Fathom Mag

Published on:
April 6, 2020
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7 min.
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Feel the Rhythm, Feel the Rhyme

Is it a poem if it doesn’t rhyme? A good rhyme scheme is extremely satisfying. It provides a sense of rhythm and flow to verse. And studies have shown that rhyming helps both children and adults with memorization and recall. A poet who is good at rhyming is an artist, creating order and conclusion. But when rhyming flops, it belly-flops. 

Nothing’s more distracting to me as a poetry editor than awkward or forced rhyme. If I can see the effort it took for you to make that stanza rhyme, it’s a #rhymingfail. Failed rhyme "bumps” your reader, as my college writing prof, Dr. Simons, would say. And not in a good way. 

George Orwell taught us to use the exact word we mean when we write. Don’t use a complex, academic word where a plain, concrete word will do, he said. When rhyming, the temptation is to choose a word based on rhyme instead of meaning. That can lead to awkward word choices, yes, but more than that, it can actually change and obscure the meaning of your poem. 

When rhyming flops, it belly-flops.

Reading and practicing rhyme is so important for our brains and it provides an important foundation for poetry writing. You have to learn to walk before you can run. But if rhyming doesn’t come naturally to you, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a poet. 

Free verse poetry

“I like your poetry but...it doesn’t rhyme.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that—especially from my dad—who likes to tease me. Some see free verse poetry as a cop-out. Lazy. Shapeless and void. If there is no rhyme, no iambic pentameter, then what makes it a poem? I understand the impulse behind the question. The truth is, there’s bad free-verse out there. But good free-verse poets put a lot more thought into the structure and rhythm of their poems than you might think. 

Punctuation and line-breaks

Without rhyme or formal meter, a free verse poet has to rely on punctuation and line breaks to create rhythm. A well-placed period or comma can make all the difference. And line breaks show the reader when to pause and when to slide right into the next stanza with the grace and power of a waterfall. Because free verse poetry is often performed as spoken word, the poety has to focus on guiding the reader’s reading of the poem.

If rhyming doesn’t come naturally to you, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a poet.

For me, that means reading my own poems out loud, over and over again, until I get every line-break just write. Until I have decided if a comma or a period is the right choice. A long line followed by a short line might not seem visually pleasing, but the free verse poet knows the power of brevity and abruptness. Of stopping the reader and forcing them to focus on one line. Of creating an emotional punch-to-the-gut. Pay attention to the punctuation and line-breaks in my poem, “Our First Full Week Together”:

Our First Full Week Together

One of our first conversations
was about falling asleep at night
The trouble of it.
The lack of a cure.
It was nice, though,
to know someone else
was up at midnight.
During our first full week together
we started three movies
and two different TV series
without finishing a single one
we were so excited
to be on the same couch
you wanted to see my expression
and I wanted to hear your laugh
at that one scene
you kept falling asleep
suddenly you could. 


You don’t have to be writing a sonnet to be conscious of syllables. In my unit on free verse poetry, I would start by having my students practice iambic pentameter. We would stomp our feet and clap our hands, counting the syllables in different poems. In the same way a music teacher asks their student to learn proper techniques before composing their own songs, a poetry teacher understands the value of giving their students an ear for rhythm through syllable counting.

Because free verse poetry is often performed as spoken word, the poety has to focus on guiding the reader’s reading of the poem.

Writing haikus is a great way to get a feel for it. Haikus have three lines, with five syllables in the first, seven in the second, and five in the third: 5-7-5. Practicing haiku writing will give a poet a better feel for how syllables provide a sense of flow. Sometimes moving or cutting out one word makes all the difference. Even if the pattern seems much less structured than a sonnet, most free-verse poets are intentional about how many syllables they use in each line.

Slant Rhyme

Slant rhyme could be called “almost rhyme.” It provides a level of satisfaction without including perfect rhyming pairs. For example, in my poem “Shapes,” I rhyme “waist” with “space.”

My favorite shape
is the circle of your arms
around the cylinder of my waist.

The exclusion of space.  

You can even find slant rhymes in the works of someone like Shakespeare who, in Sonnet 90, rhymes the word “last” with “taste.” (Though you could argue that the two words were a much closer rhyme in the English of Shakespeare’s day.) If two words have a similar enough middle or ending sound, slant rhyme (probably) won’t interrupt the flow of your poem. In my poem “Sand Tiger Shark,” I use exact rhymes, though not in an ABAB or couplet form. But my last line includes slant rhyme, connecting  the words “them” and “fed,” because of their matching middle sounds. Though not exact, it ends up providing a sense of symmetry and conclusion.

Sand Tiger Shark 
Your spirit animal is a
sand tiger shark.
I know because you
don’t flinch when someone cries and
seem uncomfortable meeting eyes, you
eat your meals alone, were
born having already grown
and sick, it’s
as if you come out fighting to
prove your worth by biting the
heads off each your sisters,
their brothers, your brothers,
now dead inside you, fed
the energy to swim,
to breathe,
to live,
the ocean swallows you,
the way you swallowed them.


Another way to create rhythm in free verse poetry is the use of repetition. Beginning each stanza with the same line or word can create a powerful flow—just think about MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Repetition provides structure just like formal meter or rhyme. And it can build and build into a crescendo. For example, in my poem “That Woman” I use the phrase “I want” over and over again, to propel the poem forward:

That Woman
I want to be that woman for you
a subtle cedar
with roots so deep
they make contact with your thirst zone
and neither weary
nor recoil
at your need for drink.
I want to be patient
when it rains,
able to survive
the occasional downpour.
When I grow
I want the movement
to pull your soil
closer to the sun.
I want to be a safe sighing-ground,
brave enough
to hold the punching bag
and trusting enough to
let you swing.
I want to refrain from
when you really need
to just unburden.
I want to give you silence and
instead of a game plan,
a hand-massage instead of
defending the other team.
I wanna’ stop talking
when I should be listening.
I want to give you
but cyclone guilting
or another item
to add to "the list."
I want to give you a drink.
I will mix it for you,
help bring the glass to your lips
or your lips to my lips
or leave you alone,
whatever it is
you need.
I want to embody
and empathy
and silence
and trust
and reminders
of God
without saying a word.
But I know
that I won't
always be
that woman.
I just need you to know that I want to be.

In my poem “Dear Old Love Letters” I use the word “please” to create a sense of flow:

Dear Old Love Letters
Please stop falling out of
My favorite books.
Please stop turning my library
Into a landmine. 

You might also notice that occasional, well-placed alliteration (“library,” “landmine”) can create a sense of flow as well. In my poem “Joint Library” the repetition is much less structured, but you will see it if you are looking for it:

Joint Library
I keep thinking about 
all the books we own, how
they might look
sitting next to each other
on the same shelf
(ok, ten shelves),
how some
might get crowded out, 
or lost behind the couch.
I think about
how our collections 
have been built up 
over years, how
they are now full
of histories
short stories,
and poetry;
how some pages are soft
from being read
over and over again and
others are stiff
because those book
have never been opened;
they remain
something new.
Some have marks 
and notes
and expired coupons
hidden inside them.
probably smell
like the summer did 
the year we read them.
The one thing
I know
is that if we spent our lives
in this joint-library
we'd never
be without something
to read. 
Write it the way you want it to be read

Whether you are using rhyme, slant rhyme, intentional line-breaks, syllable counting, repetition, or some other technique, you must dedicate yourself to reading your poems out loud. Read them until you can’t stand them anymore, then take a break, walk away, and return a few days later with fresh eyes. Techniques are tools, but tools don’t always work. So instead of resting on technique, my best advice to you is to read your poem until it is written the way you want it to be read. Then send it to me at poetry@fathommag.com.

Rachel Joy Welcher
Rachel Joy Welcher is an editor-at-large at Fathom Magazine and an Acquisitions Editor for Lexham Press. She earned her MLitt. from The University of St. Andrews. She is the author of two collections of poetry: Two Funerals, Then Easter and Blue Tarp, and the book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality (InterVarsity Press, 2020). You can follow her on Twitter @racheljwelcher.

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