Similar versions of this article have appeared at the ICL website, Verla Kay’s Message Board and at www.kidmagwriters.com.
Forcing the Issue
© 2005-2007 Kristy Dempsey
In the world of poetry submissions and publication, I am just getting started. But in the short time that I have been submitting, I have gained a brainful of information about writing poetry for children—all from my own mistakes. Beginning poets tend to make many common blunders and then we receive mailboxes full of rejection slips citing our “forced rhymes” and “trite effect”. Or worse yet, we receive just a form rejection with no hint as to why our poem didn’t work. Though I love the philosophy that rules are made to be broken, in poetry it must be clear that the rules are being broken intentionally or the poem falls flat. Here are a few ways beginners tend to break the rules of poetry:
1. Inverted rhyme: Use of unnatural language—we wouldn’t normally say it that way.
In children’s poetry there is a fine line between stretching the vocabulary of a child and veering off into a poetic abyss of wordiness.
The heap of noodles on my plate
Did my stomach satiate.
Though they had not any sauce,
My belly did not note the loss.
See how the word order is convoluted? We don’t say things like “The spaghetti did my stomach satiate” or “The noodles had not any sauce”. We’d just say “I didn’t have any sauce on my noodles but they tasted great anyway!” The tendency is to say “Well, it’s rhyme. We don’t normally speak in rhyme anyway.” But the majority of poems that work well and that children can quickly identify with do not have wonky word order. A better wording of the above could be something like:
Noodles! Noodles! Yummy, Yummy!
Fill my plate to fill my tummy.
Slurp them up without the cheese.
Maybe one more plateful, please?
Ok. I admit…still not perfect, but much more kid friendly and it’s almost natural speech.
Rarely, rarely, rarely, and may I emphasize rarely, convoluted word order can be chalked up to poetic “voice”. In a poem full of metaphor and wonder you might be able to get away with a limited use of unusual word order.
Sunshine beaming on the ground,
sing your song without a sound.
Radiate with gentle heat
a rhythmic wave of warmth so sweet.
In natural language we use “so sweet” with a phrase that modifies it, as in “Her gesture was so sweet it made me cry.” But in the example above, readers (though not all of them) might accept the usage of “warmth so sweet” rather than “sweet warmth” because of the tone of the poem. This usage should be the exception rather than the rule.
2. Forced Rhyme: In the context of the poem, the rhyme doesn’t make sense. The rhyming word seems to have been used simply because it is a perfect rhyme.
On the farm, the maiden calls
all the milkcows from their stalls
In the field a donkey brays
Somewhere there’s a child who prays
Unless the poem is somehow going to develop the praying idea, the last line clearly doesn’t fit. The first three lines define the setting as a farm. The fact that there is a child somewhere in the world who prays has nothing to do with the first three lines, though it is a perfect rhyme.
3. Near rhyme.
The rain comes gently falling down
Misting o’er the dry hard ground
We’ve all done it. We want “ground” to rhyme with “down” so badly that we use it. But it’s an almost rhyme that leaves a few people feeling uncomfortable when they read it. In non-rhyming poetry, near rhyme can add to the aural essence of the poem. But it rhyming poetry, it can cause physical pain. It often makes the reader cringe. If it distracts the reader, it ruins your poem.
4. Use of trite, simple rhyme.
I met a rat
Who wore a hat
And carried a mat
By the bay
If you have something important or whimsical to say about the rat, the hat and the mat, then say it. But rhymes for children should never use simple words just because they are simple and the rhymes are easy. Build a good story first. Don’t build a flat story to fit the rhyming words you want to use.
5. Sing-song rhyme: The poem feels sing-songy because of the author’s use of a particular rhythm or a series of rhyming words.
Sleepyhead, time for bed
Close your eyes, hush your cries
Lullaby, peaceful sigh
Tears are dried, yawning wide
Rock-a-bye, twinkling sky
Fluff the bed, lay your head
Soft moonlight, sleeping tight
The poem reads like a list of rhyming words and falls flat because the beats feel so heavy. This is what some people refer to as sing-songy poetry. The reader ends up paying more attention to the rhythm or rhyme of the poem than they do to the meaning. Though there might be some redeeming qualities to the poem, they get missed by the reader.
Now that I have written these rules all out, I could take you to my file of poems and show you instances where I have broken each and every one of these rules. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the end, the reader is the judge of what works. Paying attention to the above rules helps me to be sure that for the majority of people, the majority of the time, the majority of my poems will work!
(Other really helpful articles on rhyme can be found at Dori Chaconas.com and at KPluta.com)