“Adults aren’t really into poetry that rhymes.”
I was subbing at a local middle school. We were doing a unit on poetry. The students were going to write an “I Am” poem, and the teacher had just said that.
I know she meant that as you grow older you might be less interested in sing-song rhythms and nursery rhymes. I know she meant that some things you love as a child may seem doggerel when you get older.
But it still bothered me.
For starters, I’m into rhyming poetry. In Welsh poetry, there is a tradition of weaving intricate layers of internal rhyme and alliteration called cynghanedd. The term literally means “symphony,” and Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to it in his letters as “chiming.” Look at the first stanza of his poem, “The Windhover.” The music of it is filled with the resonance of shared sounds.
I caught this morning morning‘s minion, king–dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his ridingOf the rolling level underneath him steady air, and stridingHigh there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wingIn his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and glidingRebuffed the big wind. My heart in hidingStirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
And what does this accomplish? Why does it matter, that the –ing sound travels throughout this poem. Isn’t rhyming the word thing as childish as using the word stuff in our everyday conversations? Isn’t this just a childish exultation in skates and birds. What could this be other than a delight at sounds and nothing more?
Rhyme and alliteration show a connection between disparate sounds. Strange things are like one another. There is communion instead of rupture. In this poem, Old English words are sharing lines with francophone words from the Norman influence. Instead of a knight, the speaker addresses a chevalier. His heart may be “stirred for a bird,” but because of its mastery and achievement. The windhover of the title becomes the falcon of the second line. The sky may be a “kingdom of daylight” but it has a dauphin. English and French are united by a poet known for a penchant for Anglo-Saxon words.
And what is at the center of all this wordplay? A human heart is “stirred for a bird.” It is the intense rhyming that envelopes this moment, making the connection between human and animal almost tangible as the shared sounds roll off our tongues. This draws us in as the readers. The speaker is like the bird and we are like the speaker as we read the poem, all tied together by the shared sounds.
Even the most cynical of us, even those who disparage rhymes as childish, have had that moment when their hearts have been “stirred for a bird” in flight against the sky.
Don’t worry, I didn’t say anything. I just helped the kids write their “I Am” poems, hoping that it would be the seed for loving and writing poetry when they were older, even rhyming ones.