A Way to Write Rhyming Poetry
(For People Without Poetic Talent)
    It is highly unlikely that real poets -- people with a gift for creative insight and articulate, creative use of language; people who seem to be able to think in poetry -- write poetry in a way I am about to outline here.  This method would be too slow and too contrived, I believe, for a real poet.  But for the rest of us, it at least will work, relatively quickly by our poem-writing standards, and it will sometimes yield a very good poem. 
This is a manner of writing a poem somewhat by logic and algorithm, rather than by instantaneous insight.  It may serve to interest children in writing poetry who would not otherwise become interested.  But it is definitely not "the" way to write poetry, and it should not be taught as if it were.  It merely serves when all else fails.  If you are a teacher introducing this to students, they should know that.  And if any of your students can write poetry more "naturally", they should not be required to use this method.

I have written poems on my own this way, and I once used this method with a group of fifth and sixth graders, who wrote the 28-line poem below in about 20 minutes, as part of a play they were writing.  I also used this method to write a response song to a country song I heard that I thought would be fun to have an answer to, using different words to the same tune.  I wrote it using this method because I could not keep the tune in mind as I wrote the words, and because I cannot hear a beat in music very well, though I can hear one in poetry.  So what I did was to take the original song, and figure out its rhyming and metrical pattern, then write the response to it using the same rhythm and meter.  The woman who sang the original (on a demo tape) said the response worked perfectly.  I was pleased with myself, though I doubt anyone will ever hear either song.

1) Write in prose form any ideas or elements you would like your poem to be about or to say.  Use single words, phrases, or short sentences, in any order you think of them.  If necessary, even use long sentences, but long sentences are generally not preferable for beginners.

2) Arrange the different elements or ideas in an order that makes (the most) sense to tell them.

3) Add other elements or ideas, if necessary, to make the story or point complete.

4) Write down some words or short phrases that are relevant to each item.

5) Although poems do not need to rhyme, rhyming is quite common, is often fun to do, and sometimes adds to the quality of the poem, if it is done well.  So see whether any of the words or phrases you have come up with so far rhyme.

6) If few or none rhyme, think up synonyms that might.

7) Also think up antonyms that might rhyme with any of them, because you can always use a "negative sentence" with an antonym to express the same, or a similar, idea.  E.g., if you are looking to express a relationship between the quality of parenting and the education of the child, you could write either something like:

With their time, hearts, energy, and minds, his parents gave him such a headstart
In life, learning in school was so easy for him, teachers assumed he was smart.
In the later grades of the child, you could see the effect
Of a great many early years of parental neglect.
Or you might use both.

8) Try to get pairs of rhyming sentences or phrases that incorporate as many elements from above as you can.  

You do not have to rhyme the elements themselves; you just need to get the elements in phrases or sentences that rhyme.  For example, in the "My Sister" poem, the line

And to the conclusions that my mother does leap.
came about by trying to work in the idea that the mother jumps to conclusions, but it was difficult to rhyme "conclusions" with anything relevant, so we put it in the middle of the line, and let it all rhyme with
It's enough to make me weep...
And all because of that little creep

It does not matter whether these initial rhymes incorporate consecutive pairs of ideas or elements in the order you have arranged them, though it may be helpful, if possible, to have incorporated rhymes between pairs that are somewhat close together in the order in which they tell the story or make sense.

9) Write out these rhyming pairs in an order that seems appropriate from a sense-making point of view, as in 2 above, putting as close as possible to each other those pairs which also rhyme, but they do not need to be right next to each other. 

10) Although the easiest rhyme scheme to use normally is aa, bb, cc, dd, ee...., which will require your eventually getting rhyming pairs which will be adjacent to each other, there are other possible rhyme schemes, many of which often sound more sophisticated and more complex or more satisfying, such as abab, cdcd, efef.... or abba, cddc, effe, ....   There are even some quite intricate rhyme schemes that are pretty amazing. 

11) Look to see whether there is a rhyme scheme pattern suggested by what you have so far.  If so, you will want to incorporate and perfect it.  If not, then you will have to choose a rhyme scheme to work with.

All the above are less interesting to me than the rest, which I find the more interesting and fun part of doing this because it is more creative and more challenging, but with enough of a framework from all the above that you have some sense of where you are going and what you need to get there.  In a sense, now all you need to do is to think up things that fill in the gaps left over from the above, but at least you have something to work with to guide you and to challenge you.

12) Arrange what you have and, piece by piece, try to fill in the gaps with lines that rhyme in the correct pattern, if necessary thinking up synonyms or antonyms, or changing the grammar or word order in a line to get a different word at the end, or whatever else you can think of to have the ideas in a sensible order and the end-rhyme of each line rhyming in the right pattern.  

If you get stuck in some part, go on to others.  Your mind will work on the stuck parts unconsciously and will often give you good lines for one part while you are looking at another, or while you are doing something else altogether, like talking with a friend or playing a sport or taking a shower.

It may be necessary to write an extraneous line or two in order to make an important point have a line that  rhymes with some other line.  In the "My Sister" poem below, in order to use the word "fault" -- which seemed an important word for this poem -- we had to come up with a word we could rhyme with a line in which it occurred, one that we could work into a context that made contextual sense.  So we came up with:

Once she spilled a chocolate malt
and rhymed it with
Then told mom it was all my fault.

13) As the poem takes greater shape, if necessary re-arrange parts of it to make it flow better from the point of view of  logic, story-telling sense, timing, or  rhyming.

14) If you have not already been taking it into account, now is a good time to think about meter -- the number of syllables per line and the "beat", "rhythmn", or pattern of accents they have.  Like rhyming, a set metrical pattern is not necessary, but it often adds to the quality of a poem, again, if you do it well.  So try to get a consistent metrical pattern where all the lines, or only certain ones, have the same metrical length or at least the same rhythm.  You do not need to use any sort of standard rhythm or meter, though those are standard because they tend to be easier or more natural for most speakers in a language.  You may have some other rhythmic pattern that is more natural for you in general, or that seems more appropriate for, or seems to flow out of, the particular poem you are working on.

15) Revise and perfect, by looking at each draft you finish, seeing whether you can improve the ideas, the flow of the words, the metrical pattern, whether you can add internal rhyme with a well-chosen synonym or re-arrangement of word order, or in some other way, whether you need to say more, or less, whether you need to be more explicit, or perhaps more cryptic and enigmatic, etc., etc., etc. 

16) If you are really industrious or curious, write a different version of the poem (or look at beginning to do this) with a different rhyme scheme to see how that makes it different in other ways as well, seeing whether and how the rhyming pattern affects other aspects of the poem.

17) When you think you have written it about as well as you either can or care to at the moment, you are done.

 Rick Garlikov

My Sister
Here I sit, full of gloom,
All alone in my very own room;
It's enough to make me weep...
And all because of that little creep
And to the conclusions that my mother does leap.
Sister is a rotten, horrid child,
And that is just putting it very mild.
She is bad to a great extent
But it's my reputation that is getting bent.
Little sisters are a real big pain;
She ruins my homework after I've racked my brain.
She bothers me when I have a guest
And always acts like a royal pest.
Once she spilled a chocolate malt
Then told mom it was all my fault.
Around others she would never spat
But around me the brat is a rat.
Whenever we get into a fight
I'm in the doghouse the rest of the night.
That's the problem with being old;
When there is trouble, you get the scold
When someone young is such a success
At doing all she can to make a mess.

But wait! I won't be sad; instead I'll be glad
'Cause now I'm mad at my dumb sister
And her little butt I'm going to blister.
This house will no longer be so wild...
Because...I'm going to become an only child!

(Return to text.)


A rhyme scheme is generally the pattern of rhyme that a poem has with regard to how the ends of the different lines rhyme, if they do at all.  It is normally designated in English by something that looks like the following:
"aabbcc" would designate that there are six lines (to a verse or stanza) whereby the first two rhyme with each other, the second two rhyme with each other, and the third pair of lines rhyme with each other, but none of the pairs rhyme with the other pairs.  If all the lines rhymed, you might say the rhyme scheme was aaaaaa.
"abab cdcd" would mean that a stanza is four lines long, with the first and third lines ending in a rhyme with each other, and the second and fourth lines ending in a rhyme with each other, but the rhymes are different for the different verses.  If they were the same, it would be designated as abab abab, or if the first and third lines of each verse rhymed, not only with each other in the verse, but with the first and third lines of all the other verses too -- but the second and fourth lines did not -- you would designate it as abab acac adad. 

Limericks have the aabba rhyme scheme: five lines with the first, second, and last rhyming with each other, and the third and fourth rhyming with each other.

There are limitless kinds of patterns.  Standard ones occur because they are common, and sometimes perhaps easiest to write or perhaps most pleasant generally to read or hear.  But there is no moral or aesthetic law that poetry has to have a standard or common rhyme scheme.  (Return to text.)

The end-rhyme pattern in Shakespeare's sonnets (below is the 18th sonnet) is abab cdcd efef gg -- that is, the first and third lines in each stanza rhyme with each other, as do the second and forth, with the last two lines of the poem rhyming with each other, though in this poem none of the pairs of rhymes rhyme with any other pair:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
  So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
  So long lives this and this gives life to thee. (Return to text.)


From Tennyson's "In Memoriam A.H.H."

I sometimes hold it half a sin 
To put in words the grief I feel; 
For words, like Nature, half reveal 
And half conceal the Soul within. 

But, for the unquiet heart and brain, 
A use in measured language lies; 
The sad mechanic exercise, 
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain. 

In words, like weeds, Ill wrap me oer, 
Like coarsest clothes against the cold: 
But that large grief which these enfold 
Is given in outline and no more. 

(Return to text.)


Poems do not need to rhyme. The following is from Tennyson's "Ulysses"

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
(Return to text.)


In Edgar Alan Poe's "The Raven" many of the pairs of lines have internal rhyming between a middle word and the end word, with those words then rhyming with the middle word of the next line as well (emphasized in bold below, by me, not in the actual poem that way):

1) While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door
2) Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor
3) Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore
4) So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
'Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door
5) But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, 'Lenore!'
6) 'Surely,' said I, 'surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore
7) Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door
8) Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, 'art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore
There are at least nine more such pairs of lines with this rhyme scheme, though the end-rhyme scheme of the stanzas in the poem is abcbbb, dbebbb, fbgbbb, hbibbb, etc. -- all the "b's" rhyming with each other, and with "more".  The pattern and quality of rhyming in this poem is, I think, exceptional.  (Return to text.)


Reset June 11, 2000