Rhyming Poetry vs. Song Lyrics

hourglass table

Okay, so back around Christmas I indulged in a rant about rhyme. To my mind, rhyme in poetry is a lot like sex in movies. Often it is irrelevant, not really helping the plotline or character development. It is there because people expect to see it there. It makes them feel like they are getting the Real Thing, whatever the heck that means. But this is about rhyme in printed poetry, or in the annoying jingles on TV commercials. In other contexts, rhyme is appropriate and powerful.

Usually that is because the rhyme is original, not the moon/June/spoon pablum we get when we are kids. (Although, having said that, I must admit that a lot of Dr. Seuss and pretty much all of Shel Silverstein is pretty brilliant.) But often you get stopped in your tracks by an original rhyme. This happened to me Friday. I was in the Park Street subway station, on the Red Line waiting to go to MIT, and there was a female musician singing with her guitar. I had never heard the words to Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2AM)” and the chorus mesmerized me. Here it is:


‘Cause you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable
And life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button, girl.
So cradle your head in your hands
And breathe… just breathe,
Oh breathe, just breathe…


This rhyme is awesome because the images are so original. That rhyming couplet has been stuck in my head for days. It sounds true even though I can’t entirely decide what it means.

In older and more traditional poetry, rhyme helped people to remember things. We still use this in the alphabet song. Other cultures developed other mnemonics. Old Scandinavian poetry used alliteration, the repetition of consonants. So, for example, from “The Seafarer”:

A song I sing                                     of my sea adventure

The strain of peril,                         the stress of toil,

Which oft I endured                         in anguish of spirit

Through weary hours             of aching woe. (Kennedy 19)

Now that we live in a world where people read silently and do not do a whole lot of performing for their friends at parties (or at least not that way), such mnemonic devices, which clearly still work as my experience shows, are no longer really necessary. I think this today. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.

Kennedy, Charles W., ed. An Anthology of Old English Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1960

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