Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rhymes with Orange

I AM CERTAIN that my gentlemen readers are now busy writing love poems to their lady love in honor of the feast day of Saint Valentine. But we live in such an unpoetical age that the process of poesy may be somewhat unfamiliar.

From time immemorial, poets were celebrated everywhere in the world as the bearers of culture and learning, and famed poets were given great honors, generous pensions and were even invited on The Tonight Show. Alas, by the time that I went to school, the art of poetry had been killed off, with rhyming and versification banned, and poets instead were granted the freedom to write anything they wanted as long as it was not poetical. Now only poets read poetry, and so it is hardly read at all. Gone are the days of the noble warrior-poet who fought merrily and sang sadly.

Without examples to emulate, what is a contemporary love-struck gentleman to do? The simplest structure of poetry is the iambic pentameter, which has five pairs of weak and stressed syllables per line. Here are some examples:
  • I want to drink a can of beer in bed.
  • My cats do like to sleep by day, not night.
  • The Faith is good and full of love and truth
  • He drove his car to Texarkana, yes?
Note that we alternate a weak with a stressed syllable five times:
  • what KIND of GIRL are YOU to LOVE me SO?
Iambic pentameter is good for you to emulate, because it has a stressed or masculine ending. Your lady, who picks up on subtle clues, may judge you poorly if you select a feminine ending! Hamlet shows his weakness when he says “To be or not to be, that is the question” ending his verse unstressed.

All you need to do is string together a more-or-less coherent collection of verses to get a poem. A string of verses in iambic pentameter is a good enough poem and is a type of blank verse. But realize that the whole idea of poetry, in contrast to prose, is that the text is highly structured in many ways. A common structure is rhyming, particularly rhyming the last word of verses. Rhyming is merely one of very many kinds of poetical tools, and there are several kinds of rhymes. You ought to rhyme your poetry. However, don’t emulate the rappers who insist on rhyming every verse: this is a vice of excess, which is in contrast to the modern poet’s vice of deficiency of not rhyming at all; rather rhyme moderately.

One of the shorter poetical forms is the Limerick, which is precisely five lines long, and where lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyme with each other, while lines 3 and 4 rhymes together. However, the Limerick is not suitable for love poetry, for:
The limerick is furtive and mean
You must keep her in close quarantine
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

(C. Alan Reber)
Rather, consider using the poetical form known as the heroic couplet. This uses pairs of rhymed lines of iambic pentameter, with each succeeding pair of lines having a different rhyme. As its name implies, this is a forceful, masculine form, and your lady ought to respond to it well:
My love for you is strong and will not die;
“I do all this for you” my battle cry;
All that I have to give, indeed my life;
I give to you, my love, to be my wife.
Most poetry, unlike prose, is highly dependent upon its source language and dialect, since rhyming and word stress often varies even among speakers of the same language. Because of this, we can use ancient poetry to discern the pronunciation of words even in dead languages. As you can imagine, translating poetry well is a very difficult art.

Rhyming is an honorable practice when writing poetry, but the problem becomes finding adequate rhyming words for your poem. There are many good rhyming dictionaries online, suitable for the use of the beginning poet. But you may want to avoid some words that have no rhymes, or obscure ones.

For example, you probably do not want to end a line with the word ‘orange’. As far as I know, the only word that rhymes with orange is “The Blorenge,” which is a hill in Monmouthshire, Wales, overlooking the River Usk. Good luck using that in a poem. Likewise, month rhymes only with words of the form hundred and oneth, while purple rhymes with curple, which is the hindquarters of a horse or an ass, and so can be used only with the utmost caution.

Some words cannot be rhymed at all, or are imperfectly rhymed, such as angst, bulb, gulf, sculpts, angel, chimney, elbow, engine, husband, neutron, monster, penguin, polka, secret, animal, citizen, and logarithm. However, local dialect may allow for some rhyming, so let your ear be the best guide.

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