Monday, April 11, 2011

Will you have a serving of rhymes with that poem?

Ben Horack is best known as the Horack from Horack Talley, one of Charlotte's oldest law firms. But when he called me recently, it was to discuss poetry, not law.

Horack, 93, had spotted a stanza from a poem I'd quoted in one of my recent stories and noted that it didn't rhyme. This did not sit well with the retired barrister.

Poems without rhymes, he argues, are really just fancy prose "sprinkled with a lot of two-bit words that often obscure the message." He believes this so strongly, in fact, that he once wrote a poem titled "Blank Verse for Blank Minds." It begins:

I have no patience

And have no time

For poems that

Make no sense or rhyme.

Horack got me thinking about a subject that's been debated for centuries: What is poetry? If it doesn't need rhymes or a specific form, how is it different than prose?

For an answer, I called Cathy Smith Bowers, North Carolina's poet laureate. One thing that separates poetry and prose, she told me, is compression. "Poetry is much more compressed than prose," she says.

Poetry also makes more use of metaphor and sound devices than ordinary speech. "Robert Frost once said poetry is about finding the music in natural speech." Bowers tries to make her poems sound like normal human speech, "but in a kind of heightened language."

"In prose, we learn we have to read between the lines," she says. "In poetry, which is much more compressed, we have to learn to read between the words. That’s why the best poems don’t give themselves up so easily."

Horack told me he stands by his opinion: Poetry should rhyme.

Interestingly, I just read writer Jay Parini's picks for America's 10 best poems. By my count, three rhyme, the rest, including Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," do not. What do you think? Do you need a rhyme to enjoy a poem?


Anonymous said...

No, a poem does not have to rhyme in order for me to enjoy it. I do think it is clever when one can put together coherent thoughts or ideas in a rhyme. Just there are different genres of literature, there are different genres of poetry...and I very much enjoy the diversity in both literature and poetry - as long as it's well written.