by Richard Moore
Why have rhyme in poetry? Why, indeed, have poetry? What good does it do? There
are many answers to these questions, but the one which pleases me most deeply at
the moment runs thus: we human beings need poetry because poetry is one of our
disciplines of knowledge. In this, it is like scientific method, mathematics,
logic, dancing, representational painting, the tonal music of the baroque and
classical periods, and many other activities by the practice and appreciation of
which we come to feel that we understand ourselves and our world. All these
activities have the character of games which have certain rules. Playing
them, committing ourselves to the skill and discipline of them, we somehow make
discoveries about who and where we are.
One of the possible rules in poetry is rhyming. It is one of the methods, one of
the ways to truth in this art. Sometimes people think of rhyme, of the
commitment to it, as an obstacle in our path to poetic truth. Even
Milton, who knew better, said that, or almost that, in his preface to Paradise
Lost. But the reverse is, or can be, the case. Let me repeat an illustration
I think I've used before. When I was playing insane to get my psychiatric
discharge from the Air Force, one of the psychological tests I was given
consisted of the beginnings of sixty sentences for which I was to supply the
endings and thereby unwittingly reveal my secret inner nature. "At the end
of the road . . . " and "Men get money . . . " were two of the
beginnings. I insisted on taking the test home and came back the next day with
sixty rhyming couplets:
At the end of the road
is a snake or a toad.
Men get money
from the Easter Bunny.
—and announced triumphantly that I had thwarted the purpose of the test since,
as we all know, rhyme is mechanical and unspontaneous. "O no!" replied
the tester, rubbing his hands in sadistic glee, "Your rhyming answers will
be wonderfully revealing. Your plodding, unimaginative ego had to accept
whatever rhymes your naughty, feckless id chose to feed it. What a firm
grip this humble psychiatric tester had on the very private parts of Truth! What
an improvement he would have made in the Yale English Department! He was right:
in the first couplet I had revealed my essential pessimism, in the second, my
Rhyming, done correctly, clarifies the difference between responsible philosophy
and irresponsible poetry. The philosopher writes what he thinks; the poet
discovers what he thinks when he writes: he is borne (perhaps I mean born) into
what he believes by the rhyme, the rhythm, the eloquence of what he is saying.
Some practical conclusions follow from these premises. First, rhyming
dictionaries are to be used only by amateurs in the beginning or preferably not
at all. They short-circuit the psychic process I have just described and lead to
rhyming that is indeed mechanical and meaningless. Read other poets, poets!
Relish their rhymes and do likewise. Your own private rhyming dictionary will
form in the depths of your soul and deliver you into eternity. No two poets
rhyme exactly alike. Who were the great rhymers in English? Swift, Dryden, Pope,
Chaucer, Ogden Nash, Byron. . . . Browning was a great poet and a very facile
rhymer, but not a great rhymer.
Ezra Pound, as I remember, said it was impossible to translate Villon because
Villon always rhymed on the meaning. That's what a great rhymer does. He
thinks in rhyme. His whole poem is "rhyme-born." His rhyme words
strike the ear strongly and ring with significance.
So let us have none of these half rhymes, these slant rhymes, these poor lame
efforts that are supposed to be so subtle and clever. They are not clever; they
are too easy to be clever. Yeats, it is true, uses them well because he is not a
great rhymer and wisely aims sometimes to dispense with rhyme and gets a special
effect by doing so without giving up his stanza form. An incident will introduce
some clarity into this matter. In a Hudson Review of the late '50's,
Louis Simpson reviewed a book by Philip Booth and stated that the long title
poem was in blank verse. In a letter to the Review, I pointed out that the poem
was in terza rima. Almost all the rhymes were slant. This nicely illustrated the
actual effect of such rhymes, I remarked: that of no rhymes at all. (The letter
At the opposite end of this spectrum, there is Humbert Humbert's poem to Dolores
Haze toward the end of Lolita. "A maniac's masterpiece,"
Humbert remarks, "The stark, stiff, lurid rhymes correspond very exactly
to. . .landscapes and figures. . . drawn by psychopaths in tests devised by
their astute trainers." Exactly! Let us have more wildness, more madness,
in poetry; let us have more rhyming! Shut up in our civilizations, we have all,
like Ogden Nash's kangaroo in his cage, traded in our freedom for safety:
O kangaroo, O kangaroo,
Be grateful that you're in the zoo
And not transmuted by a boomerang
To zestful, tasty kangaroo meringue.
That last mad rhyme tells us where the heart of the true rhymer lies. We human
beings could have made it worse for the kangaroo than we already have.
English is a wonderful language to rhyme in. So few rhymes dance on our tongue
and they are so hard to find that they stand out wonderfully when they do pop
up. In Italian, where almost everything rhymes with everything else, giving up
rhyme for free verse goes almost unnoticed. The situation is even worse in the
classical languages where things like the -ibus, -ibus and -orum, -orum endings
in Latin make rhyme a noisy commonplace to be avoided. And the very difficulty
of finding rhymes in English is an important reason for them. Art thrives on
difficulty. The audience (if there is one) delights when the poet, like the
impossible archer, hits the mark. What effortless grace! Such deeds seem beyond
human skill. He must be a god.
And English, as Sir Philip Sidney remarked, has a delightful variety of possible
rhymes: single rhymes, double rhymes, triple rhymes. That English is such a
"bastard language" (as an infuriated Hungarian friend once remarked)
also helps. One can couple latinate with germanic words and set one word against
two, as so often in my mouse epic:
And yet, right along with me, she's
a member of our own species
Said Phyllis, "Poor Samson, at bottom he's
torn by esthetic dichotomies."
One enjoys listening carefully and noticing how the language is actually
pronounced —discovering, for example, that "he's" and
"ease" are often identical in sound.
Of course, this emphasis on rhyme does very little for poetry as an
international art. I remember years ago mentioning American poetry to a
literature professor in a German university. "Ah, yes," he said,
"Vhitman, Pount. . . . He had never heard of Frost. No doubt there were
political and fashionable reasons for this omission, but that Frost was a rhymer
must have contributed to that gaping emptiness in the professor's soul. Rhymes
are always local. They belong to the nitty-gritty specificity (try saying that
phrase out loud, Reader!) of the language. They are almost impossible to
translate. They have to be deeply reconceived, reinvented in the target
language, and that tends to turn the "translation" into an independent
poem pulled willy-nilly out of the translator, who may not be trained for such
But in this we have yet another apparent drawback which turns out to be an
accelerator, speeding us on to fulfillment. Classical Athens, Elizabethan
London, Dante's Florence, Goethe's Weimar . . . the greatest poetry has always
been local. International poetry is like the English spoken at the U. N.
Everyone understands it, and it means next to nothing.
So let us leave the Great World Cities to their raging proletariats and hope
that somewhere in the boring boondocks something bold and gutsy is stirring,
something alive with subtle rhythms and wild rhymes.
And let this gutsy outpouring of mine end with an appendix, otiose but operable:
a example or two of what I have aimed at —or what I think my id has
aimed at —in my own rhyming poems. First, to show the reader how human I am, a
defect in the last lines of my poem about Oliver Wendell Holmes, the father and
the son, the poet and the judge:
So said the son, whose pen
later in life taught men
clarity of thought
about both is and ought
in some of the best prose
this flabby Nation knows;
and he was wont to cry
gaily, surrounded by
its literary wastes,
"Thank God, I have low tastes!"
All of that seems well-rhymed on the meaning, ending with a well-known quip of
the great justice himself, but that rhyming "by" in the third line
from the end bothers me. It is what I mean by not rhyming on the meaning:
"by" doesn't bear the emphasis that the rhyme gives it. The most you
can say for it is that it speeds the performer over it and into the whammy of
the last couplet.
Next, lest the reader conclude that I am a frivolous soul incapable of
"serious" poems, let me quote a sonnet from my book of them published
in 1972. The locale is the hills of Vermont.
You were so solid, father, cold and raw
as these north winters, where your angry will
first hardened, as the earth when the long chill
deepens—as is this country's cruel law—
yet under trackless snow, without a flaw
covering meadow, road, and stubbled hill,
the springs and muffled streams were running still,
dark until spring came, and the awful thaw.
In your decay a gentleness appears
I hadn't guessed—when, gray as rotting snow,
propped in your chair, your face will run with tears,
trying to speak, and your hand, stiff and slow,
will touch my child—who, sensing the cold years
in your eyes, cries until you let her go.
Of course, the poem stands or falls on the comparison of the father with his
suppressed warmth to the New England winter with its springs and streams still
deeply flowing despite the cold, and of the father's decay in old age to the
winter's "awful" collapse into the mud of spring. Emphasized rhyme
words like "raw, chill, flaw . . . " which have double application
reinforce the parallel. The rhyme sounds emphasize the equal length of the
metered lines, and this bears especial fruit in the sestet, where each of the
six end-stopped lines has a pause after the fourth syllable except the last,
where it is after the third. I feel that this breaking of an established
pattern, emphasized by the violent internal rhyme aids greatly in bringing the
poem to its horrifying conclusion. I think I was lucky in this one.
But I had put myself in the way of good luck by throwing in my lot with the
sonnet form in the first place. Over and above the specific effects, the poem
acquires a power and authority simply by being carried out with apparent ease in
a recognized and recognizably difficult verse form.
But what I love best is humor and horror happening at once, as in "The
Heap." If he cares to, the reader can discover his own reasons about this
© 2002 Richard Moore