Thursday, October 8, 2015

Carrie Clickard: Step Three– CHANGE IT UP

Over the past year, we've met some rather unsavory characters in Carrie Clickard's Rhyme Crime Investigation series:

Igor Meter: Step One– PICK A BEAT  

Today Carrie's back to introduce us to our next villainous versifier.

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Change it up!
Shaking off the slippery snooze of Singsong Sal.

Trail weary from chasing down Rhyme Crime desperados and haulin’ em off to the hoosegow, you slip through the doors of the Tanglefoot Saloon. But before you can sidle up the bar and order a tall cool one, a flicker of something soft and slippery catches your eye.

Dagnabit.  It’s Singsong Sal, come to spoil your poetry.

Singsong Sal isn’t a hardened criminal, not like those other pesky polecats we’ve been arresting.  She doesn’t break the rules of rhyme but she’s trouble all the same. She can take your rhyme and turn it into such a monotonous misery that any editor worth her salt will run for the hills.

Time to change it up, quick!

If you’ve been following along with our Rhyme Crime articles, chances are you’re feeling pretty good about your rhyme right now.  You’ve got the meter solid as a rock, you haven’t let weasel words sneak in and there’s not a close rhyme in sight.  It’s clap along, tap along perfection.

And that might just be a little TOO perfect.

Remember those long epic poems you read in high school or college – that went on and on in the same unvarying cadence?
On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O'er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset...
                                           Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha"
                                           (Read the rest here.)

I’ll confess I never made it past three or four stanzas. My apologies to all those who were Hiawatha fans. It wasn’t what Longfellow was saying, I love Native American legends to this day.  It was how he was saying it, that droning tick tock sameness.  When a verse, even the best poetry, marches along in lockstep, never varying – it can fall from smooth right into …

That’s the last thing we want an editor to do.  So let’s take a look at a few cures if your verse has the Singsong Sal blues.

Give your verses a dancing partner: 
Try the “verse – chorus” two-step.

Ah, the magic of a repeated chorus – the part of the song we actually know all the words to, when everyone chimes in.  It can be as simple as a phrase or a couplet. It doesn’t even have to rhyme. (GASP!!)  What a chorus can’t be is the exact same line length and rhythm of your verses.

Here’s an example from the great Shel Silverstein, just in time for the Halloween season:

Down in Lou´siana where the black trees grow
Lives a voodoo lady named Marie Laveaux.
She’s got a black cat tooth and a mojo bone,
And anyone wouldn´t leave her alone.

Another man done gone.

She lives in a swamp in a hollow log
With a one-eyed snake and a three-legged dog.
She’s got a bent bony body and stringy hair,
And if she ever sees you messin´ around there,

Another man done gone.
                                                            Excerpt from "Marie Laveau"
                                                            Words & Music by Shel Silverstein & Baxter Taylor.
                                                            Copyright © 1972  /  Evil-Eye Music Inc, N.Y.

Shel uses just seven words and or six words and one shriek, and snap! He’s avoided the singsong repetition and he gets audience participation, whether they’re singing along (yes, you can find it on YouTube) or young readers are shouting it out.  The structure is basic and predictable, but in an entertaining, engaging way.

Sometimes it takes a bit more than just a phrase to keep the story flowing. Maybe you need a regular four or six line chorus. Don’t let that worry you. It’s the change in reading rhythm that matters.  And while you’re dancing those verses around, remember you’re not limited to the two step.

You can vary it to a cha-cha:  
Verse-verse-chorus. Verse-verse-chorus.  

Like this fun old gospel tune:
Down in the town where I was born
there was a haunted house
and all the folks that passed that way
would creep by, like a mouse.

Now Cap’n John who owned that house
had died some years before.
but neighbors claimed they’d seen him there
still standing in the door.

          That old house is ha’nted.
          Folks take it for granted.
          If you’re down
          in that part of town
          don’t you go near that house!
Soon every night the strangest sounds
would come from out that way.
Those ghosts would carry on all night
‘til roosters crowed for day.

Old Deacon Brown was bold and brave
at least that’s what he said.
He’d often claimed he’d liked to talk
and mingle with the dead.

          That old house is ha’nted.
          Folks take it for granted.
          If you’re down
          in that part of town
          don’t you go near that house!

A prize was offered to the man
He might be black or white
Who’d stay there in the cap’n house
So folks could sleep at night

Deacon Brown was bold, he said,
And so he promised us
That he would stay out there a week
And stop that spectral fuss
                                              Excerpt from "That Ole House is Ha’nted" by Jester Hairston

It’s up to you how often you break up the verses, and how long the chorus lasts.  The choices are endless and there are no rules. Well, there is one rule, and Louis says it best:

Let your caboose loose.

Maybe you’re a rebel.  You need to spice up that rhyme, but anything as traditional as verse-chorus is NOT for you.  Great!  Break out of the mold and try something surprising.  How about a single line refrain that comes FIRST in each stanza?

I was a teenage creature.
I was a junior wolfman, at night there’s a werewolf moon.
Come and hold my hairy hand down at the black lagoon.

I was a teenage creature.
I’m covered with a lizard scale.
I’ve got to cut a hole in my jeans to wag my slimy tail.

I was a teenage creature
I was a teenage vampire, a rock and rolling ghoul.
Won’t you let a Dracula walk you home from school?
                                                                  Excerpt from "Teenage Creature" by Lord Luther              
                                                                  Music & Lyrics by Ric Masten, Don Stevens

                                                                  Les Cangas Music Publishing, 1958

It’s quirky, but it works. Maybe it works because it’s quirky – you be the judge.

Shake an extra leg: 
Change your verse to use nonstandard stanzas.

This solution takes a bit more work, but it can have some startlingly good results.  An unexpected stanza structure might seem a bit unbalanced at first, but that’s precisely the point.  It keeps your reader from falling into a samey-samey sleepwalk. Take a risk and shorten one line, lengthen one line or even add a line at the end to make a five line stanza.  See what it does for the offbeat flavor of this H.P. Lovecraft poem:

The steeples are white in the wild moonlight,
  And the trees have a silver glare;
Past the chimneys high see the vampires fly,
  And the harpies of upper air,
  That flutter and laugh and stare.

For the village dead to the moon outspread
  Never shone in the sunset's gleam,
But grew out of the deep that the dead years keep
  Where the rivers of madness stream
  Down the gulfs to a pit of dream.
                                                        Excerpt from H.P. Lovecraft's "Hallowe’en in a Suburb"
                                                        (Read the rest here.) 

The odd structure adds to the weird feeling the poem evokes, in my opinion.  It might not be the right choice for a different topic, but that’s where your writer’s instinct comes in.

There are so many options and so little time to try them all.  I’m sorry to say there’s no short cut, the one easy-peasy recipe for this step.  You have to feel the rhythm of your story as a whole and tweak it in just the right spots.  Sometimes you’ll get your rhyme out on the dance floor and bust a move. Other times you’ll tweak something and bust a leg instead.  That’s why we call her slippery Singsong Sal.  Getting her to vamoose can feel like one step forward, two steps back.

It’s a little like a cha-cha – or a do-si-do – don’t you think? And on that note, I’ll leave you with a bit of Bugs Bunny square dance inspiration. Thanks for joining me on another Rhyme Crime Investigation. Now get out there and get your verses dancing!

Thanks, Carrie!
 (Just so long as I do-si-don't land myself in Rhyme Crime incarceration.)

Carrie Clickard is an internationally published author and poet whose career also spans graphic design, illustration and film.  Her first picture book, VICTRICIA MALICIA, debuted in 2012 from Flashlight Press.  Forthcoming books are MAGIC FOR SALE (Holiday House, 2016) and THOMAS JEFFERSON & THE MAMMOTH HUNT (Simon and Schuster, 2017).  Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals including Spider, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Clubhouse, Spellbound, Penumbra, Haiku of the Dead, Underneath the Juniper Tree, Inchoate Echoes, and The Brisling Tide.  

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In case you missed last week's spotlight interview with Marcus Ewert, he's challenged us to write love poems this month– about relationships that seem unrequited, but which end up being requited after all. Click HERE for more details.  Featured this week were poems by Janie Lazo, B.J. Lee, and my daughter Miranda.

Deputy Laura Purdie Salas is holding down the Poetry Friday fort at Writing the World for Kids.


  1. Thanks Carrie and Michelle for this lesson/reminder. Of course, since my name is Sal, I should be offended, but it's great advice and I love the examples.

    1. LOL No offense intended Sally. I thought about finding a name no one would have, but Singalong Staphalaccocus didn't have quite the same ring. (wink)

  2. What fun! I always like the non-standard stanza. Adding an unexpected line that fits with the meter and rhyme--but that goes outside the couplet or quatrain--always makes me smile as a reader. Thanks, Carrie and Michelle!

    1. Me too, Laura! I'm a fan of odd things in general (as some of my romantic life might attest to as well. LOL) And I especially love when an author or poet surprises me. Thanks for joining us!

  3. Thank you Michelle for letting me join in your poetry frolic! It's always fun and a great learning experience to be in such excellent company.

  4. Often it feels like a wonderful punctuation mark when I read those 'different' lines. You're right, the change-up will make the poem interesting. Thanks for the advice Carrie, and I do love all those fun pictures you add too!

    1. Picking the pictures is half the fun! And I love the idea of the extra line being punctuation. Great analogy.

  5. One thing I love about poetry is the element of SURPRISE. Thank you for offering ways to do that!

    1. Me too! I love the unexpected in any form of writing.

  6. I love these lessons with Carrie! Her concrete examples are helpful. She's a wonderful teacher.
    Sometimes I commit this crime—I must confess. But I sure don't want to be charged and jailed so I'll try to be more aware!

    1. Sorry my reply got posted as a separate post. I'm blaming the Friday fidgets. Hope you caught it just below, Penny.

  7. LOL Penny -- I think we all commit this crime from time to time -- that's what my bottom drawer is for (grin).. And thanks for stopping by to comment. Michelle's blog and her followers are such a delight.

  8. Great lesson with lots of great examples. Thanks for this post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Rosi! Thanks for stopping in and joining us.

  9. Rhyme scares me so I typically stay away from it. When I do try to use it - as I did today and a fun little poem about a character we were reading about in The Global Read Aloud - it sounds a bit like something I might have written in elementary school. Interesting to consider ways to change the rhyme a bit to catch your reader's attention. I have a lot to learn in this area.

    Thank you for making me stop and think a bit,

    1. I hear you, Cathy. I have the same response to blank verse/free verse. It's daunting because I write it so rarely. But if we keep taking the risks, it can only strengthen our work in the long run. At least that's what I tell myself.

  10. Another great post in the series! And I enjoyed all the spooky seasonally appropriate examples.... Bwah hah ha ha. Thanks, Carrie and Michelle.

    1. Any excuse for a little haunting is a good one in my book! Thanks, Robyn

  11. Well, that was WAY too much fun, and some good writing tips to boot! Thanks, Carrie and Michelle!