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Why Don't Poems Rhyme Anymore?

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The Queen's English Society may sound like the name of a Monty Python sketch, but I assure you it's very real. The group aims to protect "the beauty and precision of the English Language," and it's currently up in arms about supposed poems that--egad!--have no rhyme or meter.

The President of the QES, a man named Michael George Gibson (it may be a QES requirement to use three names), recently told the British newspaper The Guardian, "For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure, and second, alliteration and rhyme. Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems."

I'm sorry...word-things?

Anyway, the QES isn't alone. Here in America, a movement called New Formalism has been pushing for a return to formal verse for decades. The poet and critic Dana Gioia in his "Notes on New Formalism" ticked off what he perceived to be the problems with contemporary free verse poetry:

The debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.

I can hear the QES members tapping their canes in agreement.

Formalists have been tapping their canes for about a century now. Literary history records a sprinkling of early free verse poets like Walt Whitman and Christoper Smart, but the movement began in earnest in the early 1900s. Ezra Pound, who many consider to be the movement's figurehead, was a devoted student of poetry's traditions and a strong believer in the power of form, but he found the strict adherence to rhyme and meter limiting and artificial. He wrote many formal poems himself and thought poets should study the art's traditions before moving beyond them. He also felt they shouldn't move too far, writing "poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the music."

Nonetheless, the free verse movement was something of a jailbreak. Freed from formal constraints, poets quickly pushed the limits of what could be called poetry. Here's a Gertrude Stein poem that could only be called Roast Potatoes:

Roast Potatoes

Roast potatoes for.

No, that's not an excerpt. Stein means to focus your attention on the transformation of the word "roast" into a verb.

Most contemporary poets take a mixed stance on free verse versus formalism. There's a general feeling that metrical, rhyming verse strikes the ear little too harshly these days, but poets haven't abandoned form altogether. Poets make use of subtler techniques like internal rhyme (rhyming within, rather than at the end, of lines) and slant rhymes (words that almost rhyme like "black" and "bleak"). Most poets still write with a music, but it's far more varied (and usually more subtle) than music typical of traditional verse.

I think most poets would also agree that you don't have to use rhyme and meter to write a great poem. Take the well-known word-thing This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams.

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

If that doesn't protect "the beauty and precision of the English Language," I don't know what does.

Still find yourself a fierce proponent of poetic purity? You're welcome to join the QES at the New Cavendish Club in London every other Thursday. And who doesn't enjoy a brisk debate about grammatical standards! Trust me, one might ensue. The QES's wikipedia entry--and I guarantee you they are all over their wikipedia entry--states "a commitment to standards should not preclude the possibility of grammatical change; nor does it mean, however, that change should be mindlessly celebrated for its own sake."

Mindless celebrating! Dare they forget how they got booted from Old Cavendish!

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