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.