Avoiding Bad Rhyme

Writing good rhymed poetry is difficult; but writing terrible rhymed poetry is fairly easy, so a lot of people do that. And so much of it is written that the free verse snobs associate its ill results with all of rhymed poetry, and count rhyme as a cheap trick without poetic merit. It’s folly to judge a thing bad based upon bad examples; but in the case of rhyme, such is often the case. Which begs the question: why is there so much bad rhyme?


Part of the reason is that nearly no one teaches the difference between good rhyme and bad; poets just have to pick up an ear for it on their own. Another part of the reason is that teachers, parents and friends are so often reluctant to pass judgment on a loved one’s rhymes, so people continue to write without the corrective feedback that could make them better. Whatever the reason, bad rhyme is ubiquitous. Except in my work. And hopefully yours, too. But if you do have a few bad rhymes here and there, maybe the following will help.


One of the biggest pitfalls in writing rhymed poetry is the tendency for the rhyme to dictate the content. That is, a poet in haste to get a rhyme writes a line for no purpose other than to rhyme. For example, having finished a line ending with a word like “hour,” the poet feels compelled to write something about a “flower,” whether mention of flowers properly belong in the poem or not. There really is no excuse for this haste; a poet can take as long as they like writing a poem, so they had better be prepared to rework a phrase a few hundred times to get it to say what they want.


Suppose you end a line with the word “love.” You consider possible rhymes for the word—above, glove, shove, dove, of… not a whole lot of options. In almost every case, suddenly talking about a glove, or about a shove, would be simply irrelevant. Of can work, if you have the skill. Of course, most people simply settle for above; and the result is thousands of love poems making reference to the stars/skies/etc up above. Maybe it would be better to just rewrite the line so it doesn’t end in love.


Now suppose you finish a line with “bride.” Okay, tried cried fried dried lied belied glide slide plied pride deride—more options here. Throw away all the ones that don’t fit the content. Then play with phrases until you find a phrase with a rhyme that belongs. And if your stanza requires more than two lines with this rhyme, keep trying—but if your stanza requires three lines with this rhyme, and you can think of only two good ones, then throw away your two good lines and start afresh.


Refusing to throw away lines is one of the most common mistakes in writing poetry. If you are the type that can’t bear to throw a line away, you will be condemned to write bad poetry, or at least sub-par poetry.


Another pitfall is doing violence to your grammar in order to make a rhyme. This happens most commonly with word order. (Yes, poetry afford you some liberty with word order—but not so much liberty.) For example, suppose in the interest of rhyming “no matter how she wept,” you try the phrase “but he the secret kept” (maybe the poem is about Samson and Delilah). He the secret kept? People don’t talk that way! We say, “he kept the secret”—subject, verb, object. Indeed, some classical poems may get away with this—but most of us don’t sound so good. If we do this too often in a poem it doesn’t sound poetic at all; it sounds more like a whimsical Yoda. And yet this happens over and over again.


The goal here is to create poetic speech that actually sounds natural when spoken. This doesn’t mean it has to sound common—but it has to be believable. Certain characters in a poem (or story) may use elevated speech, but they shouldn’t be needlessly Byzantine. If your speech has to do acrobatics to communicate a simple idea, that’s confusing, not elegant.


Another common grammar mistake is misuse of verb tense. For example, let’s say you need to rhyme “breeze” (and you are savvy enough to avoid the obvious “trees” rhyme), and you try something like “the cooling wind did please.” Did please? Why not, “pleased”? Oh, because you wanted the exact rhyme, and figured one tense was the same as another. Well, it’s not; and it’s particularly not when this involves changing tenses in the middle of a sentence.


Yes, I have made these mistakes too. I wrote one particularly notorious line ending in “had chose” (bad grammar—either “chose,” or “had chosen” is correct) that remained for several months after I had finished the poem—until I noticed the error one day and reworked it.


But here is a kind of mistake that I have never made, but which some beginning writers occasionally make: trying to rhyme unstressed syllables. For example, a novice poet wants to rhyme a simple word like “me” and comes up with the word “pretty.” The both end with the long e sound, right? On the contrary! English rhyme is always based upon the stressed syllable; put words like “me” and “pretty” in context, and the hear will not match them as rhyming without forcing it to. “Pretty” has several of good rhymes, like witty, city, kitty, Walter Mitty (okay, that one is probably not a good idea to try), but none of these rhyme with “me.” The stress is on /prit/, so that’s where the rhyme is.


Important note: do not confuse bad rhyme with half rhyme, which is actually quite a good thing in a poem. A half rhyme uses the same vowel sound (assonance), but uses a similar instead of exact consonant ending: time/mine, mine/mind, road/mote, tub/flood. In context of a poem, the occasional half rhyme still flows; and it allows you greater freedom in choosing content words. (But be discriminating in its use; if your ear tells you that you need an exact rhyme to finish a stanza, trust your ear.)


To sum up, when rhyming:

1. Never let the rhyme force you to talk about something that doesn’t belong in context,

2. Don’t mess with word order just to get a rhyme,

3. Don’t change verb tenses just to get a rhyme,

4. Don’t pretend that unstressed syllables rhyme with stressed ones, and

5. Keep destroying/rewriting lines until you get the words right.

6. The goal is to create natural speech (that happens to rhyme).


Now here’s a fun exercise: next time you find a particularly bad use of rhyme in a poem, post it here among the replies. Then we can all laugh at the error, and quietly fix our own works to avoid the same.


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