At a time when rhyming poets and free verse poets are like armed camps, perhaps it is time for us to find a middle ground, a time for truces and treaties, mutual respect and support for colleagues who have common interests and face common challenges, because in spite of a thriving poetry community, print publications, an online presence and innumerable blogs, by and large poets and poetry are currently out of fashion. Someone has suggested that if you don’t believe this, you should ask your (non-poet) friends to name five living poets. For the most part they will be stumped. They would have no problem naming politicians, sports stars, entertainers and all manner of celebrities—but poets?
There was a time when this was not the case. According to Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, in 1938 she was the 10th most famous person in the United States. Her colorful lifestyle was certainly a part of that, but so was her poetry, and for the most part it was rhyming poetry. There was a time when poets were well-known and respected, when people routinely read and memorized poetry, when it was taught in schools and strong and lovely lines were routinely quoted. In reality it was a golden age of poetry. Broaden your research and ask your friends to name 5 poets, living OR dead, and if they can, odds are that more than half of them will be rhyming poets, not exclusively rhyming, and yet…Take this a step farther and ask them to name five poems. The overwhelming answers will be poems that rhyme. They won’t be jingles, or Hallmark grade, saccharine or silly. The reasons are simple. The human brain is hard-wired to respond to rhythm and repetition and is programmed to remember based on sound, similarities and predictability.
We don’t routinely think of song lyrics when we speak of poets and poetry, but the Nobel committee put the lie to that by naming Dylan as the winner of this year’s Nobel prize in literature. No sooner was that announced than Twitter and the internet lit up with anger and dismissive rant. He was “not a poet, but a song-writer.” Worse still, he was a rhymer! (The ancient tradition of the Bard was ignored and disrespected.) But historically, as free verse came into vogue it became common to denigrate and trivialize rhyme. It was unnecessary. They are two sides of the same coin.
This isn’t an essay to stoke the fires of war between the proponents of free verse and rhyme. I love both, I write both, but I think that by belittling rhyme and marginalizing it we are doing ourselves a disservice. Rhyme is another hoop to jump through. Done well, it will draw you in, lodge in your memory, sing in your heart. Done poorly? Well, it is painful to read and hard on the ears. It demands timing, cohesion, discernment and a sophisticated vocabulary—the exact same qualities that characterize excellent free verse. The antagonism between rhymers and non-rhymers is not only unnecessary, but is also divisive to the poetry community in general. I believe that rhyme is an important tool in a poet’s skill set but it is also important to acknowledge that it is a hard and demanding task master—all the more reason that we should grant it the honor and respect that it deserves.
Because something is well-loved does not imply that it is inelegant, and popular is not a synonym for inferior. Rhyme schemes may be clever, complex or discrete. Rhyme encompasses sonnets and elegies, limericks and ditties, odes and anthems. But the form, or formality are not what determine the quality of the poem. I am merely asking for, begging for, a new, or perhaps renewed, respect for the traditions of rhyme, an acknowledgement of both the inspiration and skill that goes into the rhyming poem. As in so many other areas of our lives, in art, we do not elevate our own choices by demeaning someone else’s. We are entitled to our preferences (indeed, where would we be without them?) What we love reflects our own passions. But it is the recognition of the tastes and aesthetics of others that serves the poetic community at its finest—in this case, the special and revered tradition of rhyme. Too often free verse poets are disparaging of rhyme, calling it simplistic, juvenile or sing-song. Rhyming poets are not entirely innocent either, as they are apt to dismiss free verse as obscure, fraudulent or elitist. But as our mothers told us, two wrongs do not make a right. The reality is, if you are a poet, then we are compatriots in the country of poetry, no more enemies than the oil painter and the water colorist or the concert violinist and the jazz pianist. The field of poetry is enhanced by every writer with a gift, a muse, an inspiration. To some, it will come in free verse, others, blank verse, or haiku. And sometimes if we are very fortunate, it will create a rhyming cadence all its own.
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Kathy Lundy Derengowski is a native of San Diego county. She is an active member and co-facilitator of the Lake San Marcos Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in Summation, the ekphraisis anthology of the Escondido Arts Partnership, California Quarterly, Silver Birch Press, Turtle Light Press and the Journal of Modern Poetry. She has won awards from the California State Poetry Society and been a finalist in the San Diego book Awards poetry chapbook category.