Very early one morning, I received a call from an unlisted number. Normally, I wouldn't answer such a call, but it was on my cell phone. It was from a sales clerk at a store I frequent. She had a question: What is the difference between “poetry” and “rhyme”?
Very early one morning, I received a call from an unlisted number. Normally, I wouldn’t answer such a call, but it was on my cell phone. It was from a sales clerk at a store I frequent. She had a question: What is the difference between “poetry” and “rhyme”?
If this sounds fanciful, it’s time to reveal that the call came during those early hours when I am half-asleep, but still dreaming. Normally, I might go tongue-tied if someone popped such a question. But my half-asleep dreams are usually positive, so my tongue was ready with an answer.
“Rhyme” is often featured in poetry, though not always, I said. It adds to the musical qualities and often makes certain lines stick in the memory. Of course, not all riming is poetry. The ads and pop lyrics that jingle and jangle in our heads—whether we want them to or not—don’t elevate to the level of poetry. Malcolm Gladwell called them “brain worms,” the lines that have burrowed deep and come forth unsummoned.
At least that’s what I think I said in my dream.
So since rhyme is often a necessarily part of poetry, especially the poetry we call “Classic,” what makes rhyme or rhymeless lines poetry? I would argue it has to do with the quality or extent of experience revealed. The reason we make fun of certain riming songs—moon, June, soon, swoon...loon—is because they contain only the most cliched or tired lines of love.
But rhyme or style can persuade. Ever heard the saying “no rhyme or reason” to express confusion for why something happens? We understand the “reason” part to mean there’s no logical explanation for someone’s actions. But the “rhyme” part seems to indicate that sometimes we will accept fine words and phrases in place of logic.
Novelist E. M. Forester claimed that Charles Dickens could not be considered a full fledged realist because he often “bumped” the reader into belief. By which he meant that though there might be no logic or motivation for a particular event, it was described so well that the language carried the reader past the unlikely coincidence before the reader could think about it. Raymond Chandler, the 1940s mystery writer, claimed that was the valuable lesson he learned from reading Poe and Dickens. We are enticed by the unrolling of lines, the vivid colors of a scene, and are “bumped” to the next page before we know where we’ve been.
Since April is poetry month, celebrating both rhyme and reason, let me indicate some of the events occurring in Shawnee and elsewhere. First, the Oklahoma poetry event, the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival at East Central University, kicks off April 4, featuring Tracy Smith, a national poetry laureate. Dozens of regional writers will read from their work, through Saturday, April 6. More information is available at www.ecuscissortail.blogspot.com.
Ben Myers, former state poet laureate, will read twice in Shawnee: once during the Friends of the Shawnee Library luncheon, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., on April 11; a second time at the monthly poetry open mike session at The Lunch Box, on April 18, from 7 p.m. to whenever.
Finally the Shawnee Public Library will sponsor two events: a Poetry Slam Workshop, April 27, beginning at 11 a.m.; poetry contests for students in grades 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12, with entries due in by April 30. One poem will be selected for the Jim Spurr Poetry Award, named after Shawnee’s most notable poet. Call the library for more information.
I particularly appreciate our Oklahoma poets who create scenes and stories with both style and sense, sometimes even rhyme.
Ben Myers, former state poet laureate, has a new collection focused on life in the Dust Bowl, Black Sunday. I confess I’ve read, heard, and watched so much about that period that I had some apprehensions about his project. But he earns our readership by creating characters and points of view to register individual reactions to what is happening to them: a farm couple, their child, a preacher from the East, a town drunk. Each has a distinct background and thoughts as they struggle through the grinding reality of dust storms and economic loss in the 1930s.
Brent Newsom, Ken Hada, and Jeanetta Mish weave fascinating stories with their poems. All three will be reading at the Scissortail Festival.
In Love’s Labors, we enter Smyrna, overseen by God and Brent Newsom. PFC Mason Buxton, Floyd Fontenot, Patti, Esther and others share dramatic scenes with Newsom’s own expectations of a child. One gets a sense of what it’s like to be born and live one’s life against the backdrop of different families’ stories that circulate and create the character of a small town.
Ken Hada teamed up with his brother, Duane, to realize a dream of Samuel Coleridge, namely to narrate the course of a river, from its springs to its merging with a larger body of water. The River White takes the reader down that river with paintings and short poems, from Boston to the Mississippi. It’s a worthwhile journey.
Finally Jeanetta Mish, our current state poet laureate, remembers her family and Oklahoma roots with Work Is Love Made Visible. Family photos face poems that tell stories that make the pictures more visible. My favorites are the poems dedicated to her grandfather, the sensible advice he would give her, her sister, always away somewhere, and her great-great-grandmother who wrote poems to pass the time at the Busy Bee Cafe.
There are riches in this state, in the form of the poets I have celebrated and many more—Joy Harjo, Nathan Brown and Paul Austin, novelists Rilla Askew, Diane Glancy and Le Anne Howe.
Get out, hear them and read their work!
Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.