Poetry Tip #8: Rhyme

Hi everyone,

Today is the final post in the series of eight tips on writing poetry. I hope you’ve found them helpful. As I’ve said before, there are a lot of good books out there that go into far more detail. This series is mean only as quick references and reminders.


It is rare for verse not to contain rhyme or variations of rhyme. Skillful placement of sounds (color sounds) helps hold the reader’s attention and makes the lines more memorable. There are four main categories to consider: RHYME, ALLITERATION, CONSONANCE, and ASSONANCE.

RHYME (True Rhyme, Full Rhyme) occurs when two words begin with different consonants followed by the same sound:


Rhyme is hard to miss. Political slogans, signboards, commercials, jingles, songs, greeting cards, and poetry employ rhyme for a good reason: We tend to remember lines that rhyme.

Can you close your eyes and repeat the first line on this page? Not likely. To remember prose we have to memorize it on purpose and read it a number of times before it sticks.

“It is rare for verse not to contain rhyme or variations of rhyme.”

That sentence is pure prose. Nothing very memorable about it. But with a little finagling I can rewrite it into eight beats of mostly iambic meter. Then I can break it into an unrhymed couplet (distich).

“With rare exceptions verse contains
rhyme or variations of rhyme.”

That helps. The fact that the statement is now told in meter is a strong aid to our ability to recall it later and perhaps pass it on to someone else. That, of course, was a primary function of early poetry, which was sometimes sung accompanied by a musical instrument to both entertain and inform listeners.

But the best solution, the truest mnemonic, is to recast the distich into a couplet, that is, end both lines with the same sound.

“A verse without a rhyme is rare,
some kind of rhyme is usually there.”

ALLITERATION is sometimes used broadly to mean any poetic devise that echoes sounds within a poem. It can refer to the repetition of initial consonant sounds close enough together that we’re aware of them.

“Billy bounced his ball into a bucket.”
“A sack of seven serpents escaped.”

A more formal definition of ALLITERATION can be stated:

1) The consonants just before the first accented vowels are the same: SWeep/SWallow;
2) The vowels are not pronounced alike: (swEEp/swAllow);
3) The consonants that follow the vowels are different: sweeP/swaLLow.

CONSONANCE is like alliteration except that the consonants both before and after the dissimilar vowel sounds are the same.


ASSONANCE refers to the use of similar sounding vowels sandwiched between dissimilar consonants.


Here’s a poem of mine from EASY POETRY LESSONS THAT DAZZLE AND DELIGHT (Scholastic, 1999) that relies on assonance, consonance, and rhyme to sustain my desired mood and lyric quality.


You’ve seen so much
since you’ve been away,
sing me a song.

Sing of the mountains
you crossed last fall
through starry nights
and blazing dawns,

Of rivers, bayous,
checkerboard farms,
glistening silos,
pigeony barns.

Sing of lightning,
wind-tossed waves,
ships at anchor,
tranquil days.

You’ve seen so much
it will take all spring.
Sing me a song.

ASSONANCE AND CONSANANCE together are sometimes referred to as near rhyme, slant rhyme, oblique rhyme, off rhyme, or half rhyme.

The Quatrain

Hi everyone,

I’m back and it’s time for another Poetry Tip.


The real workhorse of verse is the four-line stanza. It’s a good length and construct, in English at least, to say what one has to say or conclude one thought before moving on to the next. Like the couplet, the quatrain my stand alone as a single poem or be the building unit for poems of any length.

Quatrain means four lines. There are, however, numerous variations on the theme. First, I’ll explain the shorthand method of describing both the rhyme scheme and the meter of the stanzas.

Ends of lines are noted as: a, b, c, d, etc. A 4-line poem in which the first and third lines do not rhyme but the second and fourth lines do will be written like this: abcb. Two couplets would look like this: aabb.

Meter is noted with numbers to represent the total beats (stressed syllables) in each line. A stanza with three beats in lines 1, 2, and 4 but with four beats in line 3 would look like this: 3/3/4/3.

Here are examples of how slight differences in rhyme scheme and/or meter can make large differences in the final result.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/3/4/3
Rhyme: abcb or abab

Example: (abab): Joyful
By Rose Burgunder

A summer day is full of ease,
a bank is full of money,
our lilac bush is full of bees,
and I am full of honey.

Example: (abab): The Puffin
By Robert Williams Wood

Upon this cake of ice is perched
The paddle-footed Puffin;
To find his double we have searched,
But have discovered – Nuffin!

Example: (abcb): Family Secrets

My aunt thinks she’s a mallard duck,
It’s sort of hard to explain,
But don’t go eat at her house
‘Cause all she serves is grain.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 3/3/4/3
Rhyme: abab or abcb
Example: (abcb): Beside the Line of Elephants
By Edna Becker

I think they had no pattern
When they cut out the elephant’s skin;
Some places it needs letting out,
And others, taking in.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/4/4/4 (tetrameter)
Rhyme: abcb, aabb, or abab
Example: (abab): My Treasure
By David L. Harrison

It’s such a slender little book
Squeezed between a larger pair,
Unless you know just where to look
You could easily miss it there.

But it’s worth more than all the host
Of books on shelves beside my bed.
I’ll forever treasure most
This book – the first I ever read.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 5/5/5/5 (pentameter)
Rhyme: abab, abcb, or abba
Example: (abba):Things we Prize
By David L. Harrison
1st two stanzas

Hidden in the mountains, fed by snow,
The lake was small. We stayed there every year
And got to know our neighbors camping near
In tents like toadstools growing in a row.

I found a secret pool, a little nook
Where I could lie and watch the fish below
But no amount of coaxing made them go
For worms, or bits of bacon on my hook.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 5/5/5/5
Rhyme: aaba
Example: Translated from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
By Edward Fitzgerald

The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/4/4/4
Rhyme: abba
Example: Death of a Wasp
By David L. Harrison
(1st two stanzas)

Bumping at the windowpane
He fought against the solid air
That held him as a prisoner there,
But all his struggles were in vain.

Never comprehending glass
Clear as air that stopped him hard
And blocked his freedom to the yard,
Repeatedly he tried to pass.

Of these forms of the quatrain, by far the most popular is the first one I gave you, the BALLAD stanza, usually with a rhyme pattern of abcb. Next is the LONG BALLAD, also with an abcb rhyming pattern. Why? Because these are the easiest forms to construct. It’s not as hard to find one pair of lines that rhyme as it is to find two pairs that rhyme. But there is a danger in always going with the most expedient. If we’re not careful, we can fall into a sing-songy rut when using this form. A well turned ballad can be truly effective but a poorly constructed effort sounds trite, silly, or worse.

There are all sorts of variations on these basic forms.

In Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he writes 4-line stanzas with 4/4/4/4 beats (LONG BALLAD) and a rhyme scheme of aaba (RUBAIYAT). So did Frost write a variation of a LONG BALLAD or a variation of a RUBAIYAT? It doesn’t matter when it works.

(1st stanza)
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Elizabeth Coatsworth shows us another variation in her poem, “Sea Gull.” She chooses a pattern of 3/3/4/2 with a rhyme scheme of abcb.

The sea gull curves his wings,
the sea gull turns his eyes.
Get down into the water, fish!
(if you are wise.)

The sea gull slants his wings,
the sea gull turns his head.
Get deep into the water, fish!
(or you’ll be dead.)

And what about a 4-line stanza with three beats in every line (3/3/3/3)? And what if the rhyme scheme looks like this (abbb) but lines two and three are the SAME word? Why, then you would have a wonderful poem, “One Day When We Went Walking,” by Valine Hobbs.

(1st stanza)
One day when we went walking,
I found a dragon’s tooth,
A dreadful dragon’s tooth,
“A locust thorn,” said Ruth.

Or a 4-line stanza with three beats in every line and a rhyme scheme of abab? Here’s A. E. Housman’s “Amelia Mixed the Mustard.”

Amelia mixed the mustard,
She mixed it good and thick;
She put it in the custard
And made her Mother sick,

And showing satisfaction
By many a loud huzza
“Observe,” said she, “the action
Of mustard on Mamma.”

I hope these examples provide more help than confusion. A cardinal rule of writing verse is to be consistent. If you find a pattern with its own unique rhythm, line length, and rhyme scheme – and it works to say what you want to convey – go with it.

Poetry Tip #6: Short Stanzas

Hi everyone,

It’s Thursday again — how can that be already! — so here’s the next edition of Poetry Tips, this one about short stanzas. I hope you find it useful.


In 1959 I sat in an auditorium in Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia to hear Robert Frost speak. At 85 and rather frail, he still thrilled us with his famous poems read as only the poet can read them. Toward the end of his presentation, Frost confided that he no longer had the energy to compose longer works but he still loved writing couplets.


A couplet, that shortest of all stanzas, can stand alone as a single poem or be used as a building unit for longer poems of any length. Writing couplets is a great way to get into verse (structured poetry). Ogden Nash made mirthful use of the two line poem when he penned:

The cow is of the bovine ilk,
One end is moo, the other, milk.

In my case, I found frequent use of the couplet in BUGS, POEMS ABOUT CREEPING THINGS. For example:

The termite doesn’t eat the way it should.
It’s not his fault, his food all tastes like wood.

In the first case, Nash uses four beats per line of iambic meter so we call that structure iambic tetrameter. My poem is also in iambic but uses five beats per line, making it iambic pentameter. These two are the most popular forms but there are many other combinations.

For example, here are two samples from T. S. Eliot’s work, taken from his wonderful “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which provided the basis for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, CATS. Eliot employed seven beats per iambic line to introduce us to GROWLTIGER, which begins:

GROWLTIGER was a Bravo Cat, who lived upon a barge:
In fact he was the roughest cat that ever roamed at large.

It took eight stressed syllables per line to tell the tale of The Old Gumbie Cat:

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.

Contrast Eliot’s long, playful lines to my quick report in BUGS regarding my inability to manage a chocolate covered grasshopper:

Me chew it?
Can’t do it.

You can also write a two-line stanza of verse that doesn’t rhyme. There’s even a name for such a form. It’s called a distich. Change one word in Nash’s poem:

The cow is of the bovine kind,
One end is moo, the other, milk.

We have now established an internal rhyme (bovine/kind) in line one. Line two still retains its alliteration with moo/milk, and the two lines still form a perfectly valid poem. However, it’s now technically a distich rather than a couplet.

Many poems are written in a series of couplets. Again using BUG for examples, I used two sets of couplets to tell about no-see-ums:

No-see-um’s tiny bite
Keeps you scratching half the night.
No-see-um’s no fun.
Next time you don’t see ‘um, run!

I took three sets of couplets to tell on these beetles:

Two dumb beetles set out to float
Across the sea in a tennis-shoe boat.
Sadly, the tennis shoe sank before
The beetles had sailed a foot from shore.
The beetles cried with red faces,
“Duh, we shoulda tied da laces.”


A stanza one line longer than a couplet is a tercet. If all three lines of the tercet rhyme, it’s called a triplet. As you might imagine, finding three consecutive rhymes is not easy so the triplet is a fairly rare bird. However, it isn’t too unusual to compose three-line stanzas in which only two of the three end in a rhyme.

One version, called the terza rima, calls for the first and third lines to end in the same sound in stanza one. In stanza two, the ending sound of the middle line of the first stanza becomes the rhyme sound for the first and third lines of the new stanza, and so on.

Here are two examples of how I’ve used tercets. In “Daydreams,” from CONNECTING DOTS, I used three-line stanzas in which the second and third lines rhyme, leaving the first lines to set the scene for each of the six stanzas. Like this:

I remember the turtle
beneath our basement stair.
I see him sleeping there.

Maybe he’s dreaming of clover,
shade beside a tree,
days when he was free.

In THE MOUSE WAS OUT AT RECESS, the poem “The Bus” is told in tercets in which the first two lines rhyme and the third line is a kind of refrain that appears with slightly altered wording in each of the nine stanzas:

You know what’s cool
About going to school?
Riding on the bus!

You wave at your friends
When the day just begins
And you’re riding on the bus.

In “It’s Better if You Don’t Know” from THE MOUSE WAS OUT AT RECESS, I devised sets of three-line stanzas in which the second lines of consecutive stanzas rhymed. The third lines of the same stanzas also rhymed but not with the same sound. Like this:

There’s a Welcome sign
On the principal’s door,
(But try not to go.)

Her office is long.
There’s a rug on the floor.
(Never mind how I know.)

As you can see, two-line and three-line stanzas can be employed in a variety of ways to get your ideas told. To be such short forms, they are surprisingly adaptable.

Poetry Tip #5: Accentual and Syllabic Verse

Hi everyone,

Poetry falls into one of two broad categories: the structured language of verse and the unstructured language of free verse. Poets who write for young readers sometimes compose in free verse but observation, surveys, and experience tell us that verse, when it’s well done, finds a larger audience and is therefore the category of choice much of the time.

Verse poems are written in syllables arranged into packets of sound to form lines and stanzas. In the English language, syllables are stressed (accented) or unstressed, so when strung in consistent patterns, called feet, they create a variety of meters and rhythms. The most common feet are iambic (da DA), anapestic (da da DA), trochaic (DA da), and dactylic (DA da da). Iambic and anapestic are characterized as rising meters while trochaic and dactylic are falling meters. Individually, these are called iamb, anapest, trochee, and dactyl.

Poetry written in English, whether as verse or free verse, is built with the same units of speech used in everyday language. Verse requires structure so we search harder for a syllable, word, or sequence to fit the need. Though free verse is also comprised of accented and unaccented sounds there is no set rule about where they fall. Sometimes the poet has to guard against slipping into meter out of force of habit.

Casual conversation is like free verse in that there are no rules for placing the accented sounds. We say what we want to say and move on. (In that last line, look for the accents: We SAY what we WANT to SAY and MOVE ON.) In Somebody Catch My Homework, the concluding line in my poem, “Monday,” goes like this:

MONday SURE can BE a BUMmer.
The line has eight syllables arranged into four trochaic feet (DA da DA da DA da DA da).
Chatting with a friend, we might put it slightly differently:

MONday can SURE be a BUMmer.
This has the same number of syllables but the number of accents changes from four to three, and the meter changes from four trochees (DA da DA da DA da DA da) to two dactyls and one trochee (DA da da DA da da DA da).

Sometimes a poet will choose to focus on the number of accented syllables. Accentual poems can create a mood distinctly its own. The underlying structure depends on counting only the number of beats in a line or group of lines. Where they are placed is less important than how many there are. Here is another example from Somebody Catch My Homework called “My Excuse.” The opening stanzas are (accented syllables in upper case):

Yes MA’AM!


STINKED up the KITchen

Now our NEIGHbor, SHE’S OLD,
And SHE’S got an OLD CAT,

In these stanzas, there is no prevailing meter. If you count the number of beats in each line, there is variation there too. But if you count the accents or stresses in each stanza, you’ll find ten in each, and that’s the glue that holds the poem together, especially when you read it aloud. The reader feels a sense of cohesiveness in the stanzas that keeps the poem rocking along. The poem sounds conversational, and it is, but there is an underlying structure that helps it sound that way. Accentual poems are nearly subliminal in their influence on the reader but they can be effective.

By contrast, while accentual verse counts accents, syllabic verse counts syllables. It isn’t as common in English because our language is spoken with stressed and unstressed sounds. Elementary students are taught to write two ancient forms of Japanese syllabic poetry – haiku and tanka – by counting and arranging syllables — 17 for the haiku in three lines of 5-7-5 and 31 for the tanka in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7. Interestingly, in Japanese, poets don’t actually compose by counting syllables. They focus on the number of onji, the smallest linguistic unit in that language.

Although collections of poems for children don’t include as many syllabic verses as other forms, many English speaking poets love to write haiku and tanka which, when done well, create beautiful images and stories.

Poetry Tip #4: Visual Elements

Hi everyone,

I realize that some of the sources and examples I mention in these poetry tips could be replaced with others with newer copyrights, but I choose to stay with these originals because they serve my purpose quite well. I’m not writing an article here where “newness” might be required. I’m offering tips about writing poems and because a poem was written more than a decade ago hardly makes it obsolete. An unfortunate result of today’s burgeoning market is the insatiable appetite for new titles at the expense of those that were themselves so recently new. So on we go.

In POETRY TIP #4 I want to point out some options a poet has to use visual presentation help convey his/her meaning. How we shape our poem may lend a visual dimension to how our reader experiences the words. In some cases the poet may arrange lines to create a spatial effect that provides the reader/viewer with clues to the mood or premise of the message. Georgia Heard helps us “see” the flight of her hummingbird in this poem from Creatures of Earth, Sea, and Sky (Boyds Mills Press, 1992). In the book, each line is arranged on the page to give the impression of flight. Alas, I can’t duplicate the arrangement here. You need to see the real thing.


Ruby-throated hummingbird



from morning glories
to honeysuckle



from a straw

all day long.

In Paint Me a Poem (Boyds Mills Press, 2005), Justine Rowdon arranges her lines, screened colors, and even the sizes of her words to add a sense of galloping urgency to her poem about George Washington, which begins like this:

Why, of course, it’s George
Riding toward Valley forge.

faster, Faster, FASTER!

Trotting into surrounded towns,

faster, Faster, FASTER!

In more obvious cases of line arrangement and shapes (concrete poems), the poet intentionally forms a picture with his/her words in a recognizable shape. I lack the tools and skills to present samples here of concrete poems but there are plenty available if you search the Internet.

More commonly poets use line breaks, punctuation, and capitalization to add visual effects to what they write. Paul Muldoon is a Pulitzer winning poet and one-time professor of poetry at the University of Oxford. In his rhyming verse poem, “You Gotta Take Out Milt (Peotry, The Humor Issue; July/August 2006, pp 293-294) Muldoon divides 46 lines into five stanzas and three refrains without punctuation but for a single question mark and not even a period at the end. Why?

For one thing, it’s a funny poem and gets funnier if you read it aloud the way a guy might sound given his discovery that his wife’s out to get him. Who would break for commas under such circumstances?

On the other hand, each and every line begins with a capital letter, a reminder to the reader that this is indeed a poem and the poet is aware that he’s breaking rules at one end of the line but is observing traditional etiquette at the other. Somehow the effect of starting each line with a straight face enhances the surprising antics of the lines themselves.

In “An Earl Martyr,” (William Carlos Williams Selected Poems, A New Directions Book, 1985, page 89) the poet begins the first word in every other line with a capital letter whether it needs it or not and even though the poem is told in free verse, which normally doesn’t require capitals except to start a new sentence or stanza.

Rather than permit him
to testify in court
Giving reasons
why he stole from
Exclusive stores

Why? In my case as a reader, this tactic makes me slow down in reading to examine each line and consider why the poet chose to alternate capitalization while ignoring most punctuation.

You can find many other examples of poets who choose to punctuate, arrange, and capitalize their work to gain a certain desired effect. Here’s Constance Levy in A Crack in the Clouds (McElderry Books, 1998) with her poem, “Seagull Tricks.”

You may think
he’s not thinking
about your sandwich
because he is looking
the other way.

You may think
he’s not scheming
because he is dreaming
and stands like an innocent
statue in gray.

Notice how Connie arranges her lines and chooses her capitalization. These stanzas end in rhyme: way/gray, yet her lines all run over into the next (enjambment lines) so she begins them all with lower case letters to allow the reader freedom to keep moving.

In Music of their Hooves (Boyds Mills Press, 1994), Nancy Springer’s title poem is told in two 4-line stanzas. She chooses iambic and anapestic meters to echo the thundering hooves of galloping horses but also omits punctuation, capitalization, and even standard borders to free our spirits to run with the horse:

The earth is a drum
their hooves pound the beat
the cantering cantering
rhythm of their feet

My heart is a drum
every beat of it loves
the galloping galloping
music of their hooves

I hope these tips and reminders are useful to some of you. Please let me know if you have questions, comments, or suggestions.