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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81 Responses

  1. NealD

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

      • James Sale

        Thanks for this recommendation, Joseph, I appreciate them. Rhyme can seem such a simple device to deploy, and it is because it seems so simple so many fall into the simplistic trap of using it badly. There is a whole world of subtlety in rhyme, but only real poets ‘get it’. The sort of thing i am talking about here is best contained in an example: the Australian poet, Clive James, in his introduction to his translation of Dante, makes the casual comment that in making the translation one rule was – avoid feminine rhyme endings. Of course, of course! One feminine rhyme ending in English and you begin the march towards a poem called Don Juan by Byron – a great poem, but not what the Divine Comedy is about.

  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.”

  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’.”

      • James Sale

        This is a tricky – paradoxical – issue. I agree with Mr Mackenzie in that modernism has abolished meaning – apart from solipsism – and so has fatally undermined communication. Thus, there is a real need to re-instate it; for poems to be about something. Yes. But on the other hand, we also know that poetry being ‘about’ something (Archibald MacLeish: ‘ a poem should not mean, but be’) renders it prosaic in the extreme, and has a tendency to be not sourced by the Muse. So we are faced with Scylla and Charybdis – the poet has to go straight down the middle in order to be the hero who survives this journey.

  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. 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.

  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.

      • David Paul Behrens

        Yes, of course, you are right. I think I heard the first part in a Bob Dylan song. I was only joking. How about this one:


        As I walked outside to pick an orange
        I tore my pants upon the door hinge

      • Paul


        O rang E
        E was busy on the computer
        Arguing with some disputer
        E became so upset and bitter
        As a blood orange
        He cursed the babysitter
        She resented his harangue
        Called him an orangutan
        He could have represented his friends on one hand
        Now he has no such use for his fingers
        And the sadness lingers,
        No one calls now and he
        Cant even record in this diary that
        O rang E.

      • James Sale

        Yes, David, the orange rhyme is much better, as the word orange is often cited in the text books as being a word that has no rhyme in the English language, so clearly one has to think about it to get there!!

  7. 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. 🙂

      • Satyananda Sarangi

        Sir, it’s always a pleasure to read the posts you come up with. Sometimes, I feel it is like a tussle between the free verse specialists and the rhyme propagators. Often, I resort to this website to combat the inner devil that howls- ‘rhyming poetry is dead’. But the thing is rhyming poetry is the very art linked to divine. Even if the devil is frightening, the divine triumphs. 🙂

        This ongoing plethora of free verse poetry reminds me of few lines from one of my poems:

        May you care not now with little knowledge
        Or even when wise a hundred years hence;
        I would be true to art, this much I pledge,
        True as much in light as when dark is dense.

        I drank sorrow to win over defeat,
        This rhyme is therefore in my heart and soul;
        And shall linger in me, playing its beat,
        Until I’m turned to dust, and dust claims all.

        © 2017 Satyananda Sarangi. All rights reserved.

      • James Sale

        Thanks Satyananda – I like your paradoxical quatrains – extremely well expressed and witty too.

  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!

    • Satyananda Sarangi

      I couldn’t have agreed more. This comment echoes the very need for quality poetry i.e. formal and rhythmic poetry. The so called poets are far away from the beauty of top class verse. Being in my early twenties, I don’t have the urge to write free verse for which I have been often referred to as a ‘worn out’ poet. The real poetry raises the soul and winks at the catastrophe.

    • G. M. H. Thompson

      I agree with what you are saying in the main, but I think what is lost in this discussion is recognition that language itself has inherent rhythm and therefore everything one says or writes can be considered a possible poem. Free verse fails in so many cases because of inelegant diction and very poor pacing– it so often doesn’t know where it is going because free verse poets often do not know that poems have to go somewhere, that there must be a definite arc of travel throughout their work. Incidentally, many formalists do not know this, either. They, like the free-verse poets they revile and are reviled by, have no story structure in their works– if it rhymes and has a da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM rhythm, it is Homer in their eyes. Yet Homer never rhymed a single line. Neither did Virgil, Sappho, Ovid, or any of the other great Greek and Latin poets of antiquity. Homer didn’t even use line breaks since he sung his poem and did not write it down– line breaks are merely a notational convenience for reader’s eyes. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves what poetry is at its essence (the poems of the Troubadours were originally written down without line breaks by the court scribes of Provence, Tuscany, and Catalonia). Being able to memorize something is great, but I do not consider memorability to be the key virtue of a poem, and I certainly do not consider it to be that virtue of a poem that makes a poem a poem. And while rhythm is part of poetry, I do not agree that rhythm is the essence of what makes a poem a poem. There is more poetry in many sentences written by great prose authors such as Pynchon and Joyce then there is in an ocean of poetry written today, either by free-verse poets or by formalists. Here is the very famous opening sentence of Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities”:

      ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’

      I maintain that this is a much better poem than most of what is being produced today, by both formalists & free-verse professors to poetry (and what it is saying is still also largely true, particularly in niche, specialist worlds such as poetry finds itself today), and I maintain that that is for reasons beyond the rhythm that the sentence has. Everything has rhythm, therefore, we must think beyond rhythm when considering what makes a poem poetic.

      • James Sale

        I think you always make and thoughtful points GMH. You touch on a number of quandaries! I am reminded of what my favourite critic, Dr Johnson, said: ‘Poetry is like light; we all know what it is, but it is difficult to say what it is’. So we know there is poetry and we know there is prose, and we know that like yin and yang there is a point at which one switches to the other, and that some writers straddle both camps. But the essence of poetry is that it is not prose. So what is it then? Traditionally, we refer to things like the line break – the verse, or turning – to be an indicator; we also refer to its rhythmical qualities because rhythm so affects the heart, and so directly impacts us as music does – so that is, one would think, a necessary element. However, I am prepared to accept that in extreme circumstances a writer can write poetry without line or rhythm; but what must always be true of poetry is form – there is a heightening of language, an accentuation of words, a shaping which extends beyond the semantics – a process, then, that we recognise that is symbolic in some way of deeper levels of meaning which prose, at its best, can only approximate to. Given that concession, however, if we return to poetry in the English language – and accept that other languages have other properties (so that, for example, rhyme may not be relevant in ancient Greek) – then it is clear that poetry and especially major poetry requires verse – lineation – and rhythm; rhyme is optional and not always necessary, as Milton proved. So I think we are in a large part in agreement.

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        Mr. Sale, I kindly thank you for your words, which I mostly think are fair and well-reasoned, as they always seem to be, but the core of what I am saying seems to have been somewhat overlooked, if you will pardon me to be so bold as to say. Any statement anyone can make, any collection of words, has a rhythm to it. True, this rhythm is not always a particularly attractive one, particularly if one pays no thought at all to rhythm, but if one looks to flow, which the great novelists did and still do, one will usually come up with lines that have good flow, and this invariably means good rhythm. If one were to take the sentence from Dickens and give it line breaks, one would get a poem written in loose iambic hexameter for the first five lines, after which it gets a bit harder to count off-hand. The fact that Dickens did not give his words line breaks I maintain does not disqualify them from being considered poetic. While it is true that keeping rhythm in a tight straitjacket is usually a good guard against poor rhythm, I also think that it is true that not every poem written in perfect metered-rhythm has good flow, and that an obsession with achieving perfect, regimented meter can often (and often does from what I’ve seen) blind one to the finer points and sensibilities of good rhythm. And while I would say that it is not an incorrect statement to say that poetry can be defined to be that which uses words yet is not prose, I would also say that prose can be poetry while simultaneously being prose, and also that a good deal of what people think of as poetry, both of the rhyming, tightly-metered variety and of the free-verse style, is in fact not even good enough to be labeled prose, simply being a loose jumble of poorly constructed thoughts, self-absorbed references, and meaningless images inelegantly phrased using extremely mannered language that does not add anything to the work. Again, I want to stress that I am not merely bashing free-verse when I say this, for the whole free-verse/formalist debate people on both sides of the divide love to hash over is in so many ways a false dichotomy. So too is the verse/prose divide. All language has metre inherently in it. I do not think it essential that one consciously shapes the metre because there is no way to judge if an author has consciously shaped his or her metre or simply got a pen and let the muses shape what comes gushing out. The reader cannot tell what the writer was thinking or doing when he or she was writing, so intentions are in many way a moot point.

        Every object, be it a bicycle, a bass guitar, a sniper rifle, or a poem, has certain elements that are essential to the thing in question being the thing in question. If wheels are not present, a bicycle is not said to be a bicycle, but instead, a bicycle’s frame. If a bass guitar is missing the body, is in fact only the neck and head of a bass guitar, one can hardly play the solo to “My Generation” on it. If the only component of a sniper rifle one has is the sight, one can think one is going to assassinate some world leader, but when the time comes, nothing will happen (and if all killers thought like this, there would be no gun violence, so I’m not sure if I should be giving this violent information out). The most important question I am raising is what is it in a poem that makes a poem a poem (and for this argument, we will only of course be discussing the English poem), and not just a incomplete artifact, not just a sight with no gun. It cannot be rhyme, because as you pointed out, no one would argue that “Paradise Lost” is not a poem (Ezra Pound mentioned after seeing the cottage where Milton wrote his epic that he too would have doubtlessly written a gloomy, moralizing monstrosity on original sin if he had been forced to live in somewhere so abysmal; in light of that comment, one does wonder if Milton’s hell was in any way based upon his living conditions). And it cannot really be line-breaks either, for as I have already said, both the Troubadours and the ancient court bards of antiquity such as Homer did not write any of their poems down, and what is a line-break without the page (enjambment is a poetic practice that makes spoken word lines potentially endless if one simply defines a line as a unit of words bound by punctuation; similarly, singers (and both the Troubadours and Homer were singers) can stretch word lengths and multiply or eliminate syllables with a little imagination, therefore I would say that length of breath is not a judge of what makes a verbal line either (and that’s not even considering that people have different levels of vocal stamina, i.e. some vocalists can say more in one breath than others and it is easy to imagine that some cannot sing certain lines of dactylic hexameter in one breath)). And it cannot be rhythm, for as I keep trying to stress, every statement ever made has had rhythm. The metre of that last sentence is as follows:

        stressed unstressed stressed unstressed unstressed stressed unstressed, unstressed stressed unstressed stressed stressed unstressed unstressed stressed, stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed stressed stressed stressed unstressed.

        So if poetry cannot stop being poetry if one takes away rhyme, or line breaks (or what one can reasonably define as line breaks, and as I’ve tried to demonstrate, defining line breaks as other than what I have quickly becomes a fruitless endeavor, a kind of petty anti-grail quest), and one cannot take away rhythm as every statement made in any language has always had rhythm (and particularly in highly rhythmic languages such as English, German, Greek, and Latin), what can one take away from poetry to stop it from being poetry? Perhaps it was this question, or some question like it, that prompted Rimbaud to write his ‘Les Illuminations’, one of the earliest conscious attempts at prose poetry that I am personally aware of. What is the element, or far more likely, group of elements correctly in harmony with one another, that make a poem a poem. This is not a question that can be answered with surface level observations such as noting that there must be good rhythm (and as I’ve already stressed repeatedly, everything has rhythm).

        What makes a song rock ‘n’ roll is not the use of an electric guitar, a drum set, and a bass guitar. These must be played in unison and using musical principals essential to the genre, such as the riff, the lick, and the scale. But rock ‘n’ roll is not exclusive to these instruments– it can be played using pianos, synthesizers, and drum machines, although it’s usually better to have a human drummer in terms of sound– drum machines are far to synthetic and soulless. And the human voice that is the heart of rock music must deliver a poem with arc for rock to be truly great. Think of that most essential rock song, Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. The first verse describes the humble background of the song’s hero, the second moves him to playing on the tracks, impressing everyone who heard, and the third ends the cycle with his mother’s prophetic promise that someday his name may be in lights. What I find especially interesting about this poem is that the promise is yet to be fulfilled, giving it a haunting sense of uncertainty.

      • James Sale

        Hi GMH – you make a lot of points here and I cannot cover them all, especially the Johnny B Goode one! But I think one interesting point you make which does introduce a new element is the point about ‘poor’ rhythm and basically, the job being done badly. I talk about form, but another way of expressing this would be not to talk of form but of form’s key property – something which I think is implicit in your account. What is this property inherent in form, and which lack of form – poor form – bad rhythms etc – do not possess? The answer I think is beauty; we love poetry because it renders beauty to us and we love to experience beauty. Sometimes that may be intentionally sought by the poet – an effect as it were – sometimes (as is the case with the best of Wilfred Owen – ‘the poetry is in the pity’) it simply emerges. But this sense of concentrated beauty always means we are in the presence of poetry; prose may be poetical, but we all grasp the essential difference, and those who try to hard to extend the definition of poetry to include everything – that is, everything prose – by definition, then, mean poetry is nothing.

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        Well put. And just so there was no ambiguity, though I’m fairly confident you were not implying this, I am well aware that there is prose and that there is poetry, and that the two things are different most of the time (also, I was not trying to stretch any definitions, but rather convey my honest opinions). But I maintain that the best of prose, the prose of Joyce, Pynchon, Mervyn Peake, as well as many others, is both prose and poetry, at least in a number of places in their master works, and that prose can be better, in terms of beauty or any other metrics one desired to use, than poetry. There are a lot more commonalities between the genres than people suspect. For a clever, well-written short story behaves in many instances like a poem, and there is no better way of discovering this than attempting to write one. And every chapter in a novel behaves (or should behave, if the author’s good) like its own short story, so every novel ideally should read like a series of closely related poems. The best example I can think of this off-hand is Cormic McCarthy’s “The Road”.

      • James Sale

        OK GMH – point taken – we are in complete agreement. Though I must make a terrible confession to you: my son got me a copy of The Road and raved about it. But that was two years ago – it’s still on my desk and I still haven’t read it. My appetite for fiction has seriously diminished in the last 20 years!! You can’t read everything – I am about to re-read Dante and start The Lusiads by Camoe …

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      This, to me, is by far the most important response.

      I was trained in Paris to recite classic verse and had the pleasure of mixing with many a very fine “diseur.” Indeed, I had become a component of the “poésie dite” movement popular at the time.

      Like you, Mr. Kolyav, I believe that recitation if primary. Here is an example of what I mean:

  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. 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.

  12. James Sale

    And, Satyananda, I recommend Robert King and his work to you – I have reviewed his wonderful book on Jose Garcia Villa – a masterpiece.

  13. Lew Icarus Bede

    Some simple observations.

    1. Music does not require verbal expression, as, for example, piano concertos, etc.

    2. Homeoteleuton (i.e., rhyme) is only one of many schemes used in verbal expression.

    3. Among many other works, Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” shows the power and importance of didactic poetry.

    4. In Greece, in the remarkable 400s BC, Herodotus used unmetered prose for his historical investigations and Plato for his philosophical dramas.

    5. Though his meter, in a play, like “Macbeth,” is not as intricate as that found in the dramas of, say, Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, Shakespeare masterfully handles both poetry and prose there.

    6. Both poets, like Dylan Thomas in his villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and prose fiction writers, like Charles Dickens, use repetition, (i.e., anaphora, etc.).

    7. Samuel Johnson said of this line from Vergil, “Formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas”: “All the modern languages cannot furnish so melodious a line.”

    8. I am amazed at the dazzling concentration of classical writers, as, for example, the opening half line of Vergil’s “Aeneid”: “Arma virumque cano”.

    9. Prose fiction writers, like Modernist Joyce and Postmodernist Pynchon, frequently indulged in cacosyntheton.

    10. Milton’s ponderous lines show remarkable staying power.

    • Robert L. King

      To this comment, I would respond with a passage from my book on Jose Garcia Villa’s theory of poetry (“Poetry is”) as follows: “We must not think of poetry as in the service of something else. We speak loosely of poetry as narrative poetry, satirical poetry, didactic poetry, dramatic poetry, but none of these is related to the art of poetry. Narrative poetry such as the writings of Homer, Dante, Virgil and Chaucer, is poetry in service of telling a story, which today is done better by writing a novel. Dramatic poetry, such as Shakespeare’s plays, tells of events that have occurred in the past as though they were occurring in the present. Narrative and dramatic poetry are malpractice of poetry–the story assumes the greatest importance at the expense of the lyrical spirit. They involve verse applied to the matter and uses of prose, Poetry is the frosting on the cake but only in the sense that it is an accompaniment, like music, played as an accompaniment to a movie. . . . Except in his sonnets [and “songs” in his plays], Shakespeare was not really a poet.”

      • James Sale

        First, let me just say: it is a joy to have Robert L King back in the discussions!! I have noticed his absence over the last year – I believe he has been preoccupied elsewhere – but now he is back. Wonderful – and for those who don’t know his book, “Poetry Is”, then I think it is one of the best books about poetry ever written – a marvellous book. But thanks to Lew for his various observations, which I am not inclined to dispute since they seem tangential to what I am talking about. Yes, there are many figures of speech that poets and prose writers use, and there is massive overlap, but my article was focusing on rhyme because of its central and controversial place within poetry, poetic discourse, and even the public imagination. For, for the public, many still think that ‘rhyming’ is poetry! But on the other side, we have the intelligentsia – the post-modernists – who disdain what the public like and also who denigrate the importance of beauty (through form) of poetry. And so to that end, I penned my modest polemic arguing that whilst not essential, rhyme was a major and intrinsic ‘ornament’ to poetry, and oftentimes generated simply great poetry. But thank you both for your points; including Robert’s very controversial one on Shakespeare!

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        I don’t really agree that poetry cannot have a narrative at its center. As you point out, such a contention disqualifies a good deal of what people, scholarly or lay, think of as poetry. After all, not only your cogent examples of Chaucer, Homer, the great works of Dante, Virgil, and the plays of Shakespeare, but also the works of the most successful and widely read poet of the last 200 years, Dr. Seuss, were all poems in service of telling a story (not to mention Milton’s magnum opus, nor much of Spencer, nor many of the Romantics’ greatest hits, such as The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, The Raven, or The Song of Hiawatha, among others). Such a definition disqualifies all epic poems from being considered poems, and a good deal of non-epic poetry as well, and I for one am not willing to banish most of what I regard as the greatest poetry ever written from the empire of poetry. Yet it is true that prose has largely replaced poetry (or more accurately, what people conventionally think of as “prose” has replaced what people conventionally think of as “poetry”) for the purposes of telling a story over the last 300 years or so, at least in terms of what most story-crafters are willing to use, and what most story-readers (such as there are still readers) are willing to consume. Which begs several questions all at once, the first of which I think you have answered incorrectly, although it was noble to attempt to answer, and your answer is quite admirable in its fearlessness.

        What lies at the heart of this discussion, yet again, is what is the true nature of poetry? Mr. Sale hit on some of the truth in this matter when he mentioned that beauty is central to what is poetic and what is not. I’m currently gnawing my way through Graves’ White Goddess, and I came across a rather remarkable definition on page 217 (in the first paragraph of chapter 13; paraphrased very slightly to convey the meaning of the text, which would be somewhat difficult otherwise):

        “the ability to think poetically — to resolve speech into its original images and rhythms and re-combine these on several simultaneous levels of thought into a multiple sense”

        This is a definition that disqualifies a number of poems written in the stiff, formal style favored by a number of modern dissidents from the poetic establishment, who worship too fervently at the alter of perfect clarity. The other extreme of this is what in a number of ways has led to the post-modern malaise that dominates the poetic elite nowadays, namely the hyper complexity of the New Critics which led to stiff, incomprehensible, & downright boring poems such as those of a young Robert Lowell. Yet there is a happy medium between nursery-rhyme clarity and ponderous, self-centered complexity, and it is here that the true poet must reside if they aspire to write poetry that is truly great.

        I also like this quote by Graves because it emphasizes the importance of images in poetry– while the image is not the only thing a poem must have, it is very hard to write a good poem, let alone a great one, if one has no images in one’s poem. I would say that images, their proper selection, framing, and manipulation, are even more central to poetry than rhythm, although rhythm is also very important, obviously. What is metaphor if not the brilliant juxtaposition of images not normally associated? And, as T.S. Eliot observed (though not in these words mind you), what is metaphor if not the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the poet?

        To get back to the point after such long wanderings, I would say that by the definition of Graves given above, many poems written in the service of telling a story are poetic because they recombine everyday events into several different levels of thought simultaneously using rhythms and images that are not prosaically present. The Iliad and the Odyssey do this through the use of mythical creatures and gods, who on one level are actual physical realities, but on a deeper, more real level, represent the abstract ideas, emotions, and hardships that underpin the more visible actors upon the stage of the world. And Shakespeare also does this, personifying Time in The Winter’s Tale, various forest sensations in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and other forces elsewhere, such as the witches in Macbeth. Dante’s Inferno is a tour de force in this kind of metaphorical play of images and characters. And so is Joyce’s Ulysses, which has so many images and rhythms recombined on so many different levels, it is hard not to consider it poetry, and poetry of the first order.

      • James Sale

        Thanks GMH and Lew. I agree with you GMH that narrative can indeed be poetry, and frankly I regard the existence of the Iliad or Paradise Lost as being incontrovertible proof of that proposition; to believe otherwise is to promote theory over the facts of experience. But that said, I can see why Robert has argued otherwise: there is currently an absence of long, narrative poems that ‘compel’ us to read; and certainly lyric is the purest impulse of poetry. But absence does not mean that it is impossible; it does mean that whoever can do it has to be able to use language in an elevated fashion or style that is most difficult to attain, since such a language will almost certainly be at variance with, or run into the problem of, the mishmash and relativistic values and ‘equality’ zeitgeist implicit in most of the language of our day. Indeed, heroic narrative actively works against ‘equality’, which is the the 50-50 principles and really works on the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule – a few things only count inordinately, and from them tremendous issues spring: one decision by Satan, one by Eve, and one by Adam and whole worlds of woe emerge. And to be classical (and this is for Lew – great examples, BTW!) about it: the judgement of Paris, in which Aphrodite was chosen (a beauty pageant, for crying out loud!) above her fellow goddesses meant … the destruction of Troy and Paris’ own life destroyed. Thanks all for some wonderful observations and comments. I do think this is a really important issue. Later this year Evan is bringing out a series of articles on Poetry and the Muses that I have written for SCP, and I hope you will enjoy and respond to these as they appear.

  14. Lew Icarus Bede

    Some Central Thoughts on Poetry and Rhyme

    1. As G. M. H. Thompson pointed out, many of the most inspiring poets did not use rhyme: Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus, Alcman, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Sappho, Bacchylides, Simonides, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Theocritus, Callimachus, Ennius, Lucretius, Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Statius, Martial, Juvenal.

    2. In the first major prose work on the literary theory of poiesis (ποίησις), Aristotle discusses heroic epic poetry, dramatic poetry (both tragic and comic), the satyr play, and lyric poetry.

    3. The lyric poet Horace honoured the epic poet Vergil in his odes.

    4. Vergil, scanning the poetic horizon of his time, went most deeply to the poetry of Homer. Dante, scanning the poetic horizon of his time, went to Vergil’s poetry for his guide through Hell and Purgatory. Though Dante wrote fewer sonnets than Petrarca, he was not the less poetic.

    5. Chaucer’s regularization of rhyme and incorporation of iambic pentameters (in the manner of the Italians), became instrumental for the lyric poets in English for the next seven centuries, Tudor writers, like Wyatt, Howard, and Spenser, giving it an English character. Henry Howard, introducing unrhymed iambic pentameter, blank verse, in his translation of Vergil’s “Aeneid,” and so effectively used by poetic dramatists, like Marlowe and Shakespeare, and others in other poetic genres, like Milton, Thomson, Wordsworth, and Keats.

    6. Throughout his works, the poet Shakespeare frequently went to the Greeks and Romans, and in addition, devoted several poetic dramas to them, like Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, as have other memorable poets, like Corneille, Racine, etc.

    7. The territory of Poetry is vast. Yet, though the territory of Prose is vaster, Poetry, in so many of its manifestations, is vital for the health of a language.

    8. Although it is easy to write poetry, and even easier to write prose, great prose is extremely difficult to write, and great poetry nearly impossible. Only at certain moments in history can greatness in language reveal itself.

    9. Joyce doubted Eliot’s ability as a poet, as have I; and yet my doubts of Eliot’s poetry and prose are less than those I have for Joyce’s prose. And though, for me, neither of them approaches Chaucer’s or Spenser’s failures, still I am thankful for their service to English.

    10. Next to Vergil’s failures, I can only defer to the art of Horace and the vision of Dante.

    • Robert L. King

      I do not deny, and did not in my earlier comment on narrative poetry, that historically there have been numerous works of prose that have been, and still are, considered great works of poetry. But “poetry” is an umbrella word — it can shelter anything you throw in it or under it. In speaking as I did in my comment, I was speaking of the art of poetry, the subject matter of the book I edited: “Poetry is.” I cannot squeeze into this reply what is contained in the 154 pages (25 chapters) of my book and will not try. In his reply to my comment, G.M.H. Thompson states: “What lies at the heart of this discussion, yet again, is what is the true nature of poetry.” I see it differently: What is at the heart of this discussion is what is the true nature of the art of poetry. Poetry can exist as spirit, where poetry is the spiritual coefficient of human nature. Man’s heart has a natural, spontaneous internal power — of insight and imagination. Poetry as spirit is an inward light — an all-embracing sense of good and rightness. Poetry as spirit springs involuntarily from the human heart. You don’t have to do anything for it.
      But poetry as art is not automatic or spontaneous — it has to be worked for — into the discipline of form. In order to be art, form is mandatory. Poetry as art is always controlled, conscious and deliberate. In poetry as art, an artist is at the helm and s/he imposes pattern and architecture, i.e., form, on the work. The spirit of poetry does not have to manifest itself in artistic form. However, if it is put in artistic form, it becomes one of the arts, and only one is called poetry –this is the art of writing in verse. Paul Valery said that the art of writing in verse is poetry “reduced to the essence of its active principle.” For the most part, Chapters Four through Eleven of my book are devoted to distinguishing between the prose process and the poetic process. All I can say here pertinent to the narrative process is this: The poetic process starts from the energy and self-kindling of language itself. When you begin a poem with meaning in mind, that meaning — instead of building the poem up — undermines it and pulls it down. A poem that starts with meaning has a birth defect. And while I maintain that meaning has a special meaning in poetry; it must generate itself from the verbal and musical development of the poem, a subconscious arrival by the poetic process.

      • James Sale

        This is very well expressed and highly cogent; and reminds me, I need to read your book again! Thank you.

    • James Sale

      Welcome Carmella – glad you are on the site, glad you like this post. Feel free to contribute – we have some very vibrant conversations. As you probably deduce if you have looked around, we like beauty, truth and goodness here, and so far as poetry goes, form – without being too dogmatic about it. In essence, poetry should delight and may instruct! So post your comments and submit your poems.

  15. Lieselotte

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    When I look at your blog ѕite in Chrome, it looks fine but when оpening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
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  16. Paul Gray

    I use rhyme within my verse
    For without it I sound quite terse
    But I don’t get better, I get werse
    Quite why I’ve no way of telling
    Some blame it on my

  17. Paul Gray

    Unfinished Sympathy.

    The dice man decided just today
    That a worm would squeeze out of the clay
    Sunshine through water would display a prism
    And I would have an aneuri…
    By Paul Gray.

  18. Paul Gray

    Blank verse is too much like prayer
    and poets are not priests
    I’ll have no truck with rhyming slayers
    I don’t share their beliefs
    (Thirty days has September)
    and though they may think us less
    The rhyme’s what helps them to remember
    Come join the great unblessed.

  19. Paul Gray

    Fill the Blanks Verse Competition.

    Of course poetry requires the rhyming skill
    If you’re doubting this I consider you …
    Ponder it please and do take some time
    Its eight o’clock now, please respond by …
    And metre too is also required
    If one wants to reach the effect …
    Deny it if you will but you must surely see
    It’s simple and sound just like do, ray …
    For rhythm remains a vital component
    I expect in this to have no …
    Must I show you all by banging on drums?
    A rat a tat-tat-tat
    A-rum- ti- tum…
    Be succinct, be clear
    If you ask for ear lending
    Fill the blanks in my ….
    I’m in need of an ….

    Answers to blank verse.
    ill, nine, desired, me, opponents, tum, dear, ending.

    The problem with modernity is that it would see more poetry in the answers and would graft to it meanings that don’t exist.
    By Paul Gray.

  20. Evan

    Dear James, it occurred to me that this poem is also a figurative thumbs up to your essay, so I’ll post it here. Thank you again for the great essay:

    From My Pocket

    Written upon finding most contemporary poems recommended for this day do not contain rhyme or meter.

    From my pocket came cardstock that
    Had the words below inscribed
    In letters golden thoughts emblazoned;
    Hear them now described:

    “Poems with rhyming and good timing
    Have a certain charm
    That makes the brain a speeding train
    That moves the writing arm.

    You may say that they’re passé
    And shallow in their scope,
    Yet discipline will often win
    Without the help of dope.

    Call it common or old fashion
    And yet what could be
    More profound than how words sound when
    Made in harmony,

    Like the brass bell’s ringing sound swells
    Sending waves afar
    With force not random, but from atoms
    Lined like music bars;

    Tin and copper smelted proper
    Makes the metal brass,
    For each its protons has strict patterns
    And a constant mass.

    Things with order and strong borders
    Leave a lasting mark,
    Reverberating, undulating
    Here to ages dark,

    From those ages and skin pages
    To antiquity
    And forward flying past our dying
    To posterity.

    Song that’s singing! Gong that’s ringing!
    Through the poem with rhyme!
    Forever living, ever giving
    Meaning through all time!”

    • James Sale

      Thanks Evan – apologies for delay in replying – but this is great: this does give force to what I have rather prosaically stated! As you say so well: “Things with order and strong borders / Leave a lasting mark,” – that is exactly it. Indeed, I seem to remember that it was Robert Frost who said, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, which again is all about the borders and boundaries which make meaning – and society – possible. Well done. Love it.

  21. Richard Livermore

    Rhyme And Reason

    Some people do not like the way
    I’m prone to using rhyme to today
    and so they’re apt to sniff at it,
    as if that former form of wit
    were infradig in modern times
    and no-one’s worth a fig who rhymes.
    I think they think that poets choose
    the forms that they are wont to use.

    Forms are not derived from rules;
    if there’s a form to molecules,
    it’s not because they’ve read a book
    which tells them how they ought to look
    and what or who they need to ape,
    but just because it is the shape
    in which they first of all arrived
    and—last of all—they have survived.

    • James Sale

      Thanks for this Richard – you make a very important point in your charming verse: namely, that the forms are not in one sense ‘invented’. They emerge from the language and its structure; and that is where greatness occurs. A certain form – say, sonnet – is discovered and within it certain languages (e.g English or Italian) find the expressive capabilities of the language enhanced. Would the sonnet form work, though, in Chinese or Japanese? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that haiku, for example, scarcely ‘works’ in English despite all the practitioners of the form. Heck, I have written haikus myself but you can’t say much in English in them; just as you can’t say much with limericks. But the difference is, limericks are funny because they go with the metrical grain of the English language; haikus, because they don’t, remain intellectual exercises. Of course, in their original language I am sure haikus are compelling.

      • Richard Livermore

        Thanks for that vote of confidence. The truth is, especially these days, I tend to write in freer forms than I used to, with more influence from surrealism and poets like John Ashbery, but that’s my humour and perhaps I’ll ‘grow out of it’. I still use rhyme – just not so frequently. What I don’t like is this either/or attitude imported into poetry, which is expressed in the so-called Poetry-Wars. People should write what works in the way that it works. No other criterion should be applied.

      • James Sale

        Yes, Richard, I understand where you are coming, and I dislike a doctrinaire approach, but that said I think that writing ‘free verse’ is especially difficult if one wishes to say that it is ‘poetry’. It’s possible, but very difficult – since so often it is merely chopped-up prose. The question becomes: what is it that defines it as poetry? TS Eliot wrote free verse that I accept is poetry, so part of an answer could be derived from studying his work; but again, that said, in The Wasteland it is interesting how often the iambic meter returns to either haunt the line or explicitly be there. I am not an expert on John Ashbery, but used to occasionally read his stuff as it was published in PN Review in the UK. I have to say: I never read one poem by him that I thought was a genuine poem; it was all intellectual, clever-clever stuff – that is, from the ego – and the fact that that was so seems to me to be evident in that I cannot recall one quotable line. Real poetry has a tendency to stick in the mind – Eliot was great at that, and is so quotable. But Ashbery? Well, we’ll all make our own minds up. But thanks for your comments on this page – much appreciated and welcome.

  22. Vernell

    May I simply say what a comfort to find a person that actually understands what they are discussing online.

    You actually understand how to bding a problem too light and make it important.
    More people have to look at this and understand this side of your story.
    It’s surprising you aren’t more popular given that you definitely
    poswsess the gift.

    • James Sale

      Hi Vernell – thank you, I appreciate your comments on my article and am glad you like it so much. Do feel free to re-post it and let others know about it; in that way you might cure the problem of my popularity! Of course, the important thing is the ideas, and not the specific person behind them. On the pages of the SCP we are collectively (most of us) working towards helping the West regain its sense of order, purpose and beauty – through classical forms. Do come along to the events in New York on the 17th June – advertised at the top of this page – I am flying in from the UK to join this party, and can scarcely wait to be there with New York’s greats!

    • James Sale

      Thanks Bitmain – I cannot take credit for the look: that must go to Evan Mantyk, the editor. But am glad you like the content of my article.


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