Why Poets Rhyme

Feb 17, 2017

Credit Ken Smith

My hobby last year was writing little six-line poems. That was a surprise. Even more surprising was that I wrote ninety of them. They each have a rhyming pattern modeled after a very moving poem by W. H. Auden called “Epitaph on a Tyrant.” Auden wrote it in the 1930s about Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini. He was trying to figure out how a tyrant’s brain works. His poem goes like this: Epitaph on a Tyrant. Perfection of a kind was what he was after, and the poetry he invented was easy to understand. He knew human folly like the back of his hand, and was greatly interested in armies and fleets. When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, and when he cried the little children died in the streets. Aren’t those last two lines stunning? It’s true that there is a kind of politician who doesn’t have the backbone to say no to a tyrant but instead drinks martinis with him and laughs too hard at his jokes. And when nobody has the courage to say no to a tyrant, then the weak and the innocent will be the ones to suffer. When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. That’s disgusting, isn’t it? And when he cried the little children died in the streets. The poem takes us into the head of a tyrant, and just showing off a little, Auden made it rhyme.

So last year while I was writing my ninety little six-line rhyming poems, I figured out what rhyme is actually for. I used to think rhyming poems were fussy and old-fashioned. I thought they were written by poets who cared more about ornamental sounds than about meaning. Making a poem rhyme is a little like playing guitar while wearing handcuffs, I thought. Impressive, sure, by why bother? But the strange thing about rhyme, I discovered, is that it takes you places as a writer you otherwise would never have gone. 

Once you decide that your new poem will rhyme, and maybe you let purple cabbage into the first draft, then people who play cribbage may suddenly arrive a line or two later. You won’t have expected that but rhyme will make it happen. If Aunt Jane’s dusty bottle of Olay is there in the draft, thanks to rhyme you may soon be oiling an Edsel engine’s rusted throttle. These sonic surprises are invited in solely by the need to rhyme. So rhyme turns out to be an idea-inventing tool, an imagination-stretching tool, a means of discovery. This is why poets love rhyme. 

Once I realized that rhyme is for inventing, I started seeing invention tools everywhere. Blues and jazz musicians lay down a chord progression and invent riffs to weave against it. Rappers and hip-hop artists do the same with rhyming words. Bach, I hear, wrote musical pieces called inventions just for the purpose of teaching people how to invent new melodies and rhythms on their own, that is, as he said, “not only to obtain good inventions but to develop them well.”

Then I remembered that Athens, in ancient Greece, had schools where people could practice public speaking, which was suddenly a powerful tool in their new participatory democracy. Part of the curriculum was invention—that is, ways of coming up with ideas for good speeches. And now my friend writes from Italy to say that marriage is a Two-Part Invention. I come to know who you are and improvise as best I can around the form of your psyche and your days, and you do the same for me. We are both jazz musicians playing to the beat of the other’s tune. Daring, happy, surprising harmonies may result. We each rise to the special occasion that loving the other person offers us. The limiting rules of rhyme paradoxically launch the writer on a journey, and away from the printed page or the structured flow of musical chords, in the hustle of our daily lives, we also accept the limiting influence of another person (for years or for decades) because we like the challenge of working free in a tight space. We like the odds there, the hopeful constraints that lead to joyful circumstances.