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Project 52 ’11 20: Partial Rhyme

June 13, 2011

I used to think that the hardest thing to do in poetry was to rhyme successfully. Rhyming seems such an easy thing to achieve. It is universal and seemingly intuitive. As Stephen Fry points out in his book (which I urge you to devour) The Ode Less Travelled – 

We all know people who are tone-deaf, colour-blind, dyslexic or have no sense of rhythm, smell or taste, but I have never of anyone who cannot distinguish or understand rhyme. There may be those who genuinely think that ‘bounce’ rhymes with ‘freak’, but I doubt it.

It is incredibly hard to write a poem in which the rhymes do not become the greatest factor or where the lines you have written are not just mere carriers for the words which you are trying to rhyme. Poorly written poetry is often juddery and stalling because the writer has twisted their line too much in order to accommodate rhyme. Lord knows I’ve been guilty of this a lot, especially in the poetry I wrote before leaving university. On the other hand, though, there is of course a lot of great poetry which uses rhyme deftly  and with ease without it becoming intrusive or even noticeable.

But it is not the hardest thing to achieve. The hardest thing to successfully achieve (aside from a decent poem, of course) is partial rhyme. Once again I urge you to turn to The Ode Less Travelled for a comprehensive view of what this is. It’s rhymes that don’t quite rhyme. For example, where the consonant sounds are the same but the vowels have changed (‘paint’ and ‘pant’), or the other way around (‘sweep’ and ‘steep’). This sort of rhyming turns up an awful lot in rap music and there are some really good examples (“My life style’s terribly wild / But you’ll never catch me on the Jeremy Kyle”) as well as being a myriad of poor example, none of which  can currently bring to mind.

To my mind, the greatest proponent of partial rhyme I have ever read is Wilfred Owen. His use of it is just flawless and never seems strained or ill at ease with the rest of the poem. Here is one of my favourite poems of all time

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then ,as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, –
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…’

Wilfred Owen

If you have read the last Project post, you will know that I recently went on a trip to Hay. Along the way I had a couple of ideas for poems, including one which I have attempted to render into partial rhymes. Of course it cannot hope to touch the hem even of Owen’s poorest works, but I am sort of pleased with the way it has turned out in the end. I’m always really bad at titling poems, but here goes –

Oilseed Rape

We caught the morning train
And then the bus to Hay.

The bus wheeled round,
Pitched and rolled
Down little country lanes
Passed road-killed game
And waiting fields, patient
For rain and painted
Like a cockerel’s back
With multicoloured bands.

Suddenly, we came to a monochrome
A stark, uncomfortable monoculture.
Like rain that will not fall
Or a half-remember thought,
Unsettling yellow fields –
Acres on acres of oilseed.

The field of plants was lifeless
And bare like Arctic whiteness.

The fields will remain unaltered,
Occasionally sprayed and sometimes watered
Until they come to reap
And harvest all the rape.
The time will come for machines to thresh,
To separate the grains and chaff
And remove the chaff by winnowing.

After, the land will begin
To recover, until tomorrow
When it will be set for plough and harrow.

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