Poetry 101 - What rhymes with orange?

Poetry 101

For the second day of our Poeme'en weekend, Susan Omand tries to help you unlearn all the things that school taught you about poetry and made it so scary...

"Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Some poems rhyme

But this one doesn't."

OK it's an old one and maybe a flip way to start an article but it essentially sums up this week's topic.

Does a poem have to rhyme in order to be called a poem?

You all know by now that I enjoy words for the sake of themselves, the sounds they make and how they sit beside each other, so I am a fan of rhyme. It tickles my literary fancy to find unexpected rhyming words in a poem. Like this rhyme from Ogden Nash - The Cobra.

"This creature fills its mouth with venom

And walks upon its duodenum."

There have also been many, MANY books written on the subject of poetic form and rhyming schemes . One of the more accessible ones is actually by Stephen Fry and called The Ode Less Travelled, which contains no fewer than ELEVEN chapters on form and and a further three on rhyming schemes - it does make an interesting read though, if you want to delve into it.

But what if a piece of writing doesn't fit any recognised forms? What if it doesn't rhyme at all? Is it still poetry? I guess that depends on your definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a poem as "A piece of writing or an oral composition, often characterised by a metrical structure, in which the expression of feelings, ideas, etc., is typically given intensity or flavour by distinctive diction, rhythm, imagery, etc." Nowhere in this definition is "rhyme" explicitly mentioned. So no, according to the dictionary, poems don't have to rhyme, or fit a specific form as long as they have some kind of structure to make them more than just a descriptive paragraph.

Here's the first verse of Warning by Jenny Joseph.

"When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

And run my stick along the public railings

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

And pick flowers in other people's gardens

And learn to spit."

The imagery in that piece is so strong that you can see the old woman, watch her walking along the street, imagine standing behind her in a shop queue. It brings her to life. But it does it in a way that is more than just the descriptive words used. The whole "chatter" of it all, all the statement-like lines that begin with "And", evoke the presence of a blethery woman. And with that short last line you can just imagine her sitting there on the pavement, in her purple coat and hat, arms crossed round her shopping bag and making stubborn "so there, hmph" noises. So, to me, this is poetry because poetry comes from the imagery and emotions brought up by a piece of work.

I wasn't always like this. For a long time I concentrated on the technical, logical side of poetry - the "if it doesn't rhyme at the end of every second line and sound like de-dum de-dum it's not poetry" - and it's something I've come to as I've grown older I think. Discovering new poets and poetry through mediums such as Twitter has also really helped to broaden my poetic horizons. There are some fantastic and fantastical mindpainters out there begging to be discovered. So no, poetry doesn't have to rhyme. It can. But it doesn't have to.

Oh, and what rhymes with orange? Nothing.

Copyright of poetic extracts and image acknowledged.

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