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 kitbag, which is itself useful. Within 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 mac, 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 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 three thousand years of tradition which has established a very useful toolkit in the armoury of poetry (and read the same for art and music). Techniques like metre 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, TS Eliot, did quite a bit of it!

Bouguereau William-Adolphe, (1825 - 1905) French Neo Classical paintings homer-and-his-guide-1874 [] 5 stars

Of course, rhyming badly is not good. William McGonagall has become a by-word 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’: the ‘Howl’ and the ‘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. 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 TS 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 practise – 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! Right! 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 which 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.

Featured Image: “Homer and His Guide” by William Adolph Bouguereau (1825-1905).



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21 Responses

  1. Profile photo of

    Very well stated with ample liberality. A new scolding provincialism is as off putting and unsavory, actually moreso, than an old.

  2. Mary Embree

    I couldn’t agree more with what you say. See my poem in the Society of Classical Poets’ Annual Journal, 2013 titled “Carrying a Torch for Rhyme.”

    • Profile photo of

      Mary Carrying a Torch for Rhyme is very good. Dr Seuss is not one of my favorites, but I found myself writing – somewhat – similarly the other day. Why? Meter and Rhyme.

  3. Robert King

    I agree with Mr. Sales that rhyme is not necessary to poetry but, used appropriately, can be a massively powerful adjunct of poetry. However, I am less than impressed with his demonstrations of this principle (children love nursery rhymes and rhyme can assist in getting a message across). For one thing, it is not the function of poetry to deliver a message; the art is in the writing and not in the message (meaning).

    I would propose the following as justification for this principle. Richard Wilbur said it best: “Aside from its obvious value in the finished poem as part of poetic form and as a heightener of language, rhyme seems to me an invaluable aid in composition. It creates difficulties which the utterance must surmount by increased resourcefulness. It also helps by liberally suggesting arbitrary connections of which the mind may take advantage if it likes. For example, if one has to rhyme with tide, a great number of rhyme-words come to mind (ride, bide, shied, confide, etc.). Most of these, in combination with tide, will probably suggest nothing apropos, but one of them may reveal precisely what one wanted to say. If none of them does, tide must be dispensed with. Rhyme, austerely used, may be a stimulus to discovery and a stretcher of the attention.” Moreover, Paul Valery observed: “There are many more chances of a rhyme furnishing an ‘idea’ (literary) than of finding the rhyme from the ‘idea’.”

  4. james sale

    Hi Richard – thanks for this very thoughtful response; I think we may be splitting hairs on semantics here! It’s the purpose of all communication – of which poetry is a type – to deliver a message, although the message may be that there is no message. What we both might agree, I think, is that we want poetry to avoid didacticism.

  5. Profile photo of Liusaidh

    I think a return to first principles is in order. I bang on about it constantly — form follows function. The form chosen, even free verse, must serve the theme of the poem. For example, I once wrote a silly version of Modern Major General (which real G&S aficionados will cringe at for its liberal use of pararhymes) to help the children of an American friend of mine learn the Amendments to the US Constitution. It was a form of prosody designed to serve a function. The chief way prosody is experienced by ordinary people is through song, and we must never forget that all poetry has its roots in music, in song. Even syllabic forms such as haiku started as the ‘intro’ to longer-form sung prosody. Therefore to suggest we should divorce poetry from it’s music roots is ignorant and denies thousands of years of literary tradition. We are creatures of song. And for this reason I think perhaps the worst way to learn to write a poem is through a poetry primer (unless of course it’s the life changing Ode Less Travelled by Steven Fry) is listening to or learning to play music. Rhythm and rhyme are essential if one takes a broad view of prosody. If I can’t hear the music, to my mind it isn’t a poem.

    • james sale

      Thank you for these great comments and I agree with you about the music; music as in beautiful music, not atonal, tuneless, charmless, modern dissonance, of course!

  6. D P Behrens

    I’m a poet and I know it. Hope I don’t blow it but I’m going to show it. As easy as bumming a dime I can rhyme anytime.

    • JAMES sale

      DP, your effort is only secondarily rhyme; primarily it is plagiarism – there is nothing original in your ditty. Let’s not confuse two things.

  7. Profile photo of sathyanarayana

    This is a very good, balanced essay on rhyme. Of course too many rhymes spoil the poem, but few make it lyrical and beautiful. That’s why the great Gurus of prosody prescribed rhymes at particular appropriate length to make them sound sweet at definite intervals .

    • James Sale

      Thanks sathyanarayana – you are right; and it is interesting that the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature this year to Bob Dylan is appropriate for us in that Bob uses rhyme consistently, and has to use musical prosody in order for his songs to function as songs! His work is accessible too, with huge variety, so what a relief that some intellectual, atheistic, free verser, with a superior audience of about 57 people spread across 13 universities in the UK, USA and France, didn’t win it.

  8. Satyananda Sarangi

    A very helpful essay on rhyming poetry. Though I’m very young, I’m glad that i have not free verse unlike modern poets.
    Thank you. 🙂

  9. John Kolyav

    The one, who knows well the laws, if breaks them occasionally with good intention, it will have great impact (eg: Gandhi’s civil disobedience/non-cooperation movement adopted from Thoreau). I think this is the case with poetry. Poem should not be sacrificed for the sake of meter or rhyme but these are necessary for poetry to exist.
    Though meter or rhyme does not make something a poem, good poems with these qualities could easily be memorized. If a poet’s intention is just to see his name printed, then, these things are not necessary. I’m a person from Kerala and I have never been to U.K. or U.S.A. (English is my second language and therefore, please forgive me for any mistake that I might commit in this piece). Yet a few odes, especially “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Skylark” and a few poems of some other English poets are by-heart and I often recite them when I’m wearied or getting bored. Why is it easy to remember their whole poems? The answer is simple; those are meaningful, metered and rhyming! Most of their rhyming words are not forced, but spontaneous. Emotions, good vocabulary and practice are the requisites for composing rhyming, metered poems. I still recite thousands of beautiful, metered and rhyming Malayalam (my language) verses of great poets from memory. Therefore, my humble opinion is this: if a poet/poetess wants his/her poems to last long, to be memorized and cherished by others, the poems must have perfect meter or rhyme or at least powerful rhythm as in the case of some poems by T.S. Eliot.
    Nowadays, ninety-nine percent of Malayalam poems are also without meter or rhyme. The main reason for the mass production of such rubbish is not by the thirst for the freedom of expression through free verse but by the lack of patience and meditation to compose good ones. Therefore, anyone can write poem; just give a title, “Poem” before the nonsense begins, and that’s all! So that, now, almost half of my forty million countrymen are poets! Great!
    Bombs and fireworks: emotions, when expressed without any control act as bombs and when arranged nicely become fireworks.
    Therefore, James Sale’s article is relevant. Thanks!

  10. Chris Webster

    Hi James, it’s Chris again. Here is one of my poems which plays with the idea of free verse vs rhymed verse:

    “Write me a sonnet,” you asked me
    Grinning as if in mockery
    Of my free verse, implying
    It is not worthy of you – worse,
    That neither is my love,
    And that the winning of you
    Needs working at – like finding
    (Which means for sonnets,
    Fourteen times.)
    And sleepless nights like those
    Endured by poets like me –
    Stuck for a

    This lover’s task you set me
    Nears its end, and though
    It cost me
    Of agony, that’s nothing
    To what
    Love has wrung from me:
    Free verse
    Belies the effort
    I expend in both,
    So read this carefully
    And as you judge this

    • James Sale

      Hi Chris – you have not lost your touch; this is very classy – it rhymes but captures natural speech patterns and seems effortless rather than contrived. So like it lots – especially the almost cliche that you make seem real – ‘Love has wrung from me’. Great stuff!!

  11. Profile photo of Tomás Ó Cárthaigh
    Tomás Ó Cárthaigh

    I was fundamentalist to this position until the last deacde or so, but I still prefer the rhyming type.

    The political hold against the style is as it is seen as tied with patriarchial and conservative thinking, and the refusal to adhere to this is seen as a form of rebellius action in words.

    Myself, I write as a free verse that is then fashioned into a rhyming one, but somethimes it does not come off, and is better left as a free verse.

    Ill provide a same of each here, and you can say for yourself which you prefer:

    “Salmon of Knowledge”

    “Angry Sea”

    “The Meadows Through Which My Dancing Heart”

    “There Is No Time for Art”

    “On Reading the Verse of Hera Linsday Bird”

    “Dawn Breaks as Yeats Goes to Sleep”

    • James Sale

      Hi Tomas – I have left a brief comment on your give to me angry sea poem, and I like it a lot; I also like however your Yeats poem. Indeed, Yeats is clearly a major influence. I myself take the view that Yeats is the greatest poet in the English speaking world of the last 150 years, so to study him is to get to the master. Clearly, you can move between the rhyme and non-rhyme camp easily. It would be a mistake to legislate for rhyme – there are moments – or epics as Milton realised – when one needs to abandon it. But you are right about the fact that using it is seen as a political statement; and alongside that is what I can only regard as one of the most fatuous misidentification of ideas in literary history: namely, that writing ‘free’ verse somehow equates to being democratic or striking a blow for freedom. Most free verse is simply atrocious verse and is certainly not poetry and its practitioners have failed to understand the importance of Yeats’ marvellous dictum on ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’. Writing in meter and rhyme too difficult for you? Hey, don’t bother – count syllables? – that too difficult? Just put down anything you want – but tie it into a contemporary ‘issue’, then you might even be considered an important poet. It has always been the way of the world to like what is superficial and to go for quick fixes that are symptomatic rather than causal. But true poets don’t think like the world, which is why form is so important.


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