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Should Poetry Rhyme Or Not?

David Lewis Pogson writes fiction for the 'ACES Terrier', has two books published and has poems and short stories in a variety of media.

How Do You Feel About 'Rhyme'?

Is rhyme essential for poetry? Is poetry that doesn't rhyme really just prose? Is free verse an acceptable alternative to rhyming? This debate has plagued the poetry fraternity for decades. In this article I offer my view and ask you to give yours in the comments section at the end.

Image by MorningbirdPhoto from

Image by MorningbirdPhoto from

The Debate

There’s a running debate in the world of poetry about what is a true poem. Some poets like poems that rhyme. Others prefer free verse (i.e. basically, not rhyming).

I’m a … ‘rhyma’ (apologies for that rhyme).

I don’t really ‘get’ this free verse stuff. Maybe that says more about my failings as a poet than about those who write free verse. However, I was brought up on Browning, Tennyson and Scott. Rhyme was essential. Consider these extracts:

Extracts From Classic Poems That Rhyme

Browning (‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’),

They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,

Tennyson (‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’)

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Sir Walter Scott (‘Lochinvar’)

O young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,
He rode all unarm’d, and he rode all alone.

My View

I tend to sympathise with the late Auberon Waugh, the English Journalist and Novelist, from when he was editor of the Literary Review, which ran a monthly competition for poetry that rhymes.

Prose Chopped Up And Called Poetry

I’m unmovably opposed to the Poetry Society, which ... encourages a coterie of twerps to write prose and chop it up and call it poetry.

— A 1996 quote in the Independent Newspaper expressing the view of Auberon Waugh

Teach Yourself Poetry


A Free Verse Example

I'm not against free verse for those who like it. It wouldn't do for everyone to like the same things. I'm not trying to impose my preferences on anyone. Rather, I'm trying to understand what I am failing to see.

I'm sure that some free verse is truly great writing. I love the words of Wendy Cope. I think that her 'After the Lunch' poem, which has rhymes, is brilliant.

She also wrote the delightful 'Tich Miller' which paints a sorrowful and yet endearingly funny vision of two girls who don't fit in with the popular crowd at primary school. It's widely used in schools to introduce young students to poetry. Unlike 'After the Lunch' this one is classified as free verse. At least that's where Dianne Doubtfire, the author, lists it in 'Creative Writing' in the 'Teach Yourself' series. Yes, I did read it to try and garner further understanding of free verse. Here are the opening lines:

Opening Verse From 'Tich Miller'

Tich Miller wore glasses

with elastoplast-pink frames

and had one foot three sizes larger than the other.

When they picked teams for outdoor games

she and I were always the last two

left standing by the wire mesh fence.

'frames' and 'games' is the only rhyme in the entire poem and, forgive me if I'm wrong, but that seems like a coincidence. When I read the whole poem it just seems like excellent prose to me. So, apart from chopping up perfectly good sentences, which seems totally unnecessary, I just can't see where the poetry is. Am I missing something that others can see? If I am then I'm not alone. I think that Auberon Waugh would be standing alongside me if he was still alive.

My Attempt At Free Verse

I've tried to write free verse. However, apart from chopping it up, that still reads like prose to me too. So I've given up trying. The nearest that I ever got to success was when I tried for a compromise and limited the rhyme to the end of each third and fifth lines in a poem called 'Extracts from the Log of an Armada Survivor' so the rest of it appeared to be free verse. Here it is.

One of the cannons uncovered at Streedagh, Co Sligo, from the wreck of the Spanish Armada ship La Juliana, which sank in 1588.

One of the cannons uncovered at Streedagh, Co Sligo, from the wreck of the Spanish Armada ship La Juliana, which sank in 1588.

Extracts from The Log Of An Armada Survivor

The ‘Santa Maria de Vision’, ‘La Lavia’ and ‘La Juliana’ of the Levant squadron all foundered on Streedagh Strand in Donegal Bay, in the north of Ireland in the same violent storm. Captain Francisco de Cuellar survived.

21st September 1588

On this day we observed the coast of Ireland.
The grey hills were barely visible through the rain.
We beat against the westerly wind for three days more,
But heavy weather overwhelmed our shredding canvas,
And drove us ever closer to the shore…

24th September 1588

On this day we shadowed the coast of Ireland,
Fearing terrible fates at the hands of the natives,
For none of us had ever visited this land before.
We worked the pumps and re-set the straining hawsers,
Ceasing only when there was point no more…

25th September 1588

On that day we engaged the coast of Ireland.
When the jagged rocks ripped the bellies from our three ships,
I wrapped this journal in a waxed cloth cover and prayed.
Those of us trusting in God leapt over the side,
We never saw again the ones who stayed…

By one hour we survived the coast of Ireland.
Clinging to barrels and hatches we made dry land.
From the three ships we lost eleven hundred before,
None but three hundred outliving the raging storm,
We felt our feet on solid ground once more…

26th September 1588

On this day we embraced the coast of Ireland,
For the Irish were not bent on murdering us.
We were mightily relieved the rumours were not true,
As the intent to strip our clothes and valuables
Was their concern, than ought else we might do…

Twelve men hung dead from the Monastery’s gratings,
The English garrison’s response to our ‘invasion’.
Below wild dogs and ravens fed on the stripped corpses
Of our unburied comrades washed upon the shore.
Amongst them Don Diego Enriquez…

31st March 1589

On this day I departed the coast of Ireland,
Alongside others wishing not to stay behind.
It will be many months before we reach home again,
And, although it may fair ill reporting failure,
I’m bound by duty to return to Spain.

How Did That Work Out?

Ironically, that poem was shortlisted in the final six of 200+ entries at the Kendal Branch of Ottakers (now Waterstones) Bookshop for the Adult Prize in the Ottaker’s and Faber Seventh Annual National Poetry Day Competition in October 2003. Nobody was more surprised than me. So, did it do well because I included rhymes or because I almost managed to eliminate them? Only the judges can answer that.

Later, when it was rejected by a poetry magazine, I just gave up and wrote an anti-prose poem with as many rhymes crammed into it as possible:

My Anti-Prose Poem: 'Rhyme Or Not'

Rhyme or Not?

The ‘Poetry Times’

Won’t publish my lines.

The Editor’s a bit of a meanie.

She says it’s a crime

To end each line with a rhyme.

For that she’d reject Seamus Heaney (... or should that be William Wordsworth in free verse?)

One Final Point

The British nation’s favourite poems, as evidenced by regular polls, are Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud’ and Kipling’s ‘If’. Both have rhymes. So what do you think?

To Rhyme Or Not to Rhyme, That Is The Question.

© 2020 David Lewis Pogson

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