When Should Poetry Rhyme?

By Simon Kewin

Not all poetry rhymes.

It’s common to hear readers criticize poems that don’t rhyme, suggesting, perhaps, that the poets concerned were insufficiently skilled. But a great deal of poetry in the English language doesn’t employ rhyme. Blank verse, for example – by definition unrhymed – was a form of poetry often favoured by Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson amongst many others. 

On the other hand, a great deal of poetry does employ rhyme. Rhyme is one of the key ways in which a poet can imbue verse with a sense of structure and meaning. The ear delights in hearing patterns of rhyming words; it’s one way in which the language of a poem sounds “special”. Rhyming can help accent key words and ideas. But if rhyme is used too heavily, there is a danger that it becomes sing-song and facile. A nursery-rhyme rather than a poem. Avoiding this whilst still creating effective, “musical” verse is one of the key skills a poet has to acquire. 

At some point in the creation of each poem, the poet has to make decisions about rhythm, rhyme, form, whether to use verses and so forth. In each case, the decisions made will have implications for how the poem reads. In a more musical form such as a ballad, or in a piece of comic verse, strong, regular rhymes will probably work well. In more serious poems, heavy rhymes might begin to sound forced and ridiculous. 

A poet should not feel that a poem has to rhyme and that what they’re creating isn’t poetry if it doesn’t. But words can’t just be thrown together at random, without deliberation and careful selection. The requirements of the individual poem in question are all that matter. A poem about discord or confusion, for example, might work best with little rhyme. A poem with a more harmonious theme might work best with stronger rhyming. 

In a follow-up post I’ll look at some of the different types of rhyme available to the poet.

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12 Responses to “When Should Poetry Rhyme?”

  • Larry Kort

    I would say poetry should rhyme all the time. To me (because this my personal opinion) if it doesn’t rhyme it’s a story, sometimes a very short story, but still a story.

  • Evelyn

    Looking forward to the follow-up posts on this. 🙂

    Over time I found, personally, that the need and maybe even the desire for that melodic rhyme is not as important as the content and the impact of the message in poetic works.

    Just an observation and thinking out loud. 🙂

  • Cecily

    Not about rhyming, but I came across this today, about attitudes to poetry:

    Charles Babbage wrote to Alfred Lord Tennyson, quoting this line of Tennyson’s poem:

    ‘Every moment dies a man,/ Every moment one is born’:

    I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:

    ‘Every moment dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born.’

    I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.

    (I hope and assume Babbage was writing tongue-in-cheek.)

  • Stephen Thorn

    Full disclosure: I prefer rhyming poetry, although I write both rhyming and non-rhyming poems.

    It has been my experience that much non-rhyming poetry doesn’t rhyme because the author feels that such form is old-fashioned and pedantic, a restraint on their freedom of expression. Rather than finding beauty in the lyrical format they see it as an imposition. Perhaps they rebel at the idea of their great work (said with tongue inserted slightly in cheek) being fettered by having to obey such stodgy old conventions. And I’m sure that some of them simply don’t want to put in the effort to rhyme (and possibly to [shudder] employ a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary to [bigger shudder] learn new words so they can do so).

  • Jerry Viviano

    I don’t understand. In grammar school I was taught that if it was written in structured timing and with rhymes, it was poetry, and the works were called ‘poems’. If it was free form, it was called prose. Two very different things. Whether these definitions are accurate is almost immaterial. What’s important to me is that the two different types of writing should not share a common name, other than something fairly generic, such as ‘writing’.

    It seems obvious to me that writing with good metering and rhymes is much more difficult than writing prose which sidesteps those challenges. The goals of one are loftier than the other. So the two forms should be differentiated by different names.

    I believe in the saying “Writing poetry without rhymes is like playing tennis without the net.” (Here, out of necessity, I use the word ‘poetry’ where, by my own definition, I perhaps shouldn’t. Forgive me.)

    How correct would it be to place no constraint on the number of syllables in a verse and still call it Haiku?

    We accept as valid “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” Likewise, if we see a daisy and claim that it’s a rose, I say it’s still a daisy.

  • Marica

    I do also believe that poems should rhyme, or else it would be like a short story or a thought, though I am nothing to decide weather poems should rhyme or not however when I write poems I like to rhyme, it sounds better in my opinion

  • KJ

    Ew I hate poems that rhyme. Just because something rhymes doesnt make it a poem. Putting words at the end of a sentence that rhyme with the line before doesnt mean its art and sometimes its really hard to put the emotion youre feeling into a poem with the thought “i cant write this cause it doesnt rhyme with the other line”

    Am I saying if a poem rhymes it isnt good? No, but a poem has to be REALLLYYYYY GOOOOD if it is able to rhyme and share deeper meanings

    I enjoy slant rhyme poems but I love free verse so much more and it s not a story. A free verse can be a list of metaphors describing how you’re feeling it can be anything. How is that a story tho?

  • NRB

    Of course a poem doesn’t have to rhyme. That’s a rather archaic understanding. There is more difference between a short story and a poem than mere rhyme.

    Poems are, by definition, poetic and elevated compositions. They rely on delicate imagery, intricate manipulation of stressed and unstressed syllables (metre) and of line length and combination. Whilst these techniques can be used in short stories, it’s highly unlikely that one would strive to sustain them throughout a story rather than writing a poem instead.

    However, it’s also true that the majority of the most memorable poems do employ rhyme. Like the text says, the ear “delights” in rhyme.

  • Joseph De Marco

    Larry Kort, you opinion is not only invalid, wrong, and retarded, but you are a pathetic excuse for a human being who knows absolutely nothing about literature or, for that matter, poetry. May you rot in hell for life eternal, fuck you.

  • Kyle

    Joseph De Marco, you are my hero.

  • Rick

    Part of what makes poetry poetry is it’s lack of rules. I’ve seen some sickening emotional vomit that people call poetry and still, if they feel something when they read it, then it’s poetry.

    That said, there is good poetry and bad poetry. And, there’s a reason rhyming is usually associated with good poetry – it’s harder, but not better. Good rhyming creates sticking power for poetry that non-rhyming doesn’t. When’s the last time you memorized a non-rhyming poem? Or reread a non-rhyming poem. Think about these popular poems and how widely they’re known:

    I don’t think I will ever see
    a poem as lovely as a tree

    I’ve never seen a purple cow.
    I never hope to see one
    But I can tell you anyhow,
    I’d rather see than be one.

    Shakespeare used rhymes in his work to punch out a point or make a memorable couplet:

    My words fly up but my thoughts remain below.
    Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

    But rhyming doesn’t make poetry. I wouldn’t call

    Plop plop fizz fizz
    oh what a relief it is

    poetry but it rhymes quite well (and memorably).

    Poetry is a relatively raw art form which allows the poet to use words instead of paints to express emotion. It’s cheap and doesn’t require much schooling/discipline so people try to make it cheaply and without much discipline expecting their emotions to be enough which usually sucks. Great poetry, whether it rhymes or not, is usually a result of practice, education, and effort.

    …or luck.

  • k jo

    I found all the above comments very interesting. I am not a professional writer but I do write. I dont know whether my writing could be called poetry but whatever I have written more than often does rhyme. I am perhaps naive or immature in this field however those who have read my work often feel haunted by my words. I would love for someone to tell me whether there is some type of professional body who I can refer my work to. Perhaps to get a second opinion. Any suggestions?

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