Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Art of Internal Rhyme

Traditional poetic forms like the sonnet are defined in part by a rhyme scheme that specifies a required sequence of end rhymes. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem in which the first 12 lines rhyme in alternating pairs and the last two lines rhyme with each other. Symbolically, we can write this rhyme scheme as:

abab cdcd efef gg

Of course, there is a great deal more to a sonnet than this rhyme scheme, but without question, the characteristic pattern of end rhymes is one of the features that makes the sonnet easy to identify. The subject of this post is the more complicated – and often, more subtle – notion of internal rhyme.

In its entry on the topic, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that the terminology of internal rhyme is not standardized, so they describe two variations of each of two basic types. The first type involves a word at the end of a line, rhyming either with (a) one or more words in the same line, or (b) one or more words in another line, while the second type involves only internal words, again rhyming either with (a) other words on the same line, or (b) words in the middle of other lines. As this definition suggests, internal rhyme is an extremely flexible concept. In The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Lewis Turco discusses many different types of rhyme, and he uses the term cross rhyme to denote variation (b) of the first type of internal rhyme described above: the end of one line rhymes with a word in the middle of another line. He also uses the term interlaced rhyme to refer to variation (b) of the second type of internal rhyme defined above – i.e., words or syllables in the middle of one line rhyming with words or syllables in the middle of another line – and he uses the term linked rhyme to denote a rhyme between the end of one line and the beginning of the next, an idea illustrated below in connection with Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle. For the purposes of discussion here, I will use the term “internal rhyme” to refer to any rhyme between an internal syllable or group of syllables, either with words or syllables at the end of the same line, or those in another line, most commonly at the end of that other line. Where I want to be explicit that the rhyme involves two different lines, I will use the term “cross rhyme.”

In his book, Lewis Turco discusses about a dozen different poetic forms that include internal rhymes as part of their definition, generally involving cross rhymes. Most of these forms are either Welsh or Irish, and many of the resulting rhyme schemes are rather complicated. One of the simpler examples is the awdl gywydd, consisting of four seven-syllable lines organized as follows:

1 – x x x x x x a

2 – x x (a) (a) (a) x b

3 – x x x x x x c

4 – x x (c) (c) (c) x b

Here, each letter denotes a syllable and those marked x can be anything we like, but those marked a, b, or c represent rhymes. Also, the letters in parentheses in the second and fourth line mean that one of these syllables must exhibit the indicated rhyme. Specifically, “a” in the above scheme denotes the end rhyme for the first line, which must be a cross rhyme with the third, fourth, or fifth syllable of the second line. Similarly, the final syllable of the third line must be a cross rhyme with the third, fourth, or fifth syllable of the fourth line. As a specific illustration, I have composed the following awdl gywydd:

The Bliss of Ignorance

Who would remember that day

when certainty fades, and youth

slips so suddenly from us,

a foretaste of dust’s black truth?

Here, day at the end of line 1 rhymes with fades, the fifth syllable of line 2, while youth at the end of line 2 rhymes with truth at the end of line 4, and us at the end of line 3 rhymes with dust’s, the fifth syllable of line 4.

Another poetic form that incorporates internal rhyme in its definition is the Persian ghazal. Ironically enough, this is a form that Turco does not include in his book, but it is included in Dede Wilson’s collection One Nightstand that I discussed in a previous post (a really fabulous little book that I recommend highly – published in 2001 by and still available from Main Street Rag). This form consists of any number of couplets, with the following requirements: first, both lines of the first couplet and the second line of all succeeding couplets must end with the same word or phrase, known as the radif, and second, preceding each radif is an internal rhyme called the qafia. The following example provides an illustration:

                                Rejection Letter No. 12,768

“Dear contributor,” it read, “your poems do not meet our current needs.”

I stared in disbelief: surely, my stuff exceeded any “current needs.”

Refusing to weep or gnash my teeth, I threw it on the pile with the other

letters alleging my failure to foresee a vast array of current needs.

Rereading their magazine later, I wondered why I had bothered:

based on what they accepted, I couldn’t believe what met their current needs.

A few days after that, when the sting had abated a bit,

I sent another group of doodles: surely these would meet and exceed all current needs.

Here, “current needs” represents the radif, repeated at the end of both lines of the first couplet and at the second line of each succeeding couplet, while the qafia is the internal rhyme between meet in the first line, exceeded in the second, foresee at the end of the second couplet, believe at the end of the third, and meet and exceed at the end of the fourth. A more detailed discussion of the ghazal with additional examples is given by Agha Shahid Ali in An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, which includes Ali’s chapter on the ghazal, together with discussions of an enormous range of other poetic topics, from sonnets and haiku to rap and fractals.

Standard advice given to poets, musicians, and other creative artists down through the centuries is to “study the masters.” As advice, this is difficult to argue with, but it does immediately raise a crucial question: who exactly are the masters we should be studying? The answer to this question can be the subject of considerable debate.

Some years ago, I attended a poetry workshop taught by a well-known contemporary poet. One of the other students asked a question and in the course of the discussion, mentioned Edgar Allen Poe. The instructor’s response was immediate and vehemently dismissive: “Poe?? He was a terrible poet!” While Poe may not be everyone’s cup of tea, if you are interested in internal rhyme, it is worth studying at least some of his poetry because he used the idea so extensively. This is clear from the opening line of “The Raven,” probably his most famous poem:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,”

Poe’s use of rhyme is not subtle, either in his end-rhymes or in his internal rhymes, but it is precisely because his rhymes are not subtle that he represents a good place to begin in exploring the concept. In particular, the internal rhyme between “dreary” and “weary” is the most obvious illustration, but his repetition of the accented syllable “pon” in both “upon” and “pondered” may also be viewed as an internal rhyme. In addition, note that the effect of the alliteration in “weak and weary” is to further emphasize the internal rhyme in the line. The first two lines of the second stanza include both the internal rhyme between “remember” and “December” and a cross-rhyme with “ember” in the second line:

“Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”

All in all, a careful reading of “The Raven” reveals a lot of internal rhyme, both within and between lines.

A more subtle master of internal rhyme was Dylan Thomas. His poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” is often cited as one of the best English-language villanelles ever written. What is perhaps less widely recognized is Thomas’ mastery of internal rhyme. For example, the opening stanza of his villanelle consists of the following three lines:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Note the internal rhymes between “age,” “rave,” and “day” in the second line, which extends to a cross-rhyme with “Rage, rage” at the beginning of the third line (a nice illustration of the notion of linked rhyme discussed by Lewis Turco). Similarly, note the very clear internal rhyme between “dying” and “light” in the third line, together with more subtle slant rhymes in the first line, between “do,” “go,” and “good.”

An even more subtle example of Thomas’ mastery of internal rhyme is his poem, “The Conversation of Prayer”, which begins with the following five lines:

The conversation of prayers about to be said

By the child going to bed and the man on the stairs

Who climbs to his dying love in her high room,

The one not caring to whom in his sleep he will move

And the other full of tears that she will be dead,

This poem is described by Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell in their book Sound and Form in Modern Poetry: Second Edition (Ann Arbor Paperbacks), who point out its scheme of interlocking cross-rhymes. Taking their lead, I have highlighted the words involved in these cross-rhymes: prayers in the middle of line 1 rhymes with stairs at the end of line 2 and forms a slant rhyme with tears at the middle of line 5; said at the end of line 1 rhymes with bed in the middle of line 2 and dead at the end of line 5; love in the middle of line 3 is a slant rhyme with move at the end of line 4; and room at the end of line 3 rhymes with whom in the middle of line 4. In fact, Thomas maintains this interlocking cross-rhyme scheme through all four stanzas of the poem.

One of the things I particularly like about internal rhyme is its extremely broad applicability. Not only is it inherent in the definition of intricate poetic forms like the awdl gywydd and the ghazal from very different cultures, but it can also be incorporated into other classical forms like the examples by Poe and Thomas discussed above, or even into free-verse poetry. Examples abound: as one, William Carlos Williams’ 1938 poem, “A Sort of a Song,” begins with the line, “Let the snake wait under,” which illustrates the subtlest of the four types of internal rhyme discussed in the Princeton Encyclopedia’s entry on the topic. In fact, internal rhyme can be very effectively used in prose poems, which aren’t even organized into lines. For example, in my post last year on Kate Lebo's chapbook, A Commonplace Book of Pie, I cited the following quote from her “Lemon Meringue” poem to illustrate how alliteration, assonance, and consonance can be used effectively in a prose poem:

“It could be hollowed and hallowed and filled with soup and served in a bistro to people who do not smash pumpkins.”

Here, “hollowed” and “hallowed” form a slant rhyme strengthened by alliteration, followed fairly rapidly by the subsequent slant rhyme of “bistro” with “people,” strengthened by what may be regarded as a “slant alliteration” between “b” and “p”.

One of my favorite internal rhyme-based forms is the Welsh clogyrnach, described by Lewis Turco in The New Book of Forms. This type of poem can be defined in a couple of different ways: the simpler definition requires six lines with varying syllable counts (specifically, 8-8-5-5-3-3) and a specified arrangement of end rhymes. As Turco notes, an alternative version of this form combines the last two lines into a single six-syllable line, which I find more interesting because it is then based on cross rhymes, with the following scheme:

1 – x x x x x x x a

2 – x x x x x x x a

3 – x x x x b

4 – x x x x b

5 – x x b x x a

Like the quatern form discussed in Dede Wilson’s One Nightstand, I am particularly fond of the clogyrnach because I have actually been able to get one of them published. The following example appeared in 2007 in issue 21 of Ibbetson Street:


We walk in silence down the road

all together, but each alone.

Borne with muffled drums

and twenty-one guns,

day is done. He is home.

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