When I was at junior school, it was the end-of-term duty of the girls in the highest class, Standard 5, to gather news from each year. These reports were compiled in rhyming couplet form:
As we close the door to Sub A,
it’s to the next classroom we stray.
So now enter the class of the Sub B’s,
where this term they’ve been busy as bees.
It was often as stilted as that; after all the authors were twelve-year-olds, most of whom had had little exposure to rhyming odes themselves. These reports together with the school song, national anthem and hymns we were obliged to sing in assembly were among the early influences of rhyming English in my life. Before I went to school there was rhyme at home. This was fun and storytelling rhyme that shaped Rupert-the-Bear adventures, Ahlberg’s classic “Each, Peach, Pear, Plum” and “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. By the time I heard these and other rhyming songs and stories related to my younger sister, I was already reading long-form prose. Her educational video sang on a loop, “Five little ducks went out to play, over the hills and far away…” and. I was reading ‘grown-up’ books. Rhyme was little kids’ stuff.
Consequently, rhyme struck me as something twee and childish. It was used to round off pairs of ideas – whether ideology or fun nonsense – so that they would stick in your mind. When I discovered that poetry could exist legitimately without rhyme, I was hooked, though initially, more to reading this sort of poetry than writing it. I loved non-rhyming poetry so much that I thought, I must be a child of modernism’s sentiment. Rhyme seemed to constrict words’ directions, and a sad fate simply because words found themselves slotted into the line of a poem.
Playing with rhythm and meter, musicality and lilt, alliteration and soundscapes enticed my ear and imagination. Yet it is still those predictable lines ribboned together by rhyme that tumble from my memory all these years later: “Success is cheering words of praise, in cheering other people’s ways; in doing just the best you can in every task and every plan”.
More recently I’ve reconciled with rhyme and now deliberately expose myself to old hymns (with wondrous words like ‘eyelids’ and ‘slander’). But I’m still not convinced that Proper Poetry has to rhyme in words. There are surely other tools that craft an idea worth remembering.
In the Ocean: a year of poetry
Emily’s Poems for Modern Boys
Shining in Brightness: Selected Poems, 1999 – 2012