Tag Archives: poetry

“The rhyme scheme is scattered throughout the poem.”

I’m sorry, but if it’s scattered, it ain’t a scheme.

The two words may actually occupy the same page of a dictionary (they do in my Webster’s), but, despite Zelda Gilroy’s belief, propinquity does not make a relationship.

“A systematic or organized framework; a plan” is how Webster’s defines “scheme.” All the other definitions, dependent as they are on context, still share that central idea of planning and structure (even when the planning is “crafty or secret,” as in “The brokers devised an investment scheme crafted entirely of regulatory loopholes…”).

“To scatter,” on the other hand, means “to fling away heedlessly; to distribute irregularly; to sow by casting in all directions; to divide into ineffectual small portions; to occur or fall irregularly or at random.” You can scatter chopped pecans over the apple-pie filling, but that lattice crust is a scheme.

I evidently set my students up for failure when it comes to talking about poetry. They would like to cut to the chase, starting right off with pronouncements like “I think what the poem is trying to say is to never give up!” But I insist that they begin the discussion of any poem by noting its title, its length, and its structure—the way a musician takes note of the clef, key, and meter before launching into the concerto. I know they’ve had lessons on rhyme and meter in high school, but I scrupulously review those things, and also present examples of the major traditional forms. I review definitions. I even have a little game I play with them to try to get them to hear different metrical forms. And still I have a number of students who can’t even tell the difference between “rhyme” and “rhythm” (okay, they look alike, but so do “Mother” and “Mothra” and I’ll bet most people don’t confuse them), let alone “meter” and “rhythm.”

So what’s going on here is that my student is conscientiously looking for a rhyme scheme but isn’t quite sure what that means.

She may be looking at a piece of blank or free verse, in which case she’ll never find that scheme. Or perhaps it’s a poem by Dylan Thomas such as “Poem in October,” where rhymes may be pure ( turning/burning), or in some way imperfect (heaven/heron/beckon; wood/rook/foot; chapels/parables), or very nearly perfect (snail/tales). Or, heaven help her, she may be looking at a regularly-rhymed poem (Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example). She just isn’t sure what it is, or how to hear it. But, she assures us, there’s rhyming going on somewhere.

When I decided in the ninth grade that I would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature for my poetry (still waiting, by the way, Oslo!), my notion of poetry was guided to a great extent by my then-favorite poet, e.e. cummings, and my sketchy understanding of what he was doing. My words were all lower-case, and the words themselves were “scattered” all over the page. If they were willing to behave in a more pedestrian manner, as sometimes happened, they were still simple and beautiful (no fancy vocabulary or references to mundane things like cars or school or airplanes). But, although cummings frequently rhymes, I cast that off with the ankle socks of childhood (all my poems rhymed when I was a child, but I was determined to put off childish things). And of course, everything I wrote was actually a soul-spill, heart-cry, my endlessly fascinating adolescent emotions making their way onto paper the way I would walk: one foot after the other, one word after the other. I had not yet fallen in love with structure, and so I wasn’t particularly interested in, or curious about, it.

Most of my students seem to think that writing is largely a matter of one word after the other, and they want to start with the first word and stagger ever forward. What happens in the course of writing, then, has a certain random, or at least ad hoc, quality, and they assume that’s the way it is for everyone. No surprise, then, to find them stating that “the themes of love and death are littered all over the work” or “an example of how there is no rhyme scheme can be found anywhere.

It’s all chance. Maybe if you plan to rely on chance, the result is a scattered scheme?