Many people say they don’t like poetry, and it is not hard to see why: the Morose Poet presenting her work at our reading, droning on in a monotone; the odd, inaccessible words and phrasing; the personal confessions that might be best shared with one’s therapist or priest. These may all be true, but it doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Poetry is an innate part of human language, starting with religious chants intoned in certain patterns of sound. Greek plays that entertain and instruct also pay careful attention to the meter of the language. The Bard, one of the greatest English stylists, gave us some of the best examples of rhyme in his sonnets. Many great epics from around the world are passed on orally, and therefore rhyme is a very useful device to help the reciter remember the text. And let us not forget the close connection of poetry to music – all the songs throughout the course of time, from early ballads to the blues to rap to opera – when we think of a song, we most immediately think of words that rhyme.
Perhaps rhyme is regarded with condescension because of its association in modern, educated times with children’s literature. Rhyme is there to teach children sound, prosody (the pattern of sound and rhythm and intonation in a phrase/speech), and vocabulary. If a child knows the word “book,” then s/he can add to her or his vocabulary another word that sounds just like it but begins with a different letter, such as “look.” American children have grown up with one of the masters of rhyme, Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Consider one of the best-selling children’s books of all time, Green Eggs and Ham, where the persistent Sam-I-Am is urging the other character to try the food and he refuses:
Do you like green eggs and ham?/I do not like them, Sam-I-am./I do not like
green eggs and ham.
Where the rhymes of ‘ham’ and ‘Sam’ and ’am’ are repeated to get children familiar with the sound of ‘am.’ Notice the play of the language, and the stresses of the syllables. This makes it easier for children to remember the words, and ultimately for any reader, brings a sense of play to the language.
If we go back further into the Western culture, we see the use of rhyme in an art form that marries music with words: opera. One of the most skilled librettists was the wild genius Lorenzo Da Ponte, who collaborated with Mozart on arguably his three greatest operas, Don Giovanni, Così fan Tutte, and Le Nozze di Figaro. One need only read the scores as a text to appreciate the poetry of the language, the syllabic stresses and rhythms and rhyme. Take for example the final scene of Don Giovanni, where the Commendatore has come to warn the Don he’s going to go to hell if he doesn’t repent:
Commendatore: Parlo, ascolta, più tempo non ho. (I’m speaking, listen, I don’t have any more time)
Don Giovanni: Parla, parla, ascoltando ti sto. (Speak, speak, I’m listening)
The command to listen, “ascolta” is echoed by the repetition of the word in the first person gerund form, “ascoltando”, (I’m) listening. “Ho” rhymes with “sto,” but also internally with “parlo.”
But is rhyme relevant anymore? In this era of postmodernism and cynicism, confessional poetry and language-heavy deconstructionists, who writes in rhyme anymore, other than children’s book writers? Poet Cody Walker, of the University of Michigan thinks so, as he writes often in light verse. Here is one proof that rhyme is alive in well in modern times:
From the first two lines, we can see the end rhymes of “baby” and “may be,” and there is also the playful repeated sibilance in “susceptible” (where the sc functions as an s sound) and “lies.” Even the ending two lines rhyme with “training” and “gaining.” Repeating a word “backwards” at the end and then at the beginning of a line makes for emphasis and an allowance for using the word in two meanings and contexts. But despite the rhyme and lighthearted nature of the poem, there are darker elements that make it clearly an adult work. A baby will be eventually susceptible to lies and the dishonesty of this world, such as the fact that Santa Claus is not real, and one day the mask will come off the myth. This is a hard truth that anyone who has grown up has to face. The irony that is generated by using the rhyme and light verse in contrast to the content makes Walker’s poem all the more effective. And ultimately, this is poetry that is accessible and reconnects us with the joy of the way words fit together and how they sound.