The Dynamo

At Yellowstone I saw a geyser spew its water in the air, this was but an appetizer;

the park attendant, debonair, saw me wearing polyester, knew at once that I was lost;

how'd he guess my name was Esther? Then I saw the name embossed On the tag the park required

When I drove here. (I'm retired.) He explained what rangers know: Geysers steam before they blow!

As you can see, if used in this manner, the rhyming dictionary composes mostly nonsense. You begin a work wanting to capture the essence of a natural wonder and end up as Esther wearing polyester. To counter that effect, poets often are discouraged from using such dictionaries and told to think up rhymes in their heads, using the alphabet and imagination.

I've composed dozens of formal poems this way, and it works — after a while. In the beginning, however, a novice poet just cannot conceive enough rhyme words to complete a poem; worse, he or she is spending energy concentrating on the invention of rhyme instead of on the invention of a poem. That's like trying to remember how to spell every word in the first draft of an essay, instead of focusing on the ideas you want to convey.

In a word, using a rhyming dictionary unwisely, or trying to remember rhymes while you are writing poems, damages the creative process. Chances are your rhymes will maul meter and devour ideas. The solu tion, however, is not to shun rhyme or rhyming dictionaries, but to use both appropriately.

I use a rhyming dictionary to help me compose formal work, but I remain in control of the creative process. Before I write, I have a good idea what I want to express because — like you — I keep an idea file and outline a poem (as described in chapter one). Here's a sample from my files:


I want to write a love poem with rhyming stanzas.

Rhyme and meter will become part of a game that the narrator plays to forget about unrequited love.

I should call it "The Art of Amnesia"!

In my first draft, I decided to use a type of poem called terza rima, which features stanzas with interlocking rhymes according to this scheme — aba bcb cdc ded — and so on, for as long as a poet needs to convey an idea. For starters, I concentrated on coming up with strong opening lines:

Maybe if I write this out, give it up

I stopped there. I felt that I had two strong rhyme words and opened my dictionary to look up entries under up and rhyme. Here is an abbreviated list of what I found:

Up: cup, pup, sup, hiccup, makeup, setup, teacup, etc.

Rhyme: chime, clime, crime, dime, I'm, prime, time, etc.

I circled cup, sup and setup to rhyme with up and chime, I'm and time to rhyme with rhyme. Then I contemplated my potential rhyme words and evaluated how each related to content: romantic amnesia. I liked the sound of cup and imagined one clanging like the heart — "I will not clang inside like a cup!" — and wrote a few sentences using the word time-. "I will tap my foot on shards, keeping time" and "I will count the shards, keeping time." As you can see, the lines using the word time sounded forced, and I felt myself straining to keep the meaning of my poem clear in my mind. So I abandoned the rhyme word time and pondered I'm, changing it to I am to smooth the meter and slant the rhyme. It worked:

Maybe if I write this out, give it up

To gears of meter, caesura, and rhyme,

I will not clang inside like a cup

Without consulting the dictionary, I saw the opportunity now to pun I am with iamb. I kept this word in the back of my mind. The next step was to compose another line without regard to rhyme, to focus again on my subject:

Back to the dictionary again:

Under -id I found: bid, did, grid, hid, kid, lid, mid, slid, squid, among others. Immediately I was attracted to lid to play off cup . . . but that was leading me farther away from using iamb. So I abandoned lid after a few attempts. This is where novice poets usually get stumped, forcing rhyme or allowing the dictionary to take over. Suddenly the poet is either wrenching rhyme to remain true to meaning or wrenching meaning to remain true to rhyme.

When you find yourself in that situation, the solution is to open another reference book: the thesaurus. Using a thesaurus to locate better rhyme words is similar to using one in tandem with a standard dictionary to spell difficult words. For instance, say you want to find the correct spelling of diverse, but can't locate it in the dictionary because, alas, you can't spell it. So you think of a synonym: different. Under the entry of different in the thesaurus, you'll find the correct spelling of diverse.

The process is the same with rhyme words a poet cannot locate. In my case, a quick check in the thesaurus under the entry id yielded these words: self, ego, identity, selfhood, personality and psyche. I opened my rhyming dictionary again. Under self, I found the word shelf and composed a few draft lines, happy that I could use my cup metaphor again by linking it to the concept of meter:

Stung by a spoon, cracked by it. I am

That breakable. Say I time this self-

Consuming prophecy just right with iamb

And measure, lyric and line on a shelf

Beside amphibrachs in a cupboard.

Those lines worked well, but the dilemma now was that the word self did not have many rhymes. I needed one more to propel me to the next stanza, and I couldn't find it. In such a situation, you have two options: You can abandon your previous line using the poor rhyming word and start again. (In my case that would mean throwing away my meter/shelf metaphor and using a richer rhyme word, like identity.) The other option is to slant rhyme.

Let's take a closer look at the words self and shelf. The important vowel/consonant sound is -el, and under that entry in the rhyming dictionary I found several approximate rhymes, including the one I used: quell.

The rest of the poem came easily after that. Using the process described above, I was able to complete my poem with a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus without wrenching sound or changing meaning:

And measure, lyric and line on a shelf

Beside amphibrachs in a cupboard.

Would canon or craft in any way quell

The desire tonight to hold her, hoard

Lover-like the anapest of her heart?

I don't know. So imagine my working toward

Conclusion, the easy denouement, the sort

A reader with a yen for Jung would prove

My kind of broken dish. It is a start,

However dim, for when the triplets move

Leisurely as these, when they weave

Their web among the trinkets of

Formality, at least I forget about love.

Now that you know how to use a rhyming dictionary, let's consider the various patterns you can employ via the stanza and rhyme.

Rhyming Patterns

Of course, you can rhyme lines of a stanza any way you wish. For instance, you can rhyme the first two lines and then alternate the rhymes in the next four lines of a stanza. Such a pattern would be outlined like this: aabcbc. Or you can alternate the rhymes of the first four lines and rhyme the last two: ababcc. Or design these variations — abcabc or abbcac or abccba — or whatever pleases your fancy (and ear).

Some rhyming patterns have traditional names, such as the interlocking three-line stanzas called terza rima mentioned earlier: aba bcb cdc ded. Another popular rhyming pattern, usually composed in pentameter, is the seven-line stanza called "rhyme royale": ababbcc. Although often mistaken as "form" poems (discussed in chapter nineteen), these are powered by the stanza and, as such, can be as long or short as required to convey a message or idea.

Whether you design your own rhyming pattern, or employ an established one, you should focus on the stanza as a vehicle for sound. To illustrate, let's sample some of the rhyming patterns of Robert Herrick, a seventeenth-century master poet whose melodies can be touchstones for your own:


The mellow touch of music most doth wound a The soule, when it doth rather sigh, then sound. a


I do love I know not what; a

Sometimes this, & sometimes that: a

All conditions I aim at. a


Gather ye rosebuds while ye may a

Old Time is still a flying: b And this same flower that smiles today, a

Tomorrow may be dying. b

(Five-Line Stanza)

Go happy Rose, and interwove a With other flowers, bind my love. a

Tell her too, she must not be, b

Longer flowing, longer free, b

That so oft has fetter'd me. b

(Six-Line Stanza)

Glide gentle streams, and bear a

Along with you my tear a

To that coy girl; b

Who smiles, yet slays c

Me with delays; c

And strings my tears as pearls. b

(Seven-Line Stanza)

Not all thy flushing suns are set, a

Herrick as yet: a

Nor doth this far-drawn hemisphere b

Frown and look sullen, everywhere. b Days may conclude in nights; and suns may rest, c

As dead, within the West; c

Yet the next morn, re-guild the fragrant East. c

(Eight-Line Stanza)

Agyge's Ring they bear about them still, a

To be, and not be seen when and where they will. a

They tread on clouds, and though they sometimes fall, a

They fall like dew, but make no noise at all. a

So silently they one to th'other come, b

As colours steal into the pear or plum, And air-like, leave no 'pression to be seen Where e're they met, or parting place has been.

These are a few rhyming patterns that Herrick used in his work. You can design dozens of variations of the above stanzas. Keep in mind there is no formula to align a melody with content because both depend on your idea, truth and imagination. As always, the best way to learn about possibilities is to read poems and determine which ones move you most . . . and why.

Toward that end, I have assembled a mini anthology of poems whose use of rhyme is innovative, musical and effective — given the subject matter of each selection:

• "Kismet" by Diane Ackerman. In a sonnet variation about the philosopher Wittgenstein, Ackerman, a poet and an essayist for The New Yorker, uses rhyme to enhance her epiphany: Love speaks in tongues. Her stanzas are not based on a formal pattern but on a syllogism (a type of logical argument) for an added sense of irony. Note her many ingenious rhymes — "lovers kiss/aurora borealis," "other's mouth/azimuth" — that surprise us, well, like unexpected kisses!

• "Early Brass" by Ronald Wallace. Another sonnet variation, this poem's music resounds with every line. When you read it, focus on the intriguing, unexpected rhymes: "tuxedos/O/bravado's" and "brass/sass/surpass" in the first stanza. Note the enjambment of the first stanza mimicking the sliding sounds of trombones and brass and the second stanza's humorous multiple slant rhymes — "oversized trombone-/altogether un-" and "slapstick recital/Sacbut Ensemble." Also note the end-stopped rhymes in the second stanza, focusing on the slant multiple rhymes as if they were somehow off-key, in keeping with an amateur recital. Finally, study the way the choral last lines of each stanza make the entire poem "a little song" of early brass.

• "The Palace Cafe" by Jim Barnes. We read Barnes's free verse in the chapter on extranatural poetry; in this selection, he uses terza rima to produce an ominous tone. Note how the poet's lines build on each other, working as units; some suggest one meaning when read across and another when read in tandem with the line below. According to Barnes, "Poems that do not employ form are by definition formless." However, Barnes transcends the form of a terza rima, retaining the natural sound of his voice, using slant rhyme for tension, and employing enjambment to forebode the cyclone winds that haunt the town.

• "The Crash" by Frederick Feirstein, a New York City psychoanalyst and Guggenheim fellow for poetry. This poem is part of a dramatic sequence from Manhattan Carnival (Countryman, 1981), featuring street scenes from New York and depicting the life of a man who is estranged from his wife. Although this poem can stand alone, consider it an excerpt of a larger work and focus on its rhyme words. For Feirstein, rhyme is a rhythmic device as much as a melodic one. He says, "I find it important to be as original in using rhyme as in using metaphor. Only occasionally will I use one-syllable rhymes, and only when I'm trying for a certain effect." In "The Crash" you'll see how the mostly one-syllable rhymes and end-stopped lines add to the drama and confusion of an accident.

Although each of the above poems is a work of art, I know that rhyme, as a tool of craft, is responsible for it.

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