Exploiting the anticipated rhyme

People will sometimes set their audience up to anticipate a particular rhyme and then fail to deliver. This is usually done in a pretty unsubtle way for comic effect either by cutely not cussing (“Ra ra ree, kick ’em in the knee! Ra ra rass, kick ’em in the other knee!”) or by pretending to be too dumb to think of the obvious rhyme (“I’m a poet and I didn’t realize it”). This can be entertainingly clever at times, but it’s not exactly poetry. But can the basic idea be used in a subtler, more poetic way?

Moving up the scale just a little bit, we have this line from the They Might Be Giants song “Kiss Me, Son of God”:

Now you’re the only one here who can tell me if it’s true
That you love me and I love me

Still pretty unsubtle, but it’s a step up from “Roses are red / violets are blue / Some poems rhyme / But this one doesn’t.” It doesn’t subvert the rhyme just for the sake of subverting the rhyme; instead, the dissonant unexpected non-rhyme is used to express an dissonant unexpected thought. However, it’s so heavy-handed that it still registers as a gag, not poetry.

But consider this example, from the Moxy Früvous song “Down from Above”:

Your mother made you cry
When she told you about the womb
And how people die
Watching over you when you were young
Smiling when you learned to crawl
You don’t know her at all

This one is subtle enough that you probably don’t consciously notice the subverted rhymes at all. I think they’re there, though, and are at work at a subconscious level to make the verse more satisfying. When the second line ends with “womb,” it sets you up to expect the usual rhyme, “tomb.” That rhyme is not forthcoming; but the third line, while rhyming with the first, also contains the idea of the tomb that the second line prepared you to subconsciously expect.

There’s something similar at work in the next two lines, though I can’t properly call it a subverted rhyme. “Watching over you when you were…” makes you anticipate “small” at least as much as “young.” “Young” is the word they actually use, but the word “small” has still been primed in your mind, making the next two lines, which rhyme with “small,” more satisfying.

The song is hardly great poetry, but at least it is poetry, not a gag, and demonstrates the legitimately poetic possibilities of this technique of creating anticipations and then subverting them. And, unlike the previous examples, this one doesn’t dissonantly fail to rhyme. On the contrarty, its subverted expectations serve to bind the poem more tightly together.

Finally, here’s an example of my own — just some doggerel I slapped together as an experiment:

The lily and the gentle dove
Remind me of the one I fear.
Yes, I allude to you, my dear,
For I do fear to fall in love.

What do you think? It’s not Shakespeare or anything, but I think it works. First you expect the second line to end with “love,” then the third line, and then the fourth line finally delivers. As in good music, the dissonance is followed by a pleasing resolution. And as in “Kiss Me, Son of God,” the form reflects the content, as the second line uses the unexpected non-rhyme to express an unexpected feeling.

I intend to spend some more time tinkering with this technique, and I would be grateful to any commenters who can point me to other examples of this kind of thing in poetry.

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