Thursday, September 11, 2014

Laura Shovan: Why I Hate Rhyme


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I'm delighted to offer another entertaining and informative post from TLD Contributor, Laura Shovan.  Thank you, Laura, for sharing your insight and experience with us again today!

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I hate rhyme.

Rhymes are pleasing to the ear, so when we first think one up our reaction is: “Wow! That sounds great!” We are so chuffed with our rhyme, we want to keep going. Which is the problem.

Those who write poetry or picture books for the children’s market know that many editors and agents specify “no rhyming text.” At writing conferences, editors and agents warn would-be poets that rhyme is extremely hard to sustain.

Why all the fuss? Creating rhymes is natural. It’s part of how we learn to speak, read, and write—matching words that have a similar sound. Rhyme is featured not only in poetry, but in the songs we hear on the radio, advertising jingles, even in common sayings like “He’s the man with the plan.”

For today, I’d like to focus on the elementary school writing workshop, where I encourage students to skip the rhyme and just write.

Let’s think about the task of rhyming in a poem. What exactly is involved?  I’m going to make up a silly poem about my dog to demonstrate.
Sam the big bow-wowzer

Sam is a Schnauzer,
a big bow-wowzer.

My opening rhyme sounds good and I think it’s pretty funny. Plus, Sam does bark a lot (we’re working on it), so the poem is true to my experience.

Now I have to make a decision. Am I going to go with an AABA rhyme scheme or AABB?

Attempt 1 (AABA):
Sam is a Schnauzer,
a big bow-wowzer.
When it comes to dogs
there’s no one louder. (near rhyme, but pretty lame)

Attempt 2 (AABB):
Sam is a Schnauzer,
a big bow-wowzer.
His eyebrows are fluffy
and his nose is stuffy.

Sam’s nose isn’t really stuffy. But it’s a great rhyme, isn’t it!?

This is the beginning of my poem’s downfall. Where an experienced poet might work come up with a better line (“And his beard is scruffy,” e.g.), an emerging writer will plow ahead, valuing the rhyme itself above the poem’s logic and meaning.

Of my two attempts, I like the second best. Let’s go for another couplet.
Sam is a Schnauzer,
A great big bow-wowzer.
His eyebrows are fluffy
And his nose is stuffy.
He’s scared of the thunder
and so he hides under (Uh oh. I have an incomplete thought. Is that okay?)
my bed or a table (Good save. Phew. Yikes! What rhymes with “table?”)
or my big Aunt Mabel (I don’t have an Aunt Mabel, but it rhymes!)

I started out great, but now I’m struggling with ideas. And I’ve thrown meaning under the bus as long as I can keep up my rhyme.

There’s a reason why this is happening.

We are not just asking emerging writers to rhyme when we ask them to rhyme. Since a rhyme typically falls at the end of a line, we are asking students to aim for a specific sound—kind of like aiming at a target. Just as in archery, a young writer will become so focused on reaching that target at the end of the line that everything else will dissolve to the periphery. What gets lost in the process? Meaning, logic, and his or her naturally creative ideas.

That’s what happened in my second couplet. It began:
His eyebrows are fluffy

Then my brain focused on a good rhyme for “fluffy.” My first thought was “stuffy.”
His eyebrows are fluffy
…………………. stuffy

Now I have to go back and fill in whatever will get me to that target word. “And his nose is stuffy” isn’t true. Sam’s a really healthy dog. But it works for the rhyme.

The same thing happened with my fourth couplet. Starting with the idea that Sam hides underneath things when there is a thunder storm, I have:
My bed or a table

Again, my mind becomes focused on that target word, a rhyme for “table.” Instead of thinking about what actually happens when Sam is frightened, my first thought is the name “Mabel.” How can I hit that target?
My bed or a table
………………… Mabel.

Which becomes the line, “or my big Aunt Mabel.”

In reality, I don’t hate rhyme. Instead, I recognize that using rhyme in a poem is a complex task.

When I set out to write a poem this morning, my goal was to describe my dog. I have so many stories about his cute quirks.

If I’d given myself time to think about Sam’s fear of thunderstorms, my freewriting might have looked like this:
He shakes a lot and sometimes he runs down to the basement. Oh! I just remembered! He’s also afraid of fireworks, which my neighbors light whenever the Baltimore Ravens score a touchdown. In fact, Sam now runs downstairs when he notices we are watching a football game on TV. Smart fella!

Unfortunately, I didn’t include any of these great ideas, which give a real sense of Sam’s personality. My mind was so focused on rhyming, I never even thought about sharing these details.

When I’m visiting an elementary school classroom, I encourage students to write down all of their creative thoughts and forget about rhyming (at least in a first draft). Young writers aren’t experienced enough to realize that rhyme should serve the tone and meaning of a poem. It’s not the poem’s job to be a scaffold for a series of rhymes. The result will be something sing-songy, often with forced rhymes and lines that don’t make sense. (An example: the current pop song “Dark Horse.” Rapper Juicy J compares Katy Perry to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Not exactly romantic, but hey, it rhymes!)

If your students are really gung-ho about rhyming, encourage them to use a word bank. They will still be working hard to reach their target rhymes, but a word bank will give them options.

Let’s close with a poem that I use as a classroom model. Notice how rhyme works as an element of the poem, adding to the rhythm and tone, without taking precedence over the imagery or meaning.

Swift Things are Beautiful
     By Elizabeth Coatsworth

Swift things are beautiful:
Swallows and deer,
And lightning that falls
Bright-veined and clear,
Rivers and meteors,
Wind in the wheat,
The strong-withered horse,
The runner's sure feet.

And slow things are beautiful:
The closing of day,
The pause of the wave
That curves downward to spray,
The ember that crumbles,
The opening flower,
And the ox that moves on
In the quiet of power.



Laura Shovan is poetry editor for the literary journal Little Patuxent Review and of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. She works with young poets as a Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence. Her debut novel-in-verse for children, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, will be published in spring of 2016 (Wendy Lamb Books). Laura blogs about arts education at AuthorAmok.

Click HERE to read Laura's first post on Today's Little Ditty, "In Defense of Great Writers," where she challenges the presumption that a first grader's literary techniques are accidental.

If you read last week's spotlight interview with Irene Latham, you know that she's challenged us to write poems of address this month.  Did you see April Halprin Wayland's adorable doggie ditty earlier this week?  I hope you'll join in this month's challenge too!

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is being hosted by the ever-effervescent Renée LaTulippe... although she's feeling a tad wistful today.  Please join her over at No Water River.





37 comments:

  1. (Perfect tag, Michelle, "rhyme crime")

    Appreciations for Laura Shovan's articulation of reasons why not to lead
    writers (of all ages) into rhyme temptation. This will help me in my critique groups,
    but as a rhyme-addicted child of a lover of nonsense verse, it will also
    stretch me.
    In Elizabeth Coatsworth's poem, "Swift Things Are Beautiful," I especially like
    that she then went into the opposite, "And slow things are beautiful:"

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  2. Someone once told me that in order for rhymes to work, the reader should never be able to tell which rhyming word was thought of first - good rule, in general! I enjoyed reading Laura's thoughts about rhyme, and Coatsworth's poem, which underscores another great rule - rhyme has to appear effortless, like that.

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  3. Well said, Laura! The freedom of free verse and the capacity for kids to create wonderful and profound work with it cannot be underestimated. Sure, rhyme is fun and has its place, but it puts too much pressure on the poem, as you so clearly demonstrated.

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  4. I love this: "It’s not the poem’s job to be a scaffold for a series of rhymes." Unless, of course, your poem's job is to teach rhyme. Or if your haiku is 5/7/5 so that it can teach syllables. It's a shame that we make poetry do grunt work! Hey, we need a poem union!

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    1. Diane! We'd call it our P.U! We could write Grievance Poems and have Poetry Bargaining Rights...

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  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Kids have so much fun with rhyming, but a rhyme does not make a poem. I'd love to hear people's ideas for wordplay workshops, where rhyme and silliness is the focus.

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  6. I totally agree with Laura! I wrote a long comment but it "disappeared"!! Will try later to respond. Must walk.
    Janet F. aka Janet Clare

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  7. Good points, Laura. I liked what Julie said about not being able to figure out which rhyming word came first. You are so right about pop songs forcing the rhyme! Sometimes they wind up being funny, but that's not really what they were going for...

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  8. All good reasons not to push rhyme onto the young ones, and even to work carefully with older students who have more experience in word play. When I work with the young ones, there is a focus more on the content, feelings or comparisons and on. Thanks, Laura-good advice!

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  9. Thanks, Laura! Your dog poem progression demonstrates how easily meaning can get away from you when focused too intently on rhyme. And to end with Elizabeth Coatsworth's terrific poem is a reminder of the image and word choice that must go into a poem to make it read effortlessly.

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  10. In middle school, I imagine a masterpiece is rare. I would hate to think that a teacher would compromise an opportunity to introduce the elementary structure of poetry believing that students won't be able to coordinate their ideas with words that rhyme. That in itself is an art that can take a lifetime to craft, and to me this suggests that scrapping it in favor of free-writing is doing them a service. If it were me, I'd say bring on the bad rhyme and let them feel what it's like to put together something that feels more like a craft and less like a diary. Let them feel the satisfaction of the sounds that meter and rhyme make when they click. That's kind of the whole idea of poetry.

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    1. It depends on what the goal of a particular poetry workshop is. Even young writers can have a great time with a rhyming form such as limericks. When we're asking them to write about their own lives and experiences, I've found that free verse offers 3rd and 4th graders the most freedom in their initial drafts. Crafting happens during the revision process. As I mentioned above, I'd love to hear more about wordplay lessons that others like.

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  11. Wow, so much brilliance in this post (and subsequent comments). Thanks for featuring Laura today, Michelle. This is a post I will look back on often as I sometimes commit crimes against rhymes. = )

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  12. Enjoyed the Coatsworth poem and Laura's thoughts about rhyme. As Julie said, good rhymes seem effortless and don't call attention to themselves, detracting from meaning.

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  13. Good post, Laura. When I am writing rhyme, I'll often pore over a line or word for hours, days, or weeks until I figured it out. Very often, it's not a matter of finding a word that rhymes, but coming up with a different word or a different line (and possibly direction) altogether. As you said, most aspiring writers don't take that kind of time.

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  14. I find rhyme one of the hardest things about writing to form and writing poetry in general. Thank you for featuring Laura, Michelle. And thank you Laura for sharing your ideas.

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  15. Great post, Laura! I'm trying to move away from rhyme. It keeps pulling me back.

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    1. Keep working on it, Catherine. One of my favorite exercises for (near) rhyme is called "Murder Most Vowel." You'll find it in the book FEG: Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children, by Robin Hirsch.

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  16. I agree to a degree...I did not intend to do that! I also agree with "Free" above. It's a balancing act of both worlds. Rhyming is a skill that shouldn't be pushed, but should still be encouraged...even bad rhymes. How can you get to the good ones, or realizing you haven't made sense, if you don't try it? You can't wait to ride a bike until you know how (my son tried that strategy!), yet you don't push them to ride a two-wheeler before they can walk...it's all balance!
    Great piece! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, Donna. It's definitely a balance, as teaching always is. The art and challenge of being a visiting teacher is to notice which children need a push, which need encouragement, and who will do best if you leave them alone to just write.

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  17. Just a great big cheering YES! to add to the chorus. I bet your classrooms love it when you come to visit.

    Sometimes I DO use rhyme as a jumpstart because it is funny how a couplet can pop into your head and haunt you. But then I try to tear it apart and find the meat.

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  18. This is such a smart post, Laura & Michelle! I always encourage my students to get their ideas down first. If they can make it rhyme without forcing it, that's great. But, as you said, Laura, once young writers get a ridiculous rhyme down on paper, it's hard to convince them their poem doesn't make sense. Thanks for sharing Coatsworth's poem, too. I think I'll go for a walk and enjoy "the closing of day."

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  19. I have always struggled with rhyme. Usually I tell my students I am really bad at it, but if you are good at it, go ahead and try it. This lesson is so revealing. Because it is so true! If I show the kids how hard it is to keep the rhyme going, maybe they will understand the purpose. Thanks for this!

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  20. Terrific post. Thanks for articulating this so well.

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  21. Lots to ponder
    as I wander
    thru the comments.

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  22. Such a great post - one I mean to share with my kids who run into rhyming issues all the time.

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  23. Very well done, Laura, and the cartoon at the topic is PERFECT. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Keri. Amazing Michelle found that cartoon!

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  24. I love the way you said this-"It’s not the poem’s job to be a scaffold for a series of rhymes." To me, that is the secret! And I loved the cartoon! Very funny!

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  25. Michelle ~ thanks for giving Laura this space today. Laura~ Myra Cohn Livingston would have hugged you--had she been a hugger (she was not)! This is exactly what she taught and preached. You've said it so wonderfully. I'll pass it on to teacher friends and other writers. Merci!

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  26. I sometimes teach adult picture book workshops. That means I spend time trying to dissuade a lot of writers from using end-rhyme when their "Um, what rhymes with____?" search has ruined the logic, emotional flow and conciseness of their story. Laura demonstrated so well here how that process can quicly turn a fine idea into a crazy quilt vs. a thoughtful poem. Thanks for that!

    And I must say--elementary, middleschool and high school poetry teachers--that many of my adult writers are convinced that their trite, sing-songy couplets are fabulous poetry ... because that's how 'a poem' was defined for them when they were 7 , 11 or 15. They got an 'A' for rhyming bee with tree, yet somehow didn't come to grasp the art or heart of poetry.

    As everyone here knows, a poem has to pack the punch of an observation, an experience, an epiphany into a few elegant lines of carefully chosen words, juxtaposed (not simply so they rhyme) but so they best convey some clear, unique and insightful moment. I love Laura's observation, "It’s not the poem’s job to be a scaffold for a series of rhymes." (and with credit to her, I'm going to use it in my workshops from now on.) : - )

    Lessons about the forms of poetry, whether rhyming couplets, free verse, haiku or sonnets, should somehow still manage to convey, even stress, to the burgeoning poet that the task, the craft, a poem is mostly about creating a uniquely put, un-trite, carefully worded emotional snapshot. And just a little bit about finding a fitting rhyme for snuffles.

    Here's to a great article and the energetic conversation it's elicited! All best.

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  27. P.S. And yes, I realize there are some great elementary, middleschool and high school poetry teachers out there. Thank you too.

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  28. I loved reading about rhyme and rhythm and the anatomy of poetry - something that I often take for granted and very rarely consider. I have my own isues with rhyming text - but I understand its lilting soothing quality, and clearly there is a science to it that I have yet to learn and master. :)

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