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Monday, May 10, 2010

Freeing Your Verse in Rhyme

Traditional English poetry often uses patterns of rhyme with each verse set into a rhyming pair of lines (couplet) or in groups of four lines known as the quatrain. More complex patterns, such as the sonnet, add interest to these classical forms, which also depend on unusual comparisons, wise insights, and true observations to be truly memorable.

In a way, traditional poems can be easier to write than free verse because you know exactly where to break the lines and where to place the emphasis on your poetic thoughts with the use of rhyming words. However, so many poems have followed these old patterns for so many centuries that they’re especially susceptible to being confined by boxed quatrains with nothing strong enough to break them free – unless, of course, you liberate them on purpose to see the fresh effects you get.

To give you an example of the wonderful free verse poetry you might find within your traditional verse, consider these two versions of a poem with many fine options and ongoing possibilities. First, the traditional version:

The Melting Candle
by Olfa Drid

Like a candle day after day I melt
by your side for years and years I once dwelt
with my light you kept growing and thriving
I'm eaten up but naught you've ever felt

Like a candle day after day I melt
you took my flame and in your torch it dwelt
to lighten all your darkening roads and caves
and all my senses at your weird moods knelt

Like a candle day after day I melt
with all your crazes and blunders I dealt
but no complaints and not a single blame
my heart was burnt, its smoke you’ve never smelt

Like a candle day after day I melt
I was that dreamer; charming, fresh and svelte
but now I’m sinking in my pool of wax
shapeless, soulless and denied a life belt.

Besides the need for standard punctuation to help clarify the reading, an immediate problem arises because of the differing moods and tones evoked by the rhymes. Compared to, say, the Italian language, which produced many rhyming patterns, not many words in English rhyme, so the traditional poem occasionally has to stretch sense, syntax, or meaning in order to satisfy the ear. For instance, melt/ dwelt/ felt/ knelt/ dealt work fine here, but smelt/ svelte/ belt just don’t. Besides straining the syntactical order of the sentence, they add a comic tone which, judging from the content, was surely not intended.

Rhymes do not always confine a poem, of course. Sometimes the search for a rhyming word will actually help a poet to discover new thoughts and images. If so, great. If not, the most important question is, “Does this work well?” If that’s a negative with no more choices in the rhyme-pool, then the rhymes may need to be cast aside and lines recast with new rhyming sounds or slant rhymes (words that almost rhyme but don’t.)

Another way to solve the problem is to free the poem entirely of rhyming patterns, thereby freeing a traditional poem into free verse. Here’s a radical example:

Like A Candle
by Olfa Drid

Day after day I melt
by your side.
For years I kept
my light,
but you kept growing.

You took my flame
as your torch
to lighten
your darkening.

Day after day I melt,
my heart burnt.

Day after day
my dreams melt
until I’m sinking,

The cuts may be radical but show the essence of the poem. Olfa, I encourage you to continue playing with variations such as this to free the poem from the noise of rhyme threatening to drown the pure sound, poignant lines, and important meaning.


  1. You really a wonderful mentor Mary, you 'cut' but with heart so that the cut itself a surgeons delicate and precise improvement!

  2. Thank you, Sapphire, for your encouraging word. My hope is to help poets help their poems - not just the one critiqued but the many they still must write. The tricky part is being honest, yet, as they say in the medical field, first, do no harm!