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When Rhythm and Rhyme Murder Imagery…

I cringed as three women butchered what should have been a good story. They, along with a few hundred other people were celebrating Bolster Day, the legend of a cannibalistic giant defeated by the clever wits of a beautiful villager.  They had all the ingredients for gripping reading: terror, villainy, government ineptitude, a vulnerable heroine and a surprising outcome.  They even had a giant puppet and the scenic backdrop of England’s Cornish coast.  Instead this (listen to it from the 3:40 mark of this video, if you dare) is what they wrote…


“But Bolster’s love was so strong,
And Agnes, she knew she could string him along.
So in her mind a scheme did plan
To rid the village of this beast of a man.
Agnes paid a visit to the local mayor
To set a challenge she thought was fair.
She told Bolster if he lost the fight
That he must leave this place tonight…”


…and the worst ending in the history of the world…

“So now we celebrate this Bolster Day,
His love, her deeds are here to stay.”


Everyone’s experienced crap poetry like this.  It’s painful to read.  It’s more painful to hear.  I sat on a hill in Cornwall, holding my head in my hands, wondering when it would end.


But the constant rhyme and predictable rhythm aren’t the biggest problems.  Dr. Seuss, T.S. Eliot, Longfellow and many other genius writers have written masterpieces using those same tools.  Shoot, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet entirely in iambic pentameter!  What do they do that the Bolster Day poets obviously don’t?


1. Focus on Interesting Verbs and Unexpected Nouns


Dr. Seuss’ rhymes aren’t complicated or difficult to predict.  “Sam” and “ham”, “meet” and “street”, “me” and “see”, even “day” and “say” won’t set the world on fire.  But his stories grip our imaginations with their unexpected imagery and action-filled verbs.  Look at this couplet from  And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street."A gold and blue chariot's something to meet, rumbling like thunder down Mulberry Street."


“A gold and blue chariot’s something to meet,
Rumbling like thunder down Mulberry Street!”


Few of us see a chariot in our daily lives.  That’s why reading it instantly conjures pictures of Ben Hur, battles, racing and adventure.  Even better, the combination of “gold” and “blue” make us think of royalty.  There must be a king in that chariot!  And he’s not just driving, he’s “rumbling like thunder” down the street.  You can almost feel the wind brushing past your face.  He tells us he’s going fast without ever saying it.  The STORY captivates our imagination.  The fact that it rhymes and sticks to a steady rhythm only makes our faces happy.


If a sick feeling is twisting your stomach in knots because you realize that you rhyme a bunch without interesting imagery, relax.  You can fix it in two ways:


  • Go back and substitute more exciting verbs and unexpected nouns for some of the lame ones.
  • Use great verbs and imagery in the first place, WITHOUT worrying about rhyme or rhythm.  Then go back and substitute rhyming or rhythmic copy, if you want.


2. Vary Your Rhythm and/or Rhyme


When the brain hears a rhyme once, it begins anticipating it’s continual use.  I submit that it’s primarily a left-brain activity (research the use and function of Broca’s area, if you’d like), rather than the job of the imaginative, right-side.  If the rhyme or rhythm becomes predictable, the left-brain either tunes out or looks for something else that’s unpredictable, like imagery, meaning, or someone else’s story.  Completing a rhyme before or after the brain’s expectations delights the imagination and highlights the meaning and imagery of the words.


Take a look at a couple lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:a deserted street in a tired city


“Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:”


In this, the first stanza, he’s using mostly AA, BB, CC… type rhyming.  However, the second line brings the rhyme in more quickly than most of the lines.  Not only that, if you read according to the punctuation it almost sounds like prose, with subtle rhyming lurking underneath.  This forces the brain to give up trying to predict when the rhyme will occur and focuses it on the meaning and imagery instead.


Later in the piece he varies it further:

“And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,My eyes with glasses
When I am pinned and wriggling to the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”


The poor, left-brain can’t juggle that much variation while it’s listening.  For rhyme scheme, it’s ABCACBD.  But he’s also using internal rhyme with “days and ways”, “pin” and “pinned” and “begin”.  Combine that with “eyes that fix you”, “sprawling on a pin”, “pinned and wriggling to the wall” and “spit out all the butt-ends of my days”.  Eliot’s unexpected twists and turns send our imagination on a rollercoaster.  No wonder it gets included in just about every anthology of the top 100 poems of all time.


Trying to tell you how to vary your rhythm and meter begins to stray beyond the realm of formulas.  But two ideas should help:


  • Start by writing with predictable rhyme and rhythm and then choosing different lines throughout to vary it up.  Go back afterwards and make sure, once again, that you created interesting images through unexpected word choice.  (This is a good exercise for those of you who normally write in prose)
  • Let your imagination go and write whatever hits you, no matter how crazy or different.  Then go back, notice the “accidental” rhymes you’ve created, maybe throw in a few more and edit it to make sure it makes as much sense as you desire.  (This exercise works best for those who normally write with predictable rhythms and rhymes)

Rescuing the Bolster Day Story…


Pointing out the flaws in something without suggesting a better alternative is a sure sign of a bitter, wounded heart.  So I figured I’d try fixing the lines I criticized at the beginning of this post.  For my first trick, I’m going to substitute some more interesting words…Bolster the Giant


Bolster’s desire for Agnes grew strong,
So Agnes strung his lust along.
She invented duels, races and plans
To rid the village of this beast of a man.
She enlisted brave knights and the local mayor
In challenges Bolster deemed were fair.
He agreed to prove his love with might
Or creep in shame from the village that night…


Ah, it’s getting a little better.  Now let’s vary up the rhythm and rhyme to complete the transformation…


Bolster’s desire for Agnes grew strong,
She sang songs his heart couldn’t refuse.
But she used his lust, plotted his fall.
Brave knights, the town mayor,
Feats of strength, he conquered them all.
Agnes’ heart failed ’til her mind conceived
One final deed, a test of pain
To rid the world of this giant’s name…


Notice how much more gets communicated using the same number of words.  We begin to identify with the heroine, desperately trying to save herself from marriage to a giant beast.  The rhythm still rolls along, but it’s not predictable, and neither is the rhyme.  The story is alive!


It Takes Practice


Unless you get lucky or you’re a writing freak of nature, incorporating these techniques takes repeated effort.  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock isn’t T.S. Eliot’s first work.  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street may have been Dr. Seuss’ first published work (it was rejected 27 times), but he had written advertising campaigns, comic-strips and satirical articles for years.  This article took me three days, countless editing and a complete rewrite, since the computer erased my first attempt.


Getting better at anything worth doing requires practice.   So try out these techniques as soon as possible.  When it comes out less than exciting, try again.  If you don’t have a job or homework that requires you to write, invent a reason.


The ingredients for spectacular stories surround you everywhere you go.  If you write enough of them, you’ll soon have people listening spellbound instead of wondering when it will finally be over.


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