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May 27, 2024

Oort Cloud Oddities: Learning Poetry

By Alexandra Queen

Poems should rhyme.

This is not my opinion. I'm not into poetry enough to have opinions about it. This is a law that I am fairly certain is on the books at a federal level. Or maybe I read about it in a physics class. Wherever it's written, I believe it's set down in stone. Right under where it says that violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, up to and including having vegetables thrown at you and receiving scathing reviews in major newspapers. I'm pretty sure I've seen posters on the walls in beat clubs, meadow glades and other places poets frequent, stating, "If it doesn't rhyme, you'll be doing time" and "Vers libre doesn't pay".

A friend of mine disagrees. She has been working very patiently at the task of educating me on the topic of poetry. Considering the last poem that impressed me was a haiku in which our friend Audie used the phrase "mice terd" as a pun to explain why a condiment store was shut down by the Health Department, this was no small project. Rumor has it that Sisyphus was offered this task and chose to stick with his rock. But week after week, Cheryl gamely tries to point out to me structure, nuance, device and allegory.

"This doesn't rhyme. Why couldn't he have just made it a paragraph and called it a short essay?" I demand as we read "The Monks of St. John's File in for Prayer," by Kilian McDonnell.

Patiently, Cheryl explains. "The shorthand descriptions are perfectly suited to poetry, but would be too little in a long prose sentence. Then the temptation would be to provide more description, and you would lose the sense, both visual and temporal, of the men filing past."

There is a long pause, after which I shake myself and say, "What?"

Sighing, Cheryl translates into English. "Shut up." This I understand perfectly.

"I don't feel comfortable reading poems," I informed her the other day. "I have heard that when a friend pressures you into doing something you know is illegal, you should just say no."

"Poems aren't illegal," she frowned at me.

"They are if they don't rhyme."

"Alex, that's not illegal."

I looked down my nose at her. "Are you telling me it's okay to violate the laws of God, so long as there are no specific city statutes against the act?"

"What does God have to do with this?"

"I'm pretty sure He doesn't like poetry that doesn't rhyme."

Cheryl looked at me, then raised a hand to tick off on her fingers: "Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Lamentations, plus parts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and a bunch of the Minor Prophets. All contained poems that, in the original Hebrew, had no real intentional rhymes."

"Ah HAH!" I crowed. "But when translated into English, thousands of years later, they DID!"

Cheryl looked at me again with an expression similar to pity. "No."

I was at a loss for words. "Does God know about this?"

She sighed. "Look, repeat after me: a poem does not have to rhyme."

"A poem does not have to rhyme," I mumbled reluctantly just as my husband, John, walked into the room.

"What?" he demanded, the newspaper in his hands all but forgotten.

"I'm just trying to show Alex that there's more to poetry than 'Mary had a little lamb'."

John stared at her for a long moment, then looked over at me. "Honey, I'll never try to tell you what to do, but if I come home and find those little word magnets on the fridge spelling out, 'flowering souls kiss sky', I'm staging an intervention."

"Sounds a little like Hendrix," Cheryl hmmed.

"I beg your pardon?" John looked outraged.

"'Flowering souls kiss sky. It's a little reminiscent of "Scuse me while I kiss the sky' from..."

"I know what song that lyric is from," John said coldly. "And I assure you, Purple Haze rhymed. You, madam, are on my list." He turned back to me. "I trust you, Alex, but I will not have free verse in the house with our two-year-old. I don't want to have to explain to CPS what Lillian is doing chewing on a volume of e.e. cummings."

"Approaching it with the same level of sophistication as her mother," Cheryl muttered under her breath.

"Look, maybe we should call it for tonight," I said, getting up and ushering her towards the door. "I have to work tomorrow, and I want to have all the Whitman out of my system by then."

"Make sure the cops don't catch her with an open volume of 'The Cadences of Free Verse' in the car," my husband called in from the kitchen. "She could lose her license."

Cheryl bid me a courteous good-bye, muttering, "The only thing I'm going to lose is my mind. From talking to you people."

"Baby, I'm a little worried about you," John said as I waved goodbye and closed the door.

"It'll be okay," I reassured him. Cheryl might not see anything wrong with free verse, but deep in my heart, I know that a rhyme is a terrible thing to waste.

Comments and rhymed poetry to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.

This article first appeared in the August 28, 2004 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-10-09
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