“Speak like rain!”

dinesen

There’s a famous passage from Out of Africa where Isak Dinesen introduces some Kikuyu tribesmen to poetry and its ability to rhyme. She writes the following:

The Natives, who have a strong sense of rhythm, know nothing of verse, or at least did not know anything before the times of the schools, where they were taught hymns. One evening out in the maize-field, where we had been harvesting maize, breaking off the cobs and throwing them on to the ox-carts, to amuse myself, I spoke to the field laborers, who were mostly quite young, in Swahili verse. There was no sense in the verses, they were made for the sake of rime–“Ngumbe na-penda chumbe, Malaya mbaya. Wakamba na-kula mamba.” The oxen like salt–whores are bad–The Wakamba eat snakes. It caught the interest of the boys, they formed a ring around me. They were quick to understand that meaning in poetry is of no consequence, and they did not question the thesis of the verse, but waited eagerly for the rime, and laughed at it when it came. I tried to make them themselves find the rime and finish the poem when I had begun it, but they could not, or would not, do that, and turned away their heads. As they had become used to the idea of poetry, they begged: “Speak again. Speak like rain.” Why they should feel verse to be like rain I do not know. It must have been, however, an expression of applause, since in Africa rain is always longed for and welcomed.

As a writer of poetry, I cannot deny the music of poetry and know full well that there are poets who value the sound aspect in verse as much as or more than the visual and meaningful aspects. I engage in alliteration and assonance early and often, too, when I write poetry, but rhyme? What is it about rhyme? For some reason, I give it a wide berth, as if it were some beautiful Siren song surrounded by a shore of bones.

This reluctance to play with rhyme is odd, considering we are brought up on rhyming poems as children. My students, in fact, even at age 14, prefer rhyming poems to free verse (the meat and potatoes of my writing regime). It’s a stubborn thing, hardwired into our musical brains.

Perhaps fear of rhyming is the “Hallmark effect,” as some have dubbed the sing-songy writing in greeting cards where roses are often red and violets are often blue. Or the gaudy allure of limericks. Or the refrain-happy repetition of rhyme in the songs of popular music. To some, it looks “cheap,” but clearly it isn’t, not when it is used by the likes of Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, William Wordsworth, A.E. Housman, etc.

The only thing for it is to experiment. Rhyming where it doesn’t seem to be noticed, yet has the reader unconsciously tapping her foot, maybe. If not exact rime, then slant rime, maybe, as training wheels on the way to greater fluency.

What about you, as a reader and / or writer of poetry. Do you love rhyme? Do you find it too self-consciously “poetic”? I know this: We all like rain. It’s speaking like rain that’s the challenge, and perhaps a worthy one.

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11 thoughts on ““Speak like rain!”

  1. Rhyme has to be subtle for me, or used with extreme skill. Yeats’ late rhyming is fine, but his early stuff is unreadable for me. Dylan Thomas does the job perfect, someone who is somehow able to use simple full rhyme in such a way has to effect without drawing attention to itself. Hart Crane is similar to Thomas. But for me Simon Armitage is very skillful, perhaps one of the best, as is Walcott; but Armitage has this ability to find rhyme in not just sound by visual association. Something i have been doing for end rhymes, is using not just one syllable from a word for rhyming, but multiple, so the beginning, middle & end of a word can have associations with the beginning, middle or end of other words. Does that make sense? So say ‘tonic’, ‘today’, ‘tenor’ all make sense as rhyming together for me, as would ‘together’.

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    • Great comment. You know a few poets, I see! As for your latest strategy, it is certainly rhyming in a sense when you have like-sounding syllables. It’s also alliteration, another sound device that’s pleasing to the ear (like everything, when used in moderation).

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      • Another, though very limited method, is a palindrome rhyme like, deal/lead, liar/rail, feel/leaf. i’ve been looking into how i could write something meaningful with such a scheme without building the meaning around the palindrome rhyme.
        i find it best to write the poem first then find rhymes already there & build from that, then the rhyme is more subtle & feels more natural & then the function of the poem remains intact.

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  2. Thanks for asking. I have views of rhyme I have never heard anyone else talk about. One tidbit I will give is that it is not all about the rhyme otherwise those nursery ditties would make more sense. It is about rhythm (and Rhyme) which is the key to music. Our hearts beat with rhythm and everything we do tries to be in time, therefore I think the insertion of the rhyming note at the appropriate time is a marker for the rhythm. It is best when it comes at the expected time and unpleasant when it does not. But, it can be wherever it produces the impact the speaker is seeking. Yes it is musical and it is purely art.

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    • I think, too, that certain people have “rhythm” more than others–say, when it comes to creating music or just learning and playing it, even. The same must hold with writing poetry. As you said, it’s an art to do it well.

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  3. Unfortunately, rhyme, no matter how well done today, gives off the stench of the mausoleum. A few poets
    like Richard Wilbur can pull it off so it doesn’t sound self-conscious and derivative, but very few others can. A prime example of a rhyming-failure is Dana Gioia, whose reactionary criticism and poetry sound like gas escaping from a rotting corpse. I write free verse that imitates as closely as possible ordinary speech.
    My challenge is to heighten the poem through original, strong imagery and figures of speech while not sounding like an academic prig.

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    • I think you nail it on the head when you talk of past vs. present. It’s done less often in poetry today, and when you see it (and notice it), it jumps out at you. Sometimes that jump can be distracting. But sometimes I’ve read “rhyming poems” and found the rhyming was NOT a distraction. Could it be that something else was playing the lead in an artful way, making rhyme a valuable (and lower key) accomplice?

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