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Rhyme and Meter

Today, I’m writing about two devices many poets struggle with; rhyme and meter. Both concepts have for the most part been abandoned in modern poetry, but both can still be productive and effective when used correctly. Poetry is all about voice and word choice; rhyme and meter both help to give a poet their voice. Think of it like being a musician: you can always tell the difference between someone who’s simply playing notes on a page and someone who’s feeling the music. That’s why you could hear four different orchestras play Beethoven’s fifth symphony and it will sound completely different each time, even though they’re playing the same notes. Likewise, two people could use the same meter and even the same rhyming words in a poem, yet end up with two completely different voices.

We’ll start with rhyme, the ugly stepsister to modern poetry’s Cinderella. Rhyme has been represented as a minefield or a cemetery for poems to die. That’s simply not true. Rhyming hooks in a reader’s ear and helps the poem stick in their memory. The problem is the bad use of rhyming: it cannot be the only device you use. A novice or unlearned poet often thinks rhyming makes poetry, so they put words together and use rhyme to make it sound like “poetry.” This is a poor practice. Rhyme should be used only when it enhances the poem, or when the form requires it. Think of rhymes as clothing: it can make or break your poem’s look.

If rhyme is the stepsister, meter is the wicked stepmother. What makes a work poetry is the meter. Meter is usually referenced in feet, and the foot is determined by the accent. If poems were an orchestra, meter would be the percussion section. It’s the heartbeat, the backbone, the center of poetry. Ever heard someone tell someone else their speech or prose has a bit of poetry to it? They’re talking about the meter.

As free verse is the new norm in modern poetry, I must address one thing. There is a common misconception that free verse doesn’t involve meter. In truth, free verse very much uses meter; the meter is just defined by the poet rather than the form. It doesn’t have to be uniform, but a good free verse poem still has its own cadence. Is a good drum solo random? No, each hit is chosen for a specific reason. Now is it a conscience thing? Not necessarily. But it’s real. It’s what makes the drummer for a major rock band different than a preschooler hitting drums willy-nilly. Likewise, the difference between a great poem and a bad one is often the cadence.

Let’s look at two examples. Both were written specifically for this article.

I looked in the refrigerator for a jug of milk.

That I might replace the one I spilt

All over my friend’s kilt.

But we didn’t have any milk.

Does that seem bad to you? It does to me, and I wrote it! The rhyming is poor. Using the same word for a rhyme is the wrong choice 95% of the time, though at times it can be used for an effect. Also, kilt gives the feeling that it was chosen specifically to fit the rhyme. It's what I call an inorganic rhyme. An organic rhyme is where the rhyming word is the one you would've chosen even if you didn't intend to rhyme. Also, the meter is all over the place. The first line especially has that bull in a china shop feel to it. Too wordy, no rhythm, no flow.

Here's the same thought, rewritten:

The fridge is void.

No milk can be found.

The sea of cream

On the ground

Is all I get to enjoy.

The rhymes here are more organic. Found and ground are logical words to include; they just happen to rhyme. Void and enjoy are almost rhymes, usually called slant rhymes. You could make the last line past tense to get enjoyed and a pure rhyme, but it would ruin the tone. The meter is not uniform, but it still has a flow to it. It doesn’t hinder; it enhances.

Mastering rhyme and meter is essential to making your poetry great. For those who struggle with rhyme, an excellent practice is writing bouts-rimes; poems where you’re given a list of end rhymes from another person and write a poem using those rhymes. It’s a great way to work on making rhymes flow. For those who struggle with meter, spoken word poetry is a great place to start. Listen to the syllables they accent and notice how many unaccented syllables are between each accent. It’ll give you a feel for the rhythm of words.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Adam Mann