Why do poets use Rhyme? August 23, 2017 14:00

What is the purpose of rhyme in poetry? How does rhyme effect the meaning of a poem? Joshua Ip, one of the editors of UnFree Verse, looks at 5 examples of rhyme poetry to decode their music and the evolution of rhyme in Singapore poetry from 1967 to 2015.

UnFree Verse edited by Tse Hao Guang, Joshua Ip, and Theophilus Kwek

It seems a pity that in reply to a young Prof Koh Tai Ann in 1967, Mr Lee Kuan Yew adopted the attitude that "poetry is a luxury we cannot afford." Perhaps his impression of poetry had been shaped by the rough-at-the-edges, nonconformist free verse of the Beats. Such a wild-haired, untamed genre had no place in the rigid social structures of Singapore then. But the history of poetry in Singapore and beyond had always been scaffolded by the pillars of rhyme and meter, long before free verse was a twinkle in a modernist's eye. Had he considered the rigorous patterns of a rhyme scheme as a symbol of order imposed upon linguistic chaos, or the soothing, familiar effects of repeated vowel-sounds as a metaphor for the repetitive mantras and sutras that were our nation-building tenets, he too might have turned in his hatchet for a quill.

Rhyme lingers in our deepest mind after the noise of rhetoric has long faded away. It worms its way into our inner ear and whispers at us years after we first met. And in typical Singaporean manner, it provides comfortable expectations and a conservative sense of certainty, just as "forevermore / give your best and more / give a little more" must inevitably follow some lines after an end-stopped "Singapore" in a National Day song. A rhyme scheme serves the same purpose as a chord structure in music—a naturally pleasing form of repetition mixed with just the right amount of complexity and variation.

Examine the first stanza of Hedwig Anuar's “Love Match” (1956)

The lady says she’s willing
She declares the prospect thrilling,
But the gentleman isn’t quite so sure.
He’s not quite so romantic,
He’s driving her quite frantic—
Can it be that she lacks enough allure?

The rhyme declares itself unabashedly from the first line to the last—it calls attention to itself, it reminds us clearly where each line ends, and drives the punchy satire home with every echoed vowel and consonant pair. Anuar even uses the flashier feminine rhymes—two-syllable pairings such as "willing"/"thrilling" and "romantic"/"frantic", which are doubly musical, doubly ostentatious—and are appropriate for the snarky humour of the piece comparing Singapore and Malaysia to two somewhat star-crossed lovers. We know exactly what we're getting, and we know how to read it with style. The aab ccb rhyme scheme, alternating side-by-side feminine rhymes and distanced masculine rhymes, is as familiar as an old jazz standard, and has long been used for light-hearted ballads and plays.

Over time our taste for chord structures has grown more advanced and demanding, so too has our taste for rhyme. The simple end-stopped hard rhyme of "hear the lion roar" and "We are Singapore" no longer excites—rather, it becomes so predictable it bores. This has led many poets to abandon rhyme completely. But sound still underlies poetry—the challenge has just been taken to a higher level for modern day wordsmiths to interweave the pleasing chimes of rhyme in their works in subtler ways.

Robert Yeo employs a few strategies to muffle the sounds of too-obvious rhyme in “Phnom Penh I” (1977):

Embattled, the city shows no obvious sign
Of war. But queues of Vespas and Hondas,
Wide, bare boulevards, the silence after nine,
Point to the plight of the reluctant of Khmers

"Sign" and "nine" are rhymes as perfect and hard as two cymbals. Leaving them at the end of two lines with full-stops after them is equivalent to bringing the cymbals together with a giant clang. But Robert goes on after "sign" in the first line—he enjambs, or runs-on the sentence into "Of war" in the next poetic line, before taking a pause. Instead of a glaring clang highlighted by an open silence after, we get a light clash within the rhythm of the whole band.

Do "Hondas" rhyme with "Khmers"? The second "uh" vowel does, depending on differing regional pronunciations of these non-English-origin words. So this is a half-rhyme, and doubly halved by the rhyming syllable being the shorter, unstressed syllable of "Hondas" (and few readers being able to pronounce "Khmers" accurately on first viewing ...)—despite both coming at the end of a line, the "uh" rhymes slide into the background like the shimmering tingle of an open high-hat in the flow of a line.

UnFree Verse—Singapore's literary history through formal verse

Ee Tiang Hoong's “Epilogue” (1985) offers a different set of strategies to sneak the rhyme into the poem.

Or if it does attend,
we may not tell
how mind or heart
should turn its meaning
but where it will.

And some there are
who have denied us all
fellowship and identity
reserved their rank
in the national roll.

But should you read these lines,
and if they move,
I would you share their longing
with a friend, our people,
and all who love.

The rhymes appear, but not in every line, only the 2nd and 5th of each stanza. Separated by three lines, the ear struggles to hear them with the same regularity, especially with the absence of a strict meter to regulate the repetition. And as further diversion, each of the stanzas is a single sentence, eliding the ripple of each rhyme into the wave of the long run-on.

Contrary to the previous example, the rhymes here ignore the vowels in favour of matching consonants: "tell"/ "will", "all"/"roll", "move"/"love" are consonances or consonant-rhymes. The last ("move"/"love") is a subset known as eye-rhyme, where it looks like it should rhyme normally—but doesn't. The rhyme becomes even less obvious when it loses the open vowels, and retains only the percussion of the consonants—closer to the rhythmic "chck" of a closed high-hat.

Twenty years later, the rhymes in Eddie Tay's “Beginning His Day” (2005) are barely noticeable if read out. 

His arm nudges her pillow-creased body.
She grimaces at the naked ceiling
while the clock plays a pressing melody.
Seven, for her, is like every morning.
She proceeds to the kitchen for breakfast.
Shells crack on rim. She knows he likes them raw.
Yellow blends meekly when beaten. The past
was never like that. But marriage is law.

Who would notice the eye-rhymes of "body" and "melody", or "breakfast" and "past"? The last is even less noticeable as it enjambs into the next sentence—reading this poem out loud, one barely hesitates on the line break at "The past" to ruminate on that subject, before the poetic line sweeps on into a disavowal of what the present is. Even where Tay adopts perfect rhyme with "raw" and "law", with two end-stopped sentences, he prevents them from being predictable by breaking the line in the middle with a caesura after "Shells crack on rim" and "was never like that". Instead of head-wagging, five-beat lines of iambic pentameter, the end-stopped full rhymes come after fragmentary sentences in a series of enjambed interjections.

I liken this to rhythmic syncopation the sharp emphasis of the down-beat happening not where you predict it, carrying past each bar into the next with a sense of off-balance surprise.

David Wong takes this to the next level in "The Inquisitor's Lover" (2015)

I am a collector of sins par ex-
cellence. I am an apostle of lax
living. While wisemen and salarymen
paint over the cracks of dead monuments
I made ronin of your serotonin, your

In the first six lines of this sonnet there isn't a single end-stopped line—every line runs on! Not content with breaking the sentence across the poetic line, he breaks a word - "ex-cellence" across the first two lines so he can rhyme "ex-" with "lax." Read it out: it's a faint, barely audible internal rhyme, yet tickles visually when it's read on the page. Rather than the subtlety of enjambment, this technique calls attention to itself, and deliberately so! 

Does "salarymen" rhyme with "monuments"? Both have "men" in them, so should we call this consonance or assonance or half-feminine rhyme? Why should we care, when we can just appreciate how "salarymen" lines up perfectly with "monuments", with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed? And what about that splatter of "ronin", "serotonin" and "oxytocin"? The last two riff in the language of science, but the first hops registers to Japanese to achieve internal feminine rhymes that bridge not only cultures but a startling metaphor.

UnFree Verse—Why do poets use rhyme?

UnFree Verse, featuring a Cherub on the harp in the background.

This is bebop at its finest—the familiar tools of enjambment and internal rhyme taken to the next level of virtuosity, where flash and pizzazz is the name of the game rather than mere subtlety.

These five examples illustrate how different takes on rhyme can be used to convey a variety of moods: a familiar, pleasing standard; subtle, laid-back grooves; or an experimental freestyle riff-off. So the next time you hear a poem read out loud, listen for the rhymes—whether full rhymes, feminine rhymes, consonances or assonances. No matter if the poem purports to be free verse or not—every song has a chord progression and a chord structure, and every poem has hidden music lurking between or at the end of its lines.

Read next: Selected poems from UnFree Verse.

Joshua Ip is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of sonnets from the singlish upsized edition (2015), making love with scrabble tiles (2013), and sonnets from the singlish(2012). He has placed in three different categories of the Golden Point Award. He co-edits two series of anthologies: A Luxury We Cannot Afford and SingPoWriMo; and edits Ten Year Series, an imprint of Math Paper Press. He is working on a graphic novel, Ten Stories Below. He is the founder of Sing Lit Station, a non-profit that runs multiple community initiatives, including SingPoWriMo, Manuscript Bootcamp, poetry.sg, and several workshop groups. www.joshuaip.com.

Where does Singapore poetry begin? July 20, 2017 17:00

Theophilus Kwek, one of the editors of UnFree Verse, traces the roads leading to formal verse in Singapore and why it’s time to dissociate it with the establishment, colonial or otherwise.

Where does Singapore poetry begin?

When I was last in Singapore a year ago, the room I’m sitting in now didn’t exist. In its place, a cluster of low buildings – including the old Thomson Road Post Office (which opened in 1958), and several three-storey bungalows – lined the road up a lightly-wooded hill, overlooking the shophouses and eateries below.

The address itself holds a mystery. ‘Bright Hill Drive’ stops short over the crest of its slope, tantalizingly close to where Ethos Books is based today. Petering to a footpath, flanked by a metal fence and plucky tufts of grass, it reappears inexplicably some distance away, as a tributary of the meandering Sin Ming Avenue.

As it turns out, it matters how far back you look. In 1921, around the time my grandma’s grandma made her cramped voyage to Nanyang, an itinerant missionary (who was, like her, from Fujian) founded the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery on land donated by a wealthy businessman. Though newer blocks now truncate the old thoroughfare, Kong Meng San – “Bright Hill” – remains the largest Buddhist temple in Singapore; a significant landmark in lived experience, and no doubt a source of local pride. 

So often, the streets themselves remind us of what lies beneath the simple topography of an online map, or road atlases updated year-by-year. In much the same way, putting together the manuscript for UnFree Verse demanded that we run our hands carefully over a familiar, too-flat city plan, if only to feel for the rough edges of another Singaporean landscape.

Too many brochures and book-jackets present what one might call the ‘Visitor’s Guide’ view of Singapore literature: as a neat trajectory taking shape from a wave of ‘new writing’ in the last ten or twenty years. Some look, more circumspectly, into the era before Ethos (or at least BooksActually), but rarely venture beyond the political milestones of the 1960s.

Drawing a map

When we began thinking about UnFree Verse, It was clear to us that another history needed to be pieced together, and one that traced a slightly different story.

We wanted to assemble a biography of formal verse in Singapore, a genre that has received some bad press in relation to its counterpart (and erstwhile nemesis) free verse. But neither is it the underdog of Singapore poetry. Often associated too easily with the establishment, colonial or otherwise, formal verse – in all its shape-shifting permutations – deserved to have its own tale told.

And what a tale it was. Across the decades, formal poetry appeared in the writings of dissidents and diplomats, professors and Presidents from all backgrounds and persuasions. It was also a strikingly global story: many of these forms are rooted in traditions from elsewhere, but live on in the voices of Singapore’s immigrants and exiles alike, blurring the line between our proverbial ‘stayers’ and ‘quitters’.

Many beginnings

A first, natural milestone is 'FMSR', a book-length poem published by Francis P. Ng (alias Teo Poh Leng) in 1937. We’ve chosen four sections of this visionary work, which can best be described as a rich palimpsest layered over a single train journey on the old Federated Malay States Railway, to open our anthology; its memorable opening lines (‘Millionaires from the New World with nothing else to do / Wander the Old World…’) speak directly to the unaffordable luxuries of the poet’s interwar context as well as our own. 

But even 'FMSR' is, by most measures, far too late a starting-point. Structure travels with speech, and formal poetry has arguably been part of the cadences of these parts since before the 14th Century royals of Singapura held court. With the East India Company’s signature cocktail of trade and conquest in the early 19th Century came another potent mix: the mongrel heritage of the English language, filtered through Europe’s past.

One poem that gestures to this earlier inheritance is Shirley Lim's 'Ah Ma' (pp 143-144), written in 1998. Its plainspoken opening lines ('Grandmother was smaller / than me at eight. Had she / been child forever?') come across as stiff – almost stilted – in comparison with FMSR's dynamic stanzas, but serve to ease us into a delicate terza rima, full of feminine endings and half-rhymes ('all / girl', 'young / sarong').

This form, in which the first and third lines of every tercet are rhyming, was famously pioneered by the medieval Italian poet Dante in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy (not long before Parameswara fled this island stronghold to re-establish his court at Malacca), and first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer, who also wrote the Canterbury Tales. Lim uses it to frame this intimate portrait of a grandma against the same tradition, an epic of the everyday. Perhaps we should look to real-life ‘grandmother stories’ for our heroines.

Treading new paths

Other formal adaptations, such as Alfian Sa’at’s ‘The Electric Ghazals’ (extracted on pp 201-203), look even further back, to traditions originating across the Mediterranean from classical Europe. The ghazal, with rhyming couplets sharing the same ending refrain, has pre-Islamic roots, and flourished during the heyday of Sufism in the 12th Century – during which it crossed linguistic borders into South Asian traditions.

Electric Ghazals by Alfian Sa’at, taken from UnFree Verse

 In his long poem, Alfian borrows the form into English, adding a tender twist: each ghazal in the sequence is both dedicated (in its epigraph) to someone else, and addressed (in the text) to Alfian himself. Each becomes a dialogue, held in the quiet symmetry of its couplets, while the whole poem is a conversation of many voices.

Such processes of adaptation and cross-pollination, of course, involve bending age-old conventions. But there’s no reason why these forms of poetry should be static: poets in Singapore, after all, are occasionally best known for breaking rules as well as lines. As Alfian writes to Alfian: 

Alfian, how wantonly you break the rules of the ghazal.    
But if it makes you happy to call this one, then be happy.

The few pieces mentioned here are by no means an exhaustive survey of a new, quirky history of Singapore literature that, we hope, will find a place on your bookshelves (and in your hands). But the greater hope is this: that the oft-misunderstood story of formal verse in Singapore can – like other untold histories, like Bright Hill Drive – resurface to claim its place as part of a steadily expanding canon.

It is, after all, part of the road we know well; a landscape we live and make new.   



Read next: Selected poems from UnFree Verse.

Theophilus Kwek has published four volumes of poetry: They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2014, shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize), Giving Ground (2016), and The First Five Storms (2017, winner of the New Poets’ Prize). He
recently won the Berfrois Poetry Prize, and was placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation; his work has also been widely published in international journals and anthologies. He served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and is currently Co-Editor of both Oxford Poetry and The Kindling. He is the Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote, a journal for world literature.