with rhythm has an energising quality which improves mood. But lately I have been writing some stuff that doesn't rhyme so much, so maybe the feel-good factor comes from the focus and finish – writing through the thought barrier.

I'd recommend Tony Harrison's v. as an example of good contemporary rhyming poetry. I've just written a long sequence partly inspired by it.

Sarah Wardle