Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, at least it needn’t all the time…

Happy Saturday to you all.

I had to share this post as it’s something Holly and I worked on this morning as part of my Masters in Children’s Literature. We were asked to select an anthology of poetry that had won either the CLPE or the Signal Award. My choice was a book called This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme, edited by Gerard Benson.


Image courtesy of waterstones.com

The two main reasons why are:

  • it’s an anthology of different poets’ works (I tend to prefer this to anthologies by one person)
  • it deals effectively and humorously with how children view poetry and tries to help them see beyond the immediate appeal of rhyme.

If it don’t rhyme, it’s not sublime

I worked as an intervention assistant in my daughter’s primary school and saw at first hand how children love rhyming poetry and dismiss other forms as not proper or correct. I did a session on this with some key stage 2 children, using Sharon Creech’s lovely book Love That Dog and I felt this had a similar aim – to encourage children to develop their poetry-writing skills – though through a different approach. Admittedly, though, I do prefer poetry that rhymes or at least has a very strong rhythm, and I think children do too because they love the flow of words and the anticipation of guessing the next rhyming word.

Benson explores this humorously in his opening poem, written by himself! – called ‘Problems of Poetry’, in which the poet persona is struggling to find end rhymes and failing spectacularly. This mimics his anecdote in the introduction that he kept finding children who were ruining brilliant poetry by searching for any word that might rhyme.

The second poem, entitled ‘Another Method’, shows how to write a prose poem by writing about how to write a prose poem (!) and the third is about sight rhymes at the end of lines, with some excellent examples – climb/limb, height/weight, laughter/daughter.’ This would be great too to use with students of English as a second language to show how unpredictable and unphonic (if that’s a word) English is.

Poetry, please

At this point, I asked Holly about poetry and whether it should rhyme. She’s a big fan of nonsense poetry (as am I) and she said that children find it easier to write rhyming poetry because otherwise they think poems sound like stories. So I read her an extract from ‘The Passing of Arthur’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson and she was quite captivated. She said that although it didn’t rhyme, it had a very strong rhythm, so she identified it was blank verse in iambic pentameter (though not so technically!). She said it was calm and relaxing to listen to because of its rhythm but the beat had an anger and energy to it.

At this point, she took the collection off me and started reading poems aloud, including: ‘The Mighty Horse’, from the Book of Job, ‘Buffalo Dusk’, by Carl Sandberg, and then one that was our favourite, ‘What for?’ by Noel Petty. I’ll include it below because it’s hilarious:


‘What For!’

One more word, said my dad,

And I’ll give you what for.

What for? I said.

That’s right, he said, what for!

No, I said, I mean what for?

What will you give me what for for?

Never you mind, he said. Wait and see.

But what is what for for? I said.

What’s what for for? he said,

It’s to teach you what’s what,

That’s what.

What’s that? I said.

Right, he said, you’re for it,

I’m going to let you have it.

Have what? I said.

Have what? he said,

What for, that’s what.

Do you want me to really give you

Something to think about?

I don’t know, I said,

I’m thinking about it.

Then he clipped me over the ear.

It was the first time he’d made sense

All day.

The humour of course lies in the misunderstanding of colloqualisms and the adult’s way of using them and the child not seeing the meaning (or choosing not to). This sort of conversation happens regularly in my house! What was interesting was that Holly didn’t know what the expression ‘what for’ was either but she still caught the humour, I believe through Petty’s clever observation of conversation. It perhaps shows that while children don’t have the full background to some texts, they can still make their own meaning from them (something we are studying in my other module, about reader response).

We also liked ‘The Greengrocer’s Love Song’ by Anon as it was very clever in how it used fruit and vegetable words in a strong play on words:

Do you carrot all for me?

My heart beets for you.

With your turnip nose

And your radish face

You are a peach.

If we canteloupe

Lettuce marry.

Weed make a swell pear.

Holly identified it as North American through the use of ‘swell’ but didn’t get the humour exactly until I showed her the spellings, which shows that certain poems do rely on a visual reading for their effect.

Finally, we liked a short riddle that appeared, called ‘Snake Riddle’ by Anon.

‘Why didn’t the viper

Vipe’er nose?

Because the adder

‘ad’er ‘andkerchief!’

To summarise, this is an excellent collection because it achieves different things – it informs children that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme to be beautiful, funny, moving or clever by showing examples that engage. It’s not overtly didactic or bossy – it just does what it says on the tin. I can see children enjoying this – Holly, who was reluctant to look at the book, couldn’t put it down!



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