Thursday, 13 October 2011

What is poetry, Part 1: Does it have to rhyme?

Anyone who writes poetry that doesn't rhyme will at some point have been confronted by someone telling them that if it doesn't rhyme then it's not poetry. So, in exploring the hazy boundaries between poetry, prose and song I will begin with the question: Does poetry have to rhyme?  The answer to this question is no, and not just because I (usually) don't write rhyming poetry. I will also note that in this post I am talking about English language poetry.

First, historically speaking, many poets (who are very serious and clearly poets) have written in blank verse - poetry which has a particular meter (iambic pentameter) but no rhyme scheme. We associate this usually with drama - in particular Shakespeare, but also Christopher Marlowe. However, the form has also been widely used in poetry as well - John Milton's Paradise Lost is written in blank verse, and the Romantic poets (notably Byron, Shelley and Keats) all wrote in blank verse.  Hopefully as the blog progresses I will look more closely at various poetic forms, so I won't say too much more about blank verse at this stage.

Of course, blank verse does have a particular rhythm (not that any poet completely respects the rhythm - more on this in the as yet only potential post on rhythm). So the question could be revised to 'Does poetry have to have rhyme and/or rhythm'? If by rhythm you mean an actual meter, like iambic pentameter, then the answer is no.

Here is a poem by William Carlos Williams, 'This is just to say', which doesn't rhyme at all.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This poem could be written out without the line breaks, as a note from a husband who came home late to his wife.  But would such a husband have written it like this? More like he would have written: 'Sorry, I ate all the plums in the icebox, I hope you weren't saving them for breakfast.'

WCW's poem draws out each separate part of the moment - 'the plums' and 'the icebox' each on a separate line in the first stanza emphasises the two central objects.  'I have eaten' is an almost imperious intoduction to a simple poem about a simple moment.  In the second stanza, the introduction of 'you' conjures a relationship - someone with whom the writer shares the icebox, a life.  The intimacy conjured by his knowedge of 'you', saving (once again the separation of the word conjures 'saving' as a special, thoughtful act).  Then forgiveness is asked, not because the writer was hungry or tired or had a big day, but because of the particular deliciousness of the plums - each element 'so sweet/and so cold' separated out. I could talk about this poem for much longer, because I love it, but I will leave my example there.

And this is why poems don't have to rhyme - the use of line breaks and/or the natual rhythms and order of language can conjure so much (more on line breaks when we get to prose poetry).  A poem can slightly alter natural spoken rhythms for emphasis, place special importance upon ordinary things by highlighting particular words.  So 'This is just to say' is a note apologising for eating the plums, but it is also about a simple and beautiful moment.

And I haven't even made it to Walt Whitman yet.


  1. Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.Not without cause therefore some both Italian, and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rhime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, triveal, and of no true musical delight; which consists onely in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rhime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem'd an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover'd to heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.

    Rimeing, like reading, is more an aid to memory than to knowledge

  2. Please talk about the poem more, I love it too!

  3. Hi Rissoleblower - I will do a post on William Carlos Williams soon, and talk about this poem more in the context of his work as a whole.