by Gillian Clarke
Some poets in the late twentieth century seemed to think rhyme was a crime. Of course, rhyme can be a trap. It can sound glib. Classical Greek poets didn’t use it. Early British (Welsh) and Old English poets relied on assonance and alliteration. Rhyme is heard at line endings, and the effect is in the echo of twin sounds. Because English spelling is crazy, there’s extra fun to be had in the ill matched appearance of rhyming words like ‘after’ and ‘laughter’, and ‘daughter’ and ‘water’. Children love rhyme. It’s great for insults, name calling, ring games, talking to babies, spells, jokes, hymns, incantation, and remembering. Rhyme can make us laugh. It can add poignancy to an elegy like W.H. Auden’s ‘Stop All the Clocks’. Shakespeare uses rhyming couplets to end a scene, or a play:
‘For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.’
Poetry also uses half rhyme, and internal rhyme.
My poem (Gillian Clarke) Cold Knap Lake uses half rhyme, with a rhyming couplet at the end. Stanza one pairs ‘crowd’ with ‘dead’, ‘lake’ with ‘silk’, and so on. The poem tells the true story of a child who almost drowned in a lake close to where we lived when I was five. By the end of the poem the true story has almost become a legend. A fully rhyming couplet seems the right way to end a fairy story.
In Seamus Heaney’s Mid-Term Break saves rhyme for the last two lines, where he closes the poem by a rhyming couplet ending with ‘clear’ and ‘year’, a typical Shakespearean way to end a scene. The first five lines of Digging rhyme, the rest do not. Storm on the Island uses a loose pattern of half-rhyme. Look for the final letter of the last word in each line, the t of ‘squat’ and ‘slate’, then the s of ‘us’ and ‘stacks’, then s, l, s, l, of ‘stacks’, ‘trees’, ‘full’, ‘branches’. Some lines don’t rhyme at all; but again he ends with a half rhyming couplet, with ‘air’ and ‘fear’. Compare that with Perch, written in five fully rhyming couplets.
Carol Ann Duffy is a dazzling rhymer, and she has her own way of using it. Salome illustrates this well. You don’t need to look for end rhymes, or bother with half-rhymes. Read it aloud and just listen! Find ‘later’, ‘matter’, ‘matted’, ‘lighter’, ‘laughter’, ‘flatter’, ‘pewter’, ‘Peter’, and so on. There are 21 words all rhyming with each other. It makes the poem playful, and makes Salome defiant, witty, and makes a gruesome story funny.
Simon Armitage often uses rhyme, in his own way and with great skill. He doesn’t obey the old rules. He loves popular music, and uses rhyme rather as songs do. Kid rhymes all the way through with two-syllable words, all with a stress on the second syllable from last, and all of them ending in ‘er’. Look at and listen to, ‘order’, ‘wander’, ‘yonder’, and so on. The poem beginning, ‘Mother, any distance greater than a single span’ opens with rhyming pairs, then breaks the pattern, but at the end you feel you’ve heard a rhyming poem. That’s because there are internal rhymes too, and the final rhyming lines, ‘sky’ and ‘fly’, confirm it.