The Rules of Rhyme

Songwriting 101: Slant Rhymes #Shorts
Songwriting 101: Slant Rhymes #Shorts

Rhyme thrives at both poles of literature. It is the material of a greeting card—“Roses are red / Violets are blue / Sugar is sweet / And so are you”—and the high-tragic language of Racine. Rhyme turns language into ritual, and rituals tend to be either levelling and egalitarian, bringing different kinds together to be brethren, as in churches, or exclusive and exalting, advancing a narrow set to elect status, as in clubs. Rhyme does both. In Shakespeare, it can offer the primitive force of incantation, as when the witches ask, “When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” And it can also offer the lulling reassurance of stylized speech, as when Juliet tells Romeo, “Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow / That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

Daniel Levin Becker’s new book, “What’s Good” (City Lights), argues that American hip-hop, wrongly praised and put down as an “authentic” form of expression, a “street” idiom, is both levelling and exalting; it has renewed the language of American song by broadening its resources and sharpening its ear. Rap, he tells us, “serves, consistently, contagiously, sometimes in spite of its own claims to the contrary, as a delivery mechanism for the most exhilarating and crafty and inspiring use of language in contemporary American culture.” His interests are less political than aesthetic. He disapproves of those who would insist on “instrumentalizing rap as a vector of sociopolitical insight without also revelling and rejoicing in its vital sense of play.”

Rhyme is, of course, central to rap, and a key part of Levin Becker’s mission is to defend rap’s frequent use of imperfect rhymes as a superior form of “slanting” language. He studies a beautiful line from Jay Electronica—“Life is like a dice game / One roll could land you in jail, or cutting cake, blowing kisses in the rice rain,” with “rice rain” an image of a wedding he calls “seductively self-evident”; and urges us to hear forced rhymes as kin to Jimi Hendrix’s distortion of notes by his amp. Levin Becker concludes, “Rhyme is the most powerful, least cerebral way I know to tap into that strange attraction words in close proximity exert on one another. . . . It’s rhetorically means-justifying.” In place of straight “perfect rhyme,” which we associate with Broadway-based pop music, these rhymes “find the blind angles, the shortcuts, the secret overlaps, and use them, sometimes, to build stunning models of invention and entente, spaces where small discords combine into larger resolutions and we see, hear, how boring it would be to live in a perfect world where like belongs only with like.”

This is, as Levin Becker knows, a familiar romantic defense of the rough, the handmade, the artisanal. What sounds to the stuffy like simple carelessness—whether it’s Kanye West pairing “thirsty” with “thirty” or Emily Dickinson pairing “crumb” with “home”—is the enlivening evidence of free men and women at work. It’s the human touch, an idea traceable to John Ruskin’s taste-changing chapter “The Nature of Gothic,” in his 1853 book “The Stones of Venice”: the “barbarian” ornament of Venetian Gothic was superior to the classical Palladian pediment in showing the human hand at necessarily imperfect work. The delicate asymmetry of the broken arch vindicates humanity against the deadening regularity of classical Greco-Roman architecture. Levin Becker insists that rap’s slant rhymes are of the same sort: the sound of real speech, sneaking around the corner to protest the arranged marriages of perfect rhyme. “It’s not that perfect rhyme can’t accomplish the same things,” he says, praising a Tupac lyric (“And even as a crack fiend, Mama / You always was a black queen, Mama”), but that the imperfection is what makes it feel purposeful and personal. Off rhymes, for Levin Becker, are “dazzling in their novelty and sublime in their perishability.”

Yet two larger linguistic contexts frame these choices. One is the impoverished rhyming resources of English. Anyone who dips a toe in versification starts to recognize the limited repertory of true rhymes tumbling toward the listener: every “chance” in a lyric will quickly spawn a “romance,” and then a “dance.” The scarcity of rhyme in English is illustrated by the fact that the word “scarcity” itself has no rhymes. (Though you could go the Cole Porter route and rhyme it with a playfully mis-stressed word pair: “There’s always such a scary scarcity / of honest folks here in our fair city.”) By contrast, the French word for scarcity, rareté, has so many acoustic kin that an English rhymester could weep, with engagé, écarté, and retardé leading the pack. In French, as in other Romance languages, rhyme comes so easily that it slinks by our attention on its way to speech. The slant rhyming that rap champions isn’t just an aural performance of adjacency; it’s an inventive way of solving the ancient problem of finding rhymes in a language that doesn’t readily offer them.

What English does lend itself to is alliteration. In fact, that’s the root of English poetry; the oldest of English epics, “Beowulf,” was written in alliterative, not rhyming, verse. Dickens delights in it—as with the “melancholy mad elephants” that are a metaphor for machinery in “Hard Times”—although it has its vehement detractors, who consider it a cheap Cockney effect. Clive James chided Nabokov for putting too much of it (“modeish morgue” and the like) into his translations of Pushkin. As Levin Becker sees it, part of the resourcefulness of rap prosody is that it embraces extravagant alliteration. J-Live’s “MCee” produces an alliterative spray within its lines: “More concentration on my cadence might cloud your mind / Controlling your movements capaciously.”

In a broader sense, rap reminds us that, before the chilly Augustan smoothness and rule-bound rhyme of Pope emerged, there was a rich tradition of rhyming verse in English that reads like rap avant la lettre; such verses were known as Skeltonics, named for John Skelton, who invented them at the turn of the sixteenth century. His specialty was two-beat lines, explosive vulgarity, and free-form rhyming: “Tell you I will, / If that ye will / A-while be still, / Of a comely Jill / That dwelt on a hill: / She is somewhat sage / And well worn in age: / For her visage / It would assuage / A man’s courage . . . Droopy and drowsy, / Scurvy and lowsy, / Her face all bowsy, / Comely crinkled, / Wondrously wrinkled.”

Indeed, Allen Ginsberg, no less, saw a connection between the Skeltonic tradition and rap prosody almost upon rap’s earliest crossover appearances, around 1980. Rap, in this view, plugged into the oldest and most natural of English rhythms. Freed from a narrow view of what verse is and does, it was more richly in touch with all the resources of the language.

Levin Becker’s implicit point is that American lyrics can be broken into Straight and True Rhymers, captive to perfect soundalikes, and Slant and Tumble Rhymers, responsive to American speech in all its variety. It’s true that some Straight and True Rhymers find their ears offended by slant rhyme. One major Broadway writer came away from the rap-based “Hamilton” indignant at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhyme of “country” and “hungry” in the now famous line “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.”

And yet, in the realm of mid-century poetry, rhymesters of either camp were up against the arid abstentions of high modernism. And perfect rhyme, in particular, arrived to perfect the imperfect world; it was a movement first surely ignited in the nineteen-forties by the long, neoclassical poems of W. H. Auden, newly arrived in America.

In Britain, Auden had been a masterly rhymer, having written his “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937) in a variant of the ottava rima of Byron’s “Don Juan,” but he had mainly relegated rhyme to comic occasions. In America, particularly in his wartime meditation “New Year Letter,” written in Swiftian couplets, and in the slightly later satiric masterpiece “Under Which Lyre,” Auden made rhyme serious without letting it be solemn. The goal, shared especially by people who had both witnessed the mad destruction of the war in Europe and fallen in love with European culture, was to recuperate, on informal American terms, the heritage of formal European manners.

Turn the pages of an issue of this magazine from the nineteen-fifties and you find a remarkable intensity of rhyming light verse. Long banished to chiding middlebrow versification—the once well-known poet Robert Hillyer led a charge against modernism by using rhyme as a polemical weapon—postwar rhyme became a way of reinvigorating democratic pleasures. John Updike, who saw himself first as a light-verse writer, argued in the early nineteen-sixties that, “by rhyming, language calls attention to its own mechanical nature and relieves the represented reality of seriousness.” Light verse, he insisted, “tends the thin flame of formal magic and tempers the inhuman darkness of reality with the comedy of human artifice.”

Rhyme was heard, back then, not as the sound of rule-bound bulwark culture but as the liberating laughter of the human comedy. “Perfect” rhyme was a form of dandyism, like tying a true butterfly bow tie, and so became something of a gay preoccupation. Ned Rorem used a gentle poem of Hillyer’s in his concert song “Early in the Morning,” with a surprising perfect French rhyme of “au lait” and “premier.” Rhyme courted strictures and absolutes. “Both identities”—exact repetitions of a stressed syllable—“and false rhymes are death on wit,” Stephen Sondheim declared in his own testament. “A perfect rhyme can make a mediocre line bright and a good one brilliant. . . . A perfect rhyme snaps the word, and with it the thought, vigorously into place, rendering it easily intelligible; a near rhyme blurs it.” Viewed in isolation, this is a parochial notion, since the history of English verse shows a wonderfully witty tradition of near-rhyme. Nor has any ear ever been stopped for a second by, say, the Beatles’ rhyming “changed” and “remain” in “In My Life.”

But rhyme is a self-imposed constraint, and you get to choose your handcuffs. Given the exactitude of Sondheim’s music, exact rhyme is essential to snap his word into place, where Joni Mitchell can croon right past it. Bob Dylan might have won the Nobel Prize in Literature for work that rhymed “divorced” and “force,” but what the romantic considers rustic and real the precisionist views as rushed. In a rhyme of history, a young Sondheim had as his camp counsellor Tom Lehrer, who became the greatest rhyming liberal political satirist of his day, and who then gave up rhyming for a life as a mathematician (the self-disciplined taste for precision, again), though Lehrer claims credit for imagining the tale of Sweeney Todd as a musical.

Neither slant rhyme nor straight rhyme dictates a politics. The now forgotten poet Phyllis McGinley loomed large in this magazine’s pages for many years and, in 1965, even received the ultimate cultural accolade: the cover of Time. She used rhyme as a way of rejecting the apparent anarchy of free verse while comically narrating the life of a femme moyenne sensuelle, an ordinary suburban woman. Her tone both gently mocks and tenderly accepts American liberal consensus: “His paper propped against the electric toaster / (Nicely adjusted to his morning use) / Daniel at breakfast studies world disaster / And sips his orange juice.” (The assonance of “toaster” and “disaster” sits just aside the strict scheme.)

Rhyme for the light-verse writers of the period was not a reactionary force, nostalgically evoking old orders, but a democratizing one, a unifying practice that would be recognizably modern and still speak in an accessible voice. Rhyming poets tended to be liberals, trying to make poetry high-hearted and popular again at a moment when the hermetic side of modernism seemed exhausted. A generation of versifiers were trying to keep poetry profound without allowing it to be obscure. Rhyme was one of their weapons.

The poet Richard Wilbur was a hero of this moment. His translations of Molière’s comedies, produced from the nineteen-fifties to the two-thousands, are written in a vigilantly smooth version of the rhyming couplets of the original, instead of in the lumpy prose of previous English translations. Wilbur accepted the difficulty of English rhyme by underplaying the challenge. One is seldom struck by the ingenuity of the rhyme. Scrolling down a random page of his version of “The School for Wives,” one finds all the standards: “care” and “there,” “bliss” and “this,” “two” and “you,” “role” and “soul.” The rhymes themselves could be commonplace, because the act of rhyming was not.

Wilbur’s wit is especially impressive when stretched out across dialogue. Take the moment when Alceste, in “The Misanthrope,” responds to the miserable sonnet of Oronte. This exchange becomes, in Wilbur’s version, “Come now, I’ll lend you the subject of my sonnet; / I’d like to see you try to improve upon it,” with Alceste’s rejoinder rendered as “I might, by chance, write something just as shoddy; / But then I wouldn’t show it to everybody.” It’s typical of Wilbur’s skill that the translation is nearly literal, word for word, but this couplet is particularly inspired, with Molière’s unemphatic rhyme of méchants and gens rendered as the Cole Porter-ish “shoddy” and “everybody”—a rhyme that, it seems fair to say, had rarely, if ever, been found in English before, and gives us wit along with point.

Because rhyming in English is inherently awkward, the art and wit of rhyming in English is, as the greatest American light-verse writer, Ogden Nash, understood, to land self-consciously on a “find” when you find one. For the true rhymer, the finds are mined rather like bitcoin—the difficulty of mining them is what demonstrates their value. In a Romance language, the pleasure of rhyming is its fluidity, as in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s “counting” aria from “Don Giovanni,” in which the flowing soft rhymes of a comic inventory of countries and seductions match Mozart’s music. But, in English, rhyming demands almost the opposite—the foregrounding of difficulty. We identify our great versifiers with their novelties: W. S. Gilbert’s “teeming with a lot o’ news” and “the square of the hypotenuse”; Porter’s “Camembert” and “Fred Astaire”; Sondheim’s “personable” and “coercin’ a bull.”

Young lyricists are routinely warned against showy rhymes. But this is bad advice, as showy and even showoffy rhymes are one of the special glories of English versification. What matters is that they be kept inside recognizably idiomatic speech. Sometimes, indeed, when the idiom passes, we may overlook how readily the rhymes sit within it or rise from common parlance. Gilbert, for instance, enjoyed sending up the polysyllabic pomposity of the English oratory of his day. His genius was to accept the stiffness of conventional prose and play off it—to give himself a self-imposed arthritis and apply its crippled gait to comic verse: “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment / Or maturing his felonious little plans / His capacity for innocent enjoyment / Is just as great as any honest man’s.” (The key phrase for the joke is “innocent enjoyment,” a standard expression of British parliamentary speech, something you’d hear in orations promoting the use of public parks.)

Nash, too, understood the charms in English of foregrounding the rhyme—even forcing the rhyme, from plain to fancy. It inspired his long, asymmetrical enjambed lines: “I know you, you cautious, conservative banks! / If people are worried about their rent, it is / your duty to deny them the loan of one / nickel, yes, even one copper engraving of / the patriotic son of the late Nancy Hanks.” (Nancy’s son, as we may now need reminding, was Honest Abe.) He could do just as well with true-meter rhyme, as in a 1935 poem that rings a bit differently today than it did when he wrote it, protesting those who dismissed his gripes about his grippe: “The Super-cold to end all colds; / The Cold Crusading for Democracy; / The Führer of the Streptococcracy.” Nash lifts from the political rhetoric of his time as much as Gilbert lifts from the political rhetoric of his. Even in writing song lyrics, though he quieted his wit a bit, like a jazz trumpeter putting a mute on to accompany a singer, Nash still didn’t shy away from the showy rhyme: “He is as simple as a swim in summer, / Not arty, not actory. / He’s like a plumber when you need a plumber. / He’s satisfactory.” The lines have both the charm of the everyday image—a plumber—and the freshness of an unexpected rhyme.

It is not the rhymes alone that count but the placement of shock-straight rhyme within the flow of idiomatic vernacular. So McGinley, in another ode to a suburban spring, finds two wonderful new rhymes, slightly strained in a way that’s meant to draw attention to her skill without deflecting from her story: “Still slumbers the lethargic bee, / The rosebush keeps its winter tag on, / But hatless to the A. & P. / The shopper rides in station wagon.” The real beauty lies in her discovery within the detritus of life—the A. & P., the labelled rosebush—of the material for newfound formal play. These rhymes, never before made, feel like eureka moments. We pin medals on the rhymester for these gems, with the standard mathematician’s question of whether the results are made or merely found.

Crafting great light verse and song lyrics is the white-water rafting of our language: small, regular eruptions of self-conscious wit oar against a steady stream of idiomatic speech. This is why Lorenz Hart, though dead of drink in 1943, remains the great prophet of rhyme in American lyrics and light verse. He could do it all, variously producing inner shock rhymes—“Poor Johnny One-Note / Got in Aida / Indeed a great chance to be brave”—and haunting monosyllabic prayers: “He dances overhead / On the ceiling near my bed / in my sight / through the night.” He could also work in both modes at once, as in his “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” where in the first lines the rhymes are beautifully straight, and at the end deliberately torqued: “Vexed again / Perplexed again / Thank God I can be oversexed again.” Not to mention “Romance, finis / My chance, finis / Those ants that invaded my pants, finis.” (It is a pleasing coincidence that the two greatest rhyming lyricists in theatrical history, Da Ponte and Hart, though separated by a century, were both Jewish, addicted to night life, and affiliated with Columbia University: Lorenzo taught there and Lorenz went there.)

So the mid-century rhyme masters, even those who prized the perfect, were not snobs. They were show people, who believed that rhyme could have a life of its own in popular magazines and onstage. Those high on Hart and those ardent for Auden shared a language. Indeed, around the same time, Auden wrote a famous haiku, and Frank Loesser a famous couplet, about the binding drink of the era, the Martini. Auden also wrote a complete set of song lyrics for “Man of La Mancha” before the broken lance was passed to Joe Darion, previously known mainly for Red Buttons’s “The Ho Ho Song.” From Auden to Darion, rhyme was at once “classy” and democratic, the one formal jacket that everyone could rent for the prom.

Yet all the choices in rhyme-making take place against the largely unheeded current of rhyme, pure and impure, that flows unimpeded from popular song and greeting-card sentiments and countless other forms. If there is a missing link in Levin Becker’s story, it is surely the hyper-elegant Motown lyrics that preceded rap as the inspired Black pop vernacular. There’s the perfect-rhyme writing of Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears,” in which an arresting image (“Take a good look at my face”) is poetically turned: “Although she may be cute / she’s just a substitute / cause you’re the permanent one.” It’s the same easy mastery you find in Robinson’s lyrics for “The Tears of a Clown”: “Don’t let my show convince you / That I’ve been happy since you . . .” True rhyme spoke to the parents of today’s slant rhymers, suggesting that rhyming styles cycle generationally.

Just as no prosody has a fixed politics, none has purchase on a particular people. Rhyme can be seamless to the point of invisible, as in Wilbur’s Molière, but it can also be classical and true while playing footsie with doggerel and parody. The British poet Wendy Cope, for instance, has spent a lifetime writing a form of self-aware, sometimes intentionally off-rhymed near-doggerel as a challenge to what she perceives as the hauteur of an older generation of grumpy male poets. Hers is a virtuoso protest against virtuosity. Cope first earned her reputation by knocking Kingsley Amis for his reproach that young poets didn’t seem to be using rhyme adequately. She wondered why he’d never read hers, the implication being that Amis couldn’t hear her rhyming because of her sex.

Though Cope is capable of virtuosic rhyme, one important part of her practice is to rhyme ostentatiously without cleverness. In the beautiful “Lissadell,” the simplicity and repetition of the rhymes elaborate the poem’s melancholy message, a bell tolling the same note:

The integrity of the sentiment is guaranteed by the simplicity of the scheme.

The art of making linked lines end with the same sound remains limitless in its variety and in the plurality of its effects. If there is a commonality in the pursuit of rhyme in American lyrics and whatever remains of light verse, it is, as Levin Becker rightly insists, less political than poetical, rooted in the elevation of our ears, an urge to make the shimmering sensual surface of language matter, to turn churches into clubs and clubs back into broad churches. Rap, he is not afraid to say, is as close to a universal tongue as we have.

Near-rhyme, half rhyme, off rhyme, odd rhyme, assonance and identities, slant rhymers and straight rhymers: all of it is potentially compelling, and none of it is a sanctuary from sense. What’s always at stake with literature and lyrics is their relation to the world. We can love Wendy Cope’s words, as we can love Larry Hart’s and Kendrick Lamar’s, for the rhymes they reveal, but also for the sad truths they speak. No prosody can immunize poetry against the test of experience. We love the balance and control of rhyme even if it unbalances us, but, after the music, we want meaning. “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves,” the Duchess in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” says, varying a British proverb on pence and pounds, and though it is not a whole truth, it is a big one, trailing the simplest gift of a greeting card. For we cannot help test rhyme with reason. Roses are red. Violets are blue. Sugar is sweet. And you? ♦

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