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Rhyming Poetry, How Do I Write Thee?

October 5, 2015

Let me count the ways.

1. Find a rhyming dictionary. Keep it on hand. Be prepared to throw it at the wall in frustration a few times, and to choose “close enough” rhymes on occasion.

2. Decide whether you want to create your own type of poem or work off a formula like the sonnet or the limerick or the mock-epic. If the latter, read a bunch and then keep a few good examples on hand. This also goes for pastiches.

3a. If you’re doing your own thing, decide on which lines you want to rhyme with each other within a stanza. Lines 1 and 2, 3 and 4? 1 and 3, 2 and 4? 1 and 7 only?  Write that down on the side or bottom of the page, so you can refer to it if needed. My English teachers always used a for the first rhyme, b for the second rhyme, c for the third, and so on, but numbers or symbols or shades of pink should also work. Whatever floats your boat.

3b. If you’re working off a formula, a bit of googling should find you the rhyme scheme, but you can also figure it out by working line by line through an example and noting in letters or shades of pink each of the rhymes. Watch for rhymes in the middle of a line too.

4. Are you writing free verse? Awesome! At this point, you’re pretty much set. Ignore the rest of this post, stick to the rhyme scheme you’ve marked out, and have fun!

5. Familiarize yourself with the concept of feet. (Not the kind you stand on.) The kind that’s about the rhythm of words and the stress of syllables. The most common English foot is the iamb—Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day—though the trochee and the anapest are also pretty familiar—Tiger, tiger, burning bright, and Twas the night before Christmas, respectively.

6. Similarly, familiarize yourself with poetic meter, which is basically the number of feet in a line. A lot English verse is pentameter, meaning five feet per line, but not all of it. You should be able to determine the meter by counting the number of feet. For me, this does unfortunately involve finger counting a lot of the time.

7. Mark the meter you’re using somewhere you can, again, refer to it as necessary. The Standard Literary Analysis uses for stressed syllables and ˇ for unstressed, and putting feet in parentheses like (ˇ—). Since I can never keep those straight, I prefer using DUM da DUM da or some variation because then I can say it aloud and feel the rhythm better. If the formula has uneven lines, I will write out the whole thing and occasionally append the number of syllables or feet to the end of the line so I’m totally certain.

8. Note that it is allowable to add an extra syllable to a line occasionally—and to drop one off as well.

9. Start writing. By this point, you should have the feet and meter more or less in your head naturally, but refer to your template as often as you want. Don’t be afraid to get slightly archaic at points to meet the meter, since the more common stanzas are frequently dated. I’d recommend choosing simple, one-syllable, common rhymes, at least to start. Your brain will thank you for it.

10. If you’re writing a pastiche, you’ll probably want to stick to familiar rhymes as well as rhythm and themes. (I don’t think anyone who reworks The Raven does so without rhyming to “Nevermore.”) In that case, you’ll probably want to add the iconic rhymes into your template from the get-go.

11. Be prepared to rewrite lines or stanzas several times before you get the poem sounding natural and sticking to the template. This is normal. Have your beverage of choice nearby, to dull the pain and soothe your throat after you scream at the English language for not behaving. (Also normal?) Be especially prepared for the meter you’ve chosen to stick in your brain for days afterwards. I bet iambic pentameter drove Shakespeare bonkers.

An example? You want an example? Excellent.

The standard form of a limerick is a stanza of five lines, with the first, second and fifth rhyming with one another and having three feet of three syllables each; and the shorter third and fourth lines also rhyming with each other, but having only two feet of three syllables. The defining “foot” of a limerick’s meter is usually the anapaest, (ta-ta-TUM) — Wikipedia

So that would be:

  1. da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM (a)
  2. da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM (a)
  3. da da DUM da da DUM (b)
  4. da da DUM da da DUM (b)
  5. da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM (a)


Once a girl tried to write a good poem.

She had need of a hearth and a home.

Soon she found a good beat

And was stuck to her seat

And she quickly did churn out a tome!


This post has been brought to you by a day-job project that I may or may not share closer to the end of the month. And by this truly excellent blog that is now a book.

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