“Speak like rain!”

dinesen

There’s a famous passage from Out of Africa where Isak Dinesen introduces some Kikuyu tribesmen to poetry and its ability to rhyme. She writes the following:

The Natives, who have a strong sense of rhythm, know nothing of verse, or at least did not know anything before the times of the schools, where they were taught hymns. One evening out in the maize-field, where we had been harvesting maize, breaking off the cobs and throwing them on to the ox-carts, to amuse myself, I spoke to the field laborers, who were mostly quite young, in Swahili verse. There was no sense in the verses, they were made for the sake of rime–“Ngumbe na-penda chumbe, Malaya mbaya. Wakamba na-kula mamba.” The oxen like salt–whores are bad–The Wakamba eat snakes. It caught the interest of the boys, they formed a ring around me. They were quick to understand that meaning in poetry is of no consequence, and they did not question the thesis of the verse, but waited eagerly for the rime, and laughed at it when it came. I tried to make them themselves find the rime and finish the poem when I had begun it, but they could not, or would not, do that, and turned away their heads. As they had become used to the idea of poetry, they begged: “Speak again. Speak like rain.” Why they should feel verse to be like rain I do not know. It must have been, however, an expression of applause, since in Africa rain is always longed for and welcomed.

As a writer of poetry, I cannot deny the music of poetry and know full well that there are poets who value the sound aspect in verse as much as or more than the visual and meaningful aspects. I engage in alliteration and assonance early and often, too, when I write poetry, but rhyme? What is it about rhyme? For some reason, I give it a wide berth, as if it were some beautiful Siren song surrounded by a shore of bones.

This reluctance to play with rhyme is odd, considering we are brought up on rhyming poems as children. My students, in fact, even at age 14, prefer rhyming poems to free verse (the meat and potatoes of my writing regime). It’s a stubborn thing, hardwired into our musical brains.

Perhaps fear of rhyming is the “Hallmark effect,” as some have dubbed the sing-songy writing in greeting cards where roses are often red and violets are often blue. Or the gaudy allure of limericks. Or the refrain-happy repetition of rhyme in the songs of popular music. To some, it looks “cheap,” but clearly it isn’t, not when it is used by the likes of Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, William Wordsworth, A.E. Housman, etc.

The only thing for it is to experiment. Rhyming where it doesn’t seem to be noticed, yet has the reader unconsciously tapping her foot, maybe. If not exact rime, then slant rime, maybe, as training wheels on the way to greater fluency.

What about you, as a reader and / or writer of poetry. Do you love rhyme? Do you find it too self-consciously “poetic”? I know this: We all like rain. It’s speaking like rain that’s the challenge, and perhaps a worthy one.

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