In the olden days, most poetry rhymed, partly because poems were passed from person to person orally, and rhymes made the lines easier to remember. But that wasn't rhyme's only reason for being. Pretty much everyone, from the littlest kids listening to Green Eggs and Ham to rappers and slam poets, delight in the music language creates through rhyme, rhythm, and a host of other appeals to the ear. We love the ring and friction of words alongside each other and the rhythms of lines and sentences. Rhyme and other sound devices are silent partners, helping to make both music and meaning.
Rhyme has gotten a bad name, maybe because we poets too often reach for the expected word combinations rather than the surprising, meaning-making ones. In this week's poem, "How Poetry Comes to Me," although I hope that the letters and syllables echoing off each other help you hear the sounds and silences of the poem, there is only one exact rhyme tying the last two lines together. When you have a word like prayer, it's tempting to reach for an easy rhyme like share, care, or bear. But our minds hydroplane over that slick surface. Prayer and despair do rhyme's double work: even as their meanings pull in seemingly opposite directions, the rhyme tells us that they are closely connected, even inseparable.
"How Poetry Comes to Me"
I go to meet it
At the edge of the light.
Poetry leads me by the hand
to where an old man sits
clasping one by one the hands of friends
who've come to mourn his daughter—
the third of his children laid to rest in this church.
He won't talk about it, they whisper, worried.
His stricken, puzzled face,
his big hands as warm and grained as weathered oak
say all there is to say: No words can wake my Mary.
Poetry leads me to his garden
where he kneels
his crippled hip resting on an overturned bucket.
He stakes the tomatoes
lays the onions to dry in the late summer sun
gathers spent vines for the compost heap
sweet corn to feed his living children
the old-fashioned flowers his wife loves—snapdragons, asters—
and seeds for next year's planting.
All we hear are crickets, the wind,
and the sudden plop of plums too ripe to hang on the tree.
Poetry comes mute with compassion
carrying the bodies of children.
Knowing it can neither save nor redeem them
still it refuses to lay them down
or let me turn away.
Poetry comes to me like prayer—
the last resort before despair.
--Mara Faulkner, OSB
Originally published in Still Birth, 2013, and used by permission of Finishing Line Press.
Invitation for your writing:
How does poetry come to you? Free write from this poem’s first line, going wherever that line takes you. Then write a poem on that subject. See if rhymes appear, either at the end of the lines or within the lines. Ask yourself if each rhyme is fresh and if it pulls the two words together, even as they are pulling apart. Then try writing the same poem without the rhymes. Which one is truer to the experience the poem is about?