When we think of a poem, no doubt there is one specific poem stereotype that surfaces in our mind. Perhaps Louis-Stevenson’s “whose woods are these, I think I know,” or the over-used “roses are red, violets are blue,” or something of the sort. Some may think poetry is merely any combination of rhyming words.
Oh, but poetry can take on an infinite array of formations. Oxford Languages put it well, defining poetry as a “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” No mention of rhyming, or repeating patterns, or certain number of syllables. A poem is a poem for its expression of feelings and ideas in which there is marked style and rhythm. What that style and rhythm you use, as the poet, it completely up to you.
As a ten-year-old just beginning to experiment with poetry, I conformed my style to the very well-established meter and rhyme-schemes taught in my school’s curriculum. By the time I was twelve, however, I found interest in copying the scheme and meter of my favorite author’s, mainly J.R.R. Tolkien. I found the format of one of his poems from the Fellowship of the Ring particularly intriguing:
Troll sat alone on his seat of stone, And munched and mumbled a bare old bone; For many a year he had gnawed it near, For meat was hard to come by. Done by! Gum by! In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone, And meat was hard to come by.
I counted the syllables in each line, as well as the exact rhyme scheme. Then I used it in my own rather whimsical tale about a weasel and his plow:
Weasel knocked on Cow’s front door. No answer came, so he knocked some more. Finally cow poked his little pink nose outside, And asked what Weasel had come for. Gone for! Done for! With his little pink nose poked outside, He asked what Weasel had come for.
From there I sought refuge in the familiar, the structured AABB with unwavering 8 syllable lines, such as this excerpt:
We push, succeed, and then we die, And anyone who asks the “why?” “Why do the work to be forgot?” “Or are we sung of while we rot?” Will leave unanswered to the core Why we, mere mortals, grasp for more. What if we’re sung of, dear, what then? Do we transcend the common men?
But writing this same type of poem over and over gradually became boorish, as the need to rhyme constantly seemed to somewhat block my creative process.
So I tried a new rhyme scheme, which offered more freedom, and seemed to hold more “storytelling” potential that I was naturally a big fan of. (Whereas my previous poems were more disortations of metaphors and concepts, this format encouraged actual stories) – with an AAAB rhyme scheme and a rather free-for-all cadence on the last line of each stanza:
I woke from my bed at a quarter to eight, Thought it quite odd I had woken so late. For breakfast, six eggs and two pancakes I ate, Then I went outside. The smell of old flowers then greeted my nose; I’d left them unwatered to die, I suppose... But I remember specifically watering those Just yesterday.
The short and blunt fourth line seemed to give these poems a rather playful and comedic feel, bringing the smooth flow of the story to an often humorous, and always abrupt, halt. Additionally, for me, personally, it was much easier to write longer poems with this structure, and consequently to further an actual plot.
But of course, given my experimentation of various forms of poetry, I tired of purely rhyming poems, and decided to try free-verse, which I had little experience with. I had read many free-verse poems and hadn’t liked any of them. Even while writing free-verse, I constantly tell myself that I’m “cheating” because I’m not using more brainpower to think of words that rhyme.
However, what I seem to do many times in free verse, to make up for the lack of rhyming at the end of lines, is to randomly sprinkle in rhyming words, not strictly at the end of lines, but anywhere in between. I also enjoy sentences with repeating vowel sounds in words, called assonance, repetition of word and phrases:
As I glide smoothly through the sky, Cut the air like a razorblade, As though I’m on some Escapade in a candy store, This charade, My fantasy, crashes down, As I fly through the air. As I fly through my dashboard, Through the emptiness, Except for glass. The glass is not emptiness; Of this much I am made painfully aware.
And, as another example of my poetry that employs alliteration and repetition:
An ocean. A matrix of neon lights, All around: luminous magicians, Leading the eye, giving directions, Sleight of hand, misdirection, Signs. “Go straight for two miles,” Then woops, A cliff. Those types.
And then you have the very free free-verse, which is often nothing more than a piece of ordinary prose broken up into lines and stanzas. In fact, not to spoil the experience or anything, but with one of my favorite free-verse poems, I literally wrote a half-page about a fictional character named Charlie, and then divided the paragraphs into lines and stanzas to take on the appearance of a poem:
Charlie was a fan of cars. He owned every pair That he bought, And that was all of them. Charlie was the sand. Not a shoreline, but a granule. The rest were not. Charlie was abstract, But no one thought To invite him to parties. Charlie was an idea. But no one thought. So Charlie wasn’t.
Although, I suppose you might say that even a paragraph of words can be “poetry” given their distinct style and rhythm.
And THEN, as another example of a type of poetry I’ve experimented with, is what I call the “rhyming-free-verse” poem, which is free-verse in terms of structure and cadence, but very much so, consistently, a rhyming poem:
Lines of trees In August Evade capture, Trail down a path I know well, Enrapture Pull in, deeper Now the path gets Narrow, Steeper. I trod the branches In September, As they snapped, I remember That I shivered, Pulled my coat Closer;
In this poem, there’s no rule for when a word has to rhyme. Sometimes the rhyming words are every other line, and sometimes they’re separated by three lines. Also, as one could no doubt conclude by even a brief glance, this is definitely an unstructured poem, a free-verse poem. There is no meter, but there definitely is rhyme. Thus, the “rhyming-free-verse.”
It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds of technicalities, especially in metered poetry that conforms to strict syllable and rhyme standards. However, many beautiful poems originate from this structure. On the other hand, much can be said on the potential power of raw and untapped free-verse poetry as well.
I would encourage anyone who likes writing poetry to experiment with their own rules. Different styles bring different inspiration.
Try an assortment.
Perhaps with a side of witticism and criticism.
And, as always, a dash of enigma.