Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 31, 2012

Rhyming Isn’t Just for Rappers (or Nappers)

Dr. Seuss made endless rhymes by creating new words:

There’s a wocket in my pocket!

There’s a jertain in the curtain!

Shel Silverstein mined body parts and food for many of his rhymes, which can open lots of doors:

Ickle was captain, and Pickle was crew

And Tickle served coffee and mulligan stew.

But for most of us “serious poets,” rhyme’s out.  No doubt.  For the last 40 years or more, free verse has held the throne.  There are good reasons for this, as anyone knows who’s read earnest love poems written by teenagers or whose ears have been scorched by bad raps.  (PLEASE, I implore my senior boys in Creative Writing, no more rap poems about parties where you get as high as the sky or hang with your bro’s and their ho’s.  Seriously, they write like this.)

Let’s face it — our ears are drawn to rhyme.  And while rhyme may often sound sing-songy and childish and come out in complete cliches…. it’s still fun to play with now and then.  Good rhymes are very, very difficult to create, though.  The challenge is to be clever and fresh.  There are a few ways to do this.

First, rhyming dictionaries really do help.  Webster’s is organized by sounds, listing all single-syllable rhymes first, then 2-syllable, 3-syllable, etc.  For example, if you want a good rhyme for BED, they list 2 full-page columns of possibilities, from BREAD and SHRED to SLEEPYHEAD to FIRE-ENGINE RED.

I prefer trying to slightly camouflage the rhymes through de-emphasizing the stressed syllables in the rhyme in a run-on line, such as in a quatrain of this sonnet where every other line rhymes, but you might not notice it right away:

…striped beach towels draped over lawn chairs

became our refuge.  Huddled together

in swimsuits, caches of bright beads shared

to make chokers on straps of thin leather…

My favorite way to de-emphasize rhyme and just give a suggestion of similar sound is to use a “slant” or “near” rhyme, such as NEAR/BEAR or NEVER/FEATHER.

A fourth way to play with rhyme is to weave similar vowel sounds all through a poem, rather than just rhyming the words at the ends of lines.  This ups the ante of the challenge and makes writing a poem almost like working a Sudoku puzzle.

Our U. S. Poet Laureate of 3 years ago, Kay Ryan of California, is the master of weaving rhyme throughout her little gems of poems, like this one:


Home to Roost, by Kay Ryan   (in “The Niagara River,” 2005)

The chickens

are circling and

blotting out the

day.  The sun is

bright, but the

chickens are in

the way.  Yes,

the sky is dark

with chickens,

dense with them.

They turn and

then they turn

again.  These

are the chickens

you let loose

one at a time

and small —

various breeds.

Now they have

come home

to roost — all

the same kind

at the same speed.


Here’s my attempt at a Kay-Ryan-styled poem.  I hope she’ll forgive me.


Oh let’s not kid ourselves:

it’s never what we think it is.

The sticky wicket’s stickier,

the thicket always thickest,

our misgivings much trickier

than anything explicit.

No matter how we flick the switch,

we can’t unpick our ticket.

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