Monday, February 6, 2012

Rhyme: The Good, The Bad And The Doggerel

Anyone who has written in rhyme or attempted to do so, has likely struggled with the question of whether it is good enough---meaning good enough that someone other than the writer (or writer's mom) will like it. Will it be deemed to have sufficient appeal amongst the reading public to actually be published?

(Note to self: interesting how "public" and "published" have the same root, isn't it?).

But is the goodness of a rhyme, in terms of its quality, solely in the eye of the beholder? Or are there particular inherent characteristics of a rhyme itself that can be classified or measured---that give it legs; make it last?

Right off the bat, let's set aside the publication issue of goodness versus rightness. An editor's or a publisher's decision to go with a rhyme may have more to do with "fit" rather than how well the rhyme is written. In a short piece for a magazine, the rhyme has to be relevant to the theme. It must also target the appropriate age and be true to the magazine's (or book publisher's) mission and vision. If a magazine's monthly theme is airplanes, a rhyme about the anticipated trajectory of bouncing beach balls probably won't cut it, no matter how good the rhyme is.

So, for sake of argument, we will assume the rhyme flows smoothly, has no obvious speed bumps in its rhythm and that it may even have a surprise twist to get a chuckle or even a sardonic eye roll out of the editor or publisher. But rhythm and wit in rhyme are different topics entirely. So, let's set them aside for the moment.

Instead this post is about "goodness" versus "badness" in rhyme solely in terms of rhyming words and line endings, AKA rhyme scheme. This will be mostly a structural discussion of perfect rhyme versus near rhyme and forced rhyme. And while we're at it, let's toss doggerel into the mix. In the words (pardon the pun) hammered home by one modern day bard (M.C. Hammer in "You Can't Touch This"), let's "break it down!"

GOOD (PERFECT) RHYME: So, what are editors and publishers looking for in rhyme? Before jumping in, I should qualify this answer as being based on my own personal experience with rejection---no, not that kind of rejection; I mean by editors and publishers---and the advice they have provided from time to time which has helped me improve my rhyming game.

Generally, good rhyme must... well... rhyme. And it must rhyme well. Near rhyme and forced rhyme are taboos which we will cover when we get to the "bad" stuff. Rhyme assumes that a set of rhyming words will follow a certain sequence. Rhyming sets come in pairs or fours or other usually equal numbers and can have either single (ray, say) or multiple (hatchet, ratchet) rhyming syllables. Remember the recent masculine/feminine topic? In either case, the endings of the rhyming lines should sound the same. And the pattern of how the endings are used in the verse should be consistent.

In a Shakespearean Sonnet, for example, the rhyming scheme is laid out in three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and an ending couplet: abab cdcd efef gg. Following that rhyming scheme, in each stanza the first and third lines rhyme, the second and fourth lines rhyme and the last two lines (the couplet) rhyme. In "Mary Had A Little Lamb", disregarding the repeated lines (little lamb, little lamb, little lamb), only the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyme (_a_a _b_b _c_c _d_d). And for a four-line rhyming scheme, look no further than my rhyming picture book "There's A Spider In My Sink!" where all four lines in each stanza rhyme (aaaa bbbb cccc dddd, and so forth).

Regardless of the rhyming scheme you choose, just remember to keep your intended rhyming line endings sounding the same and your rhymes should be good except...

...when they're not.

BAD RHYME: Apart from problems with the content of a rhyme (flaky or shaky story, nonsensical verse that isn't otherwise interesting, funny or cute) and rhythm issues (cadence, meter, beat---to be covered in a later post), bad rhyme is usually judged based on the sound of the rhyming lines to the reader. Are the rhyming sets crisp, clear and tight. Or are they loosy-goosy, a technical term meaning not crisp, clear and tight?

Curiously, the definition of "near rhyme" isn't nearly as clear as you might think. According to Dr. Kip Wheeler at Carson-Newman College, near rhyme is only one among several terms used to describe what is called "inexact rhyme", which is "...created out of words with similar but not identical sounds." (

Adding to the confusion, according to Dr. Wheeler's website, imperfect rhyme imbeds near rhyme as one among many terms for this kind of rhyming badness: "approximate rhyme, pararhyme, slant rhyme, near rhyme, half rhyme, off rhyme, analyzed rhyme, or suspended rhyme." So, at best, nailing down the definition of near rhyme or imperfect rhyme is a little like trying to pin a tail on the donkey. Examples of such rhyming pairs which are close but not spot on: (gate-made, prevent-amend, immense-descends, insipid-intrepid).

Another example a rhyme out of kilter is one where the rhyming set consists of one word with the rhyme on a stressed syllable and the other on an unstressed syllable:

The footsteps echoed as if deep in a tomb,
While the boy lay asleep in his bedroom.

In virtually all these cases, if the reader (or editor or publisher) is expecting a certain euphonious "sound" to the rhyme, at best the verse is going to sound like the writer didn't really try very hard. At worst? It is a bit like nails on a chalk board even when reading silently. Regardless of what you call it, if a rhyme doesn't quite seem to rhyme, editors and publishers will likely not give it a second look. And if a reader actually finds it in print, the reaction is often, "how did this ever get published?"

Sometimes, such imprecisions may be forgivable if they aren't too egregious and they seem to fit well in the verse (tie a knot, pull it taught). If you are lucky, you might get away with one of those in an entire rhyme. So, it might be worth taking the risk. In the rhyming culture, there are stories that some poets have actually included a near rhyme in their best rhyming work if only to guarantee it's imperfection; a beauty mark, as it were.

But like almost any seasoning, a little goes a long way---and maybe even too far depending on how sensitive your taste is. The obvious exception, of course, is chili which can almost never be too hot for me. As I get older, my taste buds are apparently living on borrowed time. Come to think of it, that might explain the oddities in some of my rhymes.

Another measure of "badness" is forced rhyme, which occurs when the rhyming word endings sound exactly the same but the choice of the rhyming words is questionable. If you have to contrive a rhyming pair or really stretch the content just for the sake of the rhyme, it will probably land flat:

‘Twas a lickety, splickety day on the farm
In the middlest part of a summer so hotamus.
And under the giant, green huffinpuff tree,
Dylan last saw his fine Dinopotamus.

Although the verse does have an endearing quirkiness about it, a reader might wonder who in their right mind would come up with "so hotamus" to rhyme with "Dinopotamus". Of course, if you are the one person in the world who likes it, I will proudly admit to being the author. But for everyone else, I can confirm that until the forced rhyme (and probably a lot more) is fixed, this rhyme will thankfully remain unpublished.

At last we come to DOGGEREL. Briefly, doggerel is described in the Encyclopedia Britanica Online as "a low, or trivial, form of verse, loosely constructed and often irregular, but effective because of its simple mnemonic rhyme and loping metre. It appears in most literatures and societies as a useful form for comedy and satire. It is characteristic of children's game rhymes from ancient times to the present and of most nursery rhymes."

So, by definition, doggerel can be an effective verse form and is usually written in rhyme to capture its playfulness. Precision is not necessarily a consideration when it comes to doggerel. On the other hand, the presumed faults of this rhyming form can make it quite clever and engaging. Far from seriously poetic, it can nonetheless be highly popular and a load of fun. So, the value of rhyme considered to be doggerel--that is, its goodness or badness--truly is in the eye, and the ear, of the reader.

One of the best rejection letters I ever received was from the editor of a scholarly journal. The editor praised the rhythm of what he termed the "amusing doggerel" I had submitted. With that kind of critical acclaim, what else could I do but frame it.

Recapping: Near rhyme is basically trouble with the sound of the rhyming words. Forced rhyme is a rhyming set that just doesn't quite fit together---a square peg in a round hole. And doggerel is in a class by itself.

So, in a nutshell, this is one instance where near isn't dear, you don't want the force to be with you and doggerel may be bad to the bone in the very best way. OK. That was lame.


  1. This is a great article, Bill. Very helpful to those seeking to write in rhyme. I don't do it very often because I'm simply not good at it. I admire anyone who can manage it well--like you.

    All my best,


  2. Thanks, Cheryl. I'm finding the more I dig into rhyme, there is much more complexity to it than meets they eye. If I have managed to get a few right, it has been more by happenstance than by design. Perhaps I can firmly stake out a claim of being a doggerel specialist....

  3. Thanks Bill. I've tried to write a rhyming story but failed miserably. My hats off to you.