Rhyming and the Dodo

Would this generation understand these signs if they rhymed?

Miles run today: 4.5

Words written in my novel so far: 35,220

Days until school starts: 5

My kids had a really, really hard time learning to rhyme.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, because it’s like a basketball coach with a kid who can’t bounce a ball or a dance instructor who has a kid who runs into doors.

I did all most of the right things: they watched The Wiggles and sang, “Rock-a-Bye Your Bear” and “Fruit Salad,” and we really did read books that had rhymes in them. We sang songs. Really, we did.

Still.

I staged a sort of intervention a few years ago during dinner and started “poems” like this: I drove to work in my little car… and then asked my son to finish the rest of the sentence. He would say something like, It was far.

I tried very hard not to cry.

My mom used to read children’s poetry to me. She doesn’t like poetry; who knows why she did it. But I grew up knowing poems like this stanza by Robert Louis Stevenson:

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candlelight

In summer quite the other way

I have to go to bed by day.

Do you hear the rhyming? Do you like it? Do you hear the rhythm and flow and how the words play so well together?

So many poems these days don’t rhyme, and that’s okay. By the time most poets begin creating amazing poetry, they have heard plenty of rhyming, they know how words work together, how they flow.

Growing up, rhyming was everywhere, it seemed. Commercial jingles rhymed: even Shower to Shower told us that “just a sprinkle a day keeps the odor away.”

In high school, the big movie was “The Princess Bride.” One of the memorable interchanges between two of the characters was, “No more rhyming now, I mean it/Anybody want a peanut?”

Everyone knew that phrase. Everyone.

We watched The Scarlet Pimpernel in high school English class, one of the few movies we were allowed to watch in lieu of reading. The main character was “a poet/and I didn’t know it.”

Rhyming is a little like a gateway drug; when you have picked up the rhythm, it leads you into more complex ways of using words. If you haven’t mastered rhythm and flow, your words can have a clunky quality like I see in some books these days.

The kids and I are just finishing up the second book in the Divergent series (Insurgent). Don’t get me wrong: I’ve enjoyed the two books immensely. Veronica Roth has a knack for suspense and careful plotting.

But the focus is on plot. The words are merely there to get us from point A to point B. Here’s an example:

Tobias doesn’t look back at me. He just touches his fingertips to the back of his head. After a moment, I do the same. Dauntless soldiers crowd around us.

There are some books I’ve read where I want to bathe in the words, let them wash over me. Some make me cry with how unworthy I am as a writer, as I listen to the rhythm, like a stream rippling over stones.

I read those books and can’t even study the words because they’re so beautiful. They’re the same words everyone else uses, but the writer has put them together in a better way than they’ve ever been put together before.

My son finally wrote a poem this past year about a dying star that gave me hope for his literary future. Maybe when he is writing code one day, it will have good rhythm and flow.

But until he is safely ensconced in a non-poetic career, I will continue to sing rhyming songs (like Nicki Minaj’s) loudly:

Starships are meant to flyyyyyy

Hands up and touch the skyyyyy

Can’t stop cause we’re so hiiiiigh

Let’s do this one more time.

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