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Uneven Rhymes: You Gotta Get the Beat!

Pentameter, shmentameter.  Don’t ask me about catalectic feet or  spondees. I am not a scholarly poet. I am a self-taught rhyming fool, and what I’ve learned about meter and rhyme is the result of many years of trial and error, of juggling words, of counting syllables on my fingers, of reading aloud, of listening for the beat.

In my previous guest post on Janice Hardy’s blog, I spoke of rhythm and pattern in a picture book. Many readers commented how they loved seeing my before and after rhymes. And so, I will share with you (gah!) more rough verses that I reworked. These are from my book, Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone? about  a dog who, offended at being scolded,  runs away and has some misadventures before returning safely home to its owner. I wrote it in 1994. I think I could do a better job now 🙂

Here is the traditional verse. The accented syllables (downbeats) are in bold type:

Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone?

Oh where, oh where can he be?

With his ears cut short and his tail cut long,

Oh where, oh where can he be?

This was my first draft of the second verse:

Maybe I shouldn’t have scolded him when

He chewed a hole in my shoe,

But I had to teach my dog right from wrong.

What else was I going to do?

Notice how the accent falls on the second syllable in “maybe”. That’s not how we pronounce the word. It should be maybe. In this case, simply substituting perhaps did the trick: Perhaps I shouldn’t have scolded him when…

The rest of the lines worked rhythmically except “going to” which has an extra syllable. It should match the “can he” of the original verse. “Gonna” would have worked better, but both my editor and I opted to leave “going to”, as it’s better English and  the extra syllable tends to roll off the tongue. We felt the verse worked well enough, though I had other options:

It’s what I needed to do.

It was the best thing to do.

He needed training, it’s true.

You can always say it differently.

Here’s another ruff draft:

Downtown was crowded and busy that day,

And noisy as it could be.

“I can’t relax here,” the little dog thought.

“This town life isn’t for me.”

Doggone it! Same problem in “downtown” as in “maybe.” Accents on the wrong syllables.

In the third line, again, the accent is misplaced in “relax.” The latter half of the verse is a complete mess. Even though I have the right amount of syllables (10) as in the line “With his ears cut short and his tail cut long,” the accents are in all the wrong places.

 ” I can not relax. It is much too loud “ would have worked better,with the downbeats on “not” and “much,” but I decided to revamp the entire verse to:

He took a bus that was headed for town.

A tourist he thought he’d be.

But he never got past the rushing crowds  Aack!

And not one sight did he see.

Neither I or my editor got the beat in the third line. That is the version that ended up in the book and it’s off – especially “never” ( I cringe at some of my early writing and art…)

But he lost his way in the rushing crowds would have been better. 

It’s a learning process.

Want to hear another?

Next he decided to go to the beach.

He heard the ocean was grand.  

But the water was salty, the sun too hot.

His ears got all full of sand. 

Again, that first line was problematic. The downbeat is on “he” and in a conversation it would be on “next.” I have a bone to pick with the third line too. It has an extra syllable and that throws it all off.  See it next to the traditional line:

With his ears cut short and his tail cut long.

But the water was salty, the sun too hot.

Lines 2 and 4 weren’t great either. The meter was fine but the rhymes were forced. “Grand” would not have been my first choice of words, but I used it because it rhymed with “sand.” Omitting the “all” in the fourth line would have been preferable, but I needed it for the meter.

Here’s the revised, more exciting version that went into the book:

So next he thought he would surf in the sea.

He’d never tried it before.

But a giant wave knocked him off his feet,

And threw him back to the shore.

Rhyming is hard work. I really struggled with this book, though I worked with dogged determination. But reviewing it now, eighteen years later, I realize how much I have learned and improved.

Uneven rhymes are an editor’s worse nightmare. It’s crucial to maintain consistency in the meter from verse to verse. And it’s not just a matter of reading the lines, even aloud, for we poets are notorious for making our rhymes sound good. And as the verses progress we get lost and our minds and mouths trick us. When constructing a new poem, I highlight the downbeats in my manuscript in bold type, like I did here. It helps me to see discrepancies. I count the syllables and mark them in the first verse and compare it to my subsequent verses.  It’s a creative, puzzle-solving, challenging yet exhilarating process. If I am too stuck on a line or verse, I throw it out and write a new one. If it’s a verse I can’t bear to part with because it’s clever or beautiful to me, I save it in a file and maybe reuse it somewhere else.

You can always say it differently.

What do you think? Do you get the beat, baby? Do you have anything to ask, to add? I’d be delighted to hear from you, no bones about it!

Chow for now!

 

About the author

Iza Trapani I am a children's book author and illustrator, fan of Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss, lover of big dogs, aspiring yodeler. When not in my studio, I spend time outdoors and have climbed over many a mountain to see what I could see.

37 Responses to Uneven Rhymes: You Gotta Get the Beat!

  1. ania krasinski says:

    It’s great to see ones progress in black and white!

  2. Iza Trapani says:

    Thanks, Aniu! xox

  3. Laura Sassi says:

    I love seeing your thought process and can totally relate to your comment that you sometimes cringe at your earliest rhyming efforts. As a passionate rhymer, I, too, sometimes have the urge to tighten and change my earliest works. Our efforts at rhythm and rhyme only improve with time. Still, I LOVE the process. I think writing rhyming poems is a lot like putting a puzzle together – all the pieces have to fit just right.

  4. Loved this second look into your process – keep ’em coming! And I am one of those famous for letting myself off the hook for uneven rhyme…and making it “sound good” in a video! 🙂 I started doing the numbering thing, too, but usually I just count on my fingers (kind of like how I do math).

    Honestly, some of the lines you pointed out were just fine in my brain, even if they veered from the original pattern. You are a serious task master!

    How fascinating to look at this 18 years later, and I can imagine you’d want to change things…but I cringe when I look at something from three weeks ago! It is nice, however, to go back and recognize your own improvement.

    Most interesting, dear Iza!

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Renee, your rhymes are so even and wonderful! No need to worry! And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who still counts on her fingers 🙂

  5. Elizabeth Stevens Omlor says:

    Oh man! I just don’t get it yet! Rhyme stresses me out. I feel slightly tone deaf. I think I need a cocktail. Well, I loved that you have seen yourself improve. There is hope for me yet. I have a question. How do you feel about non-exact rhyme? For example…navy and baby? I have a ms, where the words have the same number of syllables (phew!) but there are some rhymes that are non-exact. I am very curious. 🙂 Chow!

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Rhyme can be stressful, because of its constraints. You are locked into a pattern you can’t stray from. Counting syllables helps, but even more importantly, hearing the pulse of the poem and making sure the downbeats are on the right syllable for the word. As for near rhymes, I think it’s fine to have a couple here and there, and it’s even good for children to have an example of one. I have used “town” and “around.” Many poets including Emily Dickinson used near rhymes (from her poem, Hope is the Thing with Feathers):
      Hope is the thing with feathers
      That perches in the SOUL,
      And sings the tune without the words,
      And never stops at All.

      On the other hand, some editors may be sticklers for perfect rhymes. I had one that made me change “trough” and “enough.” I’d say, try to keep them to a minimum, and rememmber- you can always say it differently 🙂

  6. Cathy Mealey says:

    Iza you always delight me with puns, aka “Here’s another ruff draft”

    What I particularly admire about your work is the way you succeed despite the constraints imposed in the rhyme by the melodies that accompany your text. Oh that’s too wordy! I mean, as I sing along with your new verses, it is simple for me to emphasize the sylLAble that corresponds to the musical beat. If I didn’t know the tune it might be easier to hear an inconsistency. How do you separate the two as you revise your work?

    Cheers!

  7. Iza Trapani says:

    Some people may hate me for it, but I just love puns! Thanks, Cathy 🙂 That’s a great question. As I compose the verses/lyrics, I don’t really separate them. I recite them and sing them aloud and, you are right, sometimes I do hear discrepancies in one and not the other. And that’s when I double-check. The downbeats should be the same, so people who don’t know the tune should be able to recite it comfortably. However, I usually sing my books at storytime events but, on occasion, I will opt to read them and it feels a little stilted. I’m not sure I quite understand this! My editor and I have concurred that the rhymes are even. I think it might have to do with my instinct to want to sing.

    • That’s interesting about feeling that the rhymes are stilted when you speak them but not when you sing them. I think it all has to do with how the vowel sounds are arranged. If you look at the original:

      With his EARS cut SHORT and his TAIL cut LONG

      All of the downbeats have long (or close enough to long) vowel sounds, which, when sung, glide easily into the short vowel sounds that are interspersed between them. And ALL of the unstressed words have short vowel sounds, so overall there is a very distinct rhythm.

      And then look at yours:

      But I HAD to TEACH my dog RIGHT from WRONG

      Here, three of the downbeats have long vowel sounds, but long /i/ is harder to say/sing and doesn’t flow as well as other long vowels. Plus there is one short vowel in there. In the unstressed words, there are three long vowels, so we don’t get that staccato break we get in the original.

      I’m not saying all the vowel sounds have to match in every stanza, of course – we’d never finish a single poem! But perhaps that’s part of why it feels easier to sing than to speak.

      This is fun! 🙂

      • Iza Trapani says:

        This is very interesting, Renee. You just taught me something! Those small nuances could make a big difference. I understand it in my singing but now I have to think about it as I construct the poems. You’re right, task master that I am, I will now never finish a poem!

      • Cathy Mealey says:

        Yes, I think that’s it! I’ve been puzzling over this all day, and am glad I came back to read Iza’s response and your clarification. It helps me – thank you!

  8. Catalectic feet? Is that like “The fog crept in on little catalectic feet?” 🙂

    Boy was this eye-opening! Because I’ll have you know I read your original verses right off and they sounded fine to me and worked perfectly, and it wasn’t until you pointed out how they were wrong that I realized I’d adjusted my reading automatically to make it work, even in a first read-through. And if I do that with someone else’s unfamiliar words, I can be darn sure I’m doing it even worse with my own 🙂 Never heard of spondees but trying to fix my verse might make me de-spondee-ent 🙂

  9. Iza Trapani says:

    Susanna, I have no idea what spondees or catalectic feet are. I found the words in a glossary of poetry terms and liked the way they sounded, and I did read the meanings but swoosh-right out of my head they went. That’s why I can never be a scholarly poet. Limited storage capacity in this little brain 🙂 I bet Renee knows 🙂

    • Haha. Susanna is funny. I know SOME things, but I would not like to get into a conversation with poetry scholars AT ALL. I studied all that stuff as an undergrad poetry major, but then it went WHOOSH right outta my brain, too. Hey, knowing the name for it doesn’t make you do it any better!

  10. Darshana says:

    Thank you Iza. That was a fabulous post, I enjoyed hearing your thoughts. I will be bookmarking this post for reference. One quick question, what exactly is a downbeat and how do you figure out where they are?

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Thanks Darshana! The downbeat is the accented word or syllable. The accents/downbeats are in capitals:
      Oh WHERE oh WHERE has my LITtle dog GONE
      Do you hear it? It’s like a waltz and the downbeat is on 1. 2 and 3 are unstressed.

  11. I liked the original verses. *sigh* Does that mean I’m hopeless?? I mean it sounded wonderful when I read it. After reading about the accent and the forced rhyme, I do love the revised much more exciting version better. But I have to wonder, “Is it because you told me I should?” Or do I truly understand this rhyming jazz more than I thought? I laughed at Susanna’s comment, but I’m feelin’ de-spondee-ent right now. Iza, my bbf, how can we be sure a rhyme is forced? It might sound wonderful to me and still be a forced rhyme. Does that just come with practice?

    xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo Smooch!

  12. Lori Degman says:

    Iza, what a great idea to show how you fix your rhythm! I go through pretty much the same process as you – listen and count . . . I also went to the same rhyming school you did 🙂

    Would you mind if I borrow your idea and do this on my blog with one of my stories?

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Hi Lori, Well looks like you did well in our rhyming school! Of course you are free to do something like this on your blog. I look forward to reading it and so nice of you to ask!

  13. Tina Cho says:

    I’m amazed that after 18 yrs you remember the old vs the new! Either way, my kids enjoy this book, which we had won from Renee’s drawing. Thanks for sharing your struggles and advice to get the accent beats correct!

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Thanks so much, Tina! I saved copies of my original drafts. I’m doggone happy you enjoy the book and so nice to see you here!

  14. Iza trapani says:

    Hi Robyn, bbf!, Don’t fret! I’m sure you understand it more than you think. Maybe “grand” and “sand” may not seem all that forced, but I know “grand” would not have been my first choice of words. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Sometimes forced rhymes will really jump out. And in your own work, you’ll know if you’re just trying to use a word because it’s the only one you could find to rhyme. Mwah!

  15. Hi Iza, I’m writing a bilingual poem (maybe it’s a bad idea), and I must ask: Are there formula beats that I must follow? I hope you don’t mind my brazen question.
    Here is one stanza. One critique partner made the suggestions on the right. She made sure that the accents were in line.

    The pinata swings,
    Its mosaic sings,
    Of colors so bright, Colours bright
    With treasured delight. Dance in light.

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Hi Brenda,
      There are no formula beats. You are free to do what you want but be sure to maintain consistency from verse to verse.

  16. Thank you for the quick response, Iza. You gave me the courage to post my poem on my blog. Just in case you’re curious, it’s at http://www.drawacircle.net. Again, thank you. 🙂

  17. Galit Breen says:

    I LOVE the examples that you gave and hee! Yes, I get the beat! 🙂

  18. Joanna says:

    I finally got around to reading this post, which I saved straight to my poetry folder! Wow the comment conversation has proved as enlightening as the post. I so like the idea of physically highlighting in some way the downbeat and the syllables – gonna do this pronto! Thank you, Iza.

    • iza Trapani says:

      Thanks so much, Joanna. Yes, I am loving the conversation too, and have learned something new- to consider the short and long vowel sounds. Oh boy! Adding to the challenge!

  19. Hi Iza,
    Susanna Leonard Hill suggested I read this post as I’m “trying” to write a rhyming PB. This is exactly the type of information I need. I then popped on over to Janice Hardy’s post that you wrote and I gleaned more wonderful information.
    So thank you for that.
    Tracy 🙂

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Tracy, I am so glad to be of help! And Susanna is wonderful to have sent you here- and thanks also to Janice for featuring me on her blog! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me. Lately, I have been stricken with blogger’s block and just don’t know what to write about! I have come off a highly productive period and now I am both creatively exhausted and full of doubt if I’ll be able to produce again! Anyway, any questions you may have, or if there is anything you’d like me to discuss- I could use a prompt! Good luck with your rhyming- and thanks so much!

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