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.

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