Poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore, and the people demand an explanation. There should have been a press release. Or a public referendum.

For many of us, a non-rhyming poem resembles a non-alcoholic beer: We don’t know why anyone would bother with it. Or, to borrow from Robert Frost, “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

But rhyme is hardly a necessity for poetry, and many enduring, non-rhyming poems predate tennis, if not beer. Most classical poetry lacks rhyme, as do nearly all Old English poems. Rhyme became a common feature of English poetry only around the time of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, and even then it was often the subject of contentious debate.

In a prefatory note to “Paradise Lost” (1667), John Milton defends his use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter): “rime (is) … the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre …” One success of his poem, as Milton imagined it, was the “ancient (non-rhyming) liberty recovered … from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.” Rhyme was nothing less than linguistic enslavement — but Milton always was a bit grandiose.

Milton’s stance aside, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics — which makes great beach reading — notes, “the first edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse (1900) contains 883 poems, of which only 16 lack rhyme.” But the 20th century would avenge Milton witnessing the ascension of free verse as the choice of unsentimental, unadorned modern poets. Rhyme would become as useful as a horse-drawn carriage.

But that’s not entirely fair either. Rhyme abided and endures through poets’ inventiveness, the need to “make it new” that Ezra Pound demanded of modern poetry. Though many contemporary poems do not rhyme, some of the best new poems enlarge our sense of what rhyme is, and in doing so enlarge our sense of language itself. Consider this section of “Sleeping with One Eye Open” by Mark Strand:

It’s my night to be rattled,
With spooks. Even the half-moon
(Half man,
Half dark), on the horizon,
Lies on
Its side casting a fishy light
Which alights
On my floor, lavishly lording
Its morbid
Look over me.”

Strand’s rhymes do not so much rhyme as echo and, as echoes do, present our own voice to us as if we had meant something else by what we had said, as if we ourselves were somebody else. The rhymes become more than mere verbal adornment; they become sonic manifestations of the worry that keeps the speaker half-awake: “sleeping with one eye open, / Hoping / That nothing, nothing will happen.”

Paul Muldoon’s poem “Quoof” celebrates verbal adornment and language itself as individual invention. Even the title refers to “our family word / for the hot water bottle,” a secret the speaker has revealed over the years to various others, sometimes accepted, sometimes “laid … between us like a sword.” In one instance,

An hotel room in New York City
with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
my hand on her breast
like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti
or some other shy beast
that has yet to enter the language.

Muldoon is so subtle that his rhymes could go unnoticed. It certainly required several readings before realizing that each end word in the poem had a quiet, unlikely rhyming partner.

“English” and “language,” in particular, is so far-fetched a rhyme that I, and many other readers, resist it. That doesn’t rhyme, we protest. But then one speaks the rhyme aloud in order to challenge it — “English,” “language” — one chews through it and hears the aural similarities binding the words. We participate in rhyming as a process to be worked through and we, like the poet, create and recreate our English language as we speak it.

Keep that idea in mind for the first few sentences of Harryette Mullen’s prose poem “Kirstenography:”

K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of remember. She was the fecund chill burn in her famish. She came into the word with a putty smoother, a handsewn
farther, and a yodeler cistern.

These aren’t rhymes in any sense what we’re used to. In fact, the poem doesn’t make sense in any way we’re used to. But rhymes work by establishing relationships between words based on sounds; words that sound alike purely by accident become semantically yoked.

Mullen simply uses a different technique to accomplish the same end. For “burn,” read “born;” for “bend of the ear,” read “end of the year,” and so on. But then go back and read the poem as it’s written, and notice how your own mind “corrects” what’s printed into what you think it should say. The printed page becomes the poem that exists and the poem we imagine instead. No wonder Mullen offers “came into the word” for “came into the world.”

We too come into the world as we come into the word. Rhyme is only one of the ways poets make something new of both.

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