From "Does Slant Rhyme with Can't?"
Does Slant Rhyme with Can't?
by Rod Miller
First off, a confession. I know nothing about poetry. My schooling in the subject is, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. No doubt I had to study some long-since-forgotten poems in the course of my public education, but I managed to make it all the way through school, including college, without ever enrolling in or attending any classes in poetry or other kinds of creative writing.
But I am a reader and have read a good deal of poetry. And, being the curious sort, have always taken apart poems I like to see if I could figure out what made them work. Curiosity eventually prompted me to see if I could write a poem, and I set out to employ and emulate—even imitate—the techniques and methods used in the making of favorite poems. Along the way, I consulted poetry textbooks and other sources of instruction to learn the lingo of the art.
So, my education is sparse and my technical knowledge of poetics sorely lacking. In fact, much of what I know is likely wrong, and learned poets will no doubt cringe at my ignorance and abuse of the finer points. Nonetheless, I have felt compelled to develop some familiarity with the mechanics of poetry because I believe everyone who aspires to be a poet ought to have a basic awareness of the whys and wherefores. Just as a packer (which I am not) should know (which I don’t) when a sling hitch is called for as opposed to a squaw hitch or a diamond hitch, a poet ought to be conversant with things like metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, symbolism, imagery, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, alliteration, allusion, personification, and the like. Iambs and anapests, pentameter and heptameter are there for the learning, along with arcane forms from grook to clerihew for those who don’t know when to quit.Correspondence and conversation with practicing poets have added to my education (or confusion). Opinions, as you might imagine, vary. Some are strongly held and staunchly defended. The most contentious topics in cowboy poetry circles, in my experience, revolve around rhyme and meter and their use—and absence—in poems. I like rhyme and meter. Most of my poems use rhyme and are somewhat based on metrical patterns. But I like poems that don’t rhyme, too, and have written some of those as well. Already, I feel the heat of rising anger from folks firm in their opinions that if it doesn’t use rhyme and meter it ain’t cowboy poetry. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. End of story. No argument. Rhyme, however, is not synonymous with poetry; rhyme is but one of many characteristics and qualities a poem might include. But telling a story or joke in verse—even if perfectly metered and exactly rhymed—does not make it poetry any more than having four hooves and equine genes makes a jackass a horse.
But that’s a discussion for another day.Many of the poets who insist a poem must rhyme also insist there is one—and only one—acceptable kind of rhyme. Any rhyme that doesn’t conform to their imperative is written off as sloppy, lazy, and not really a rhyme at all. Unfortunately, rhyme is not that simple. Rhyme is usually defined as the use of “corresponding sounds,” and there’s more than one way make a rhyme.
Seven ways, according to one way of counting.
Those seven types of corresponding sounds, or rhymes, are described in some detail under the * at the end. For now, it’s enough to say that there are perfect rhymes (homonyms), strict rhymes (the most familiar kind, like Bob and cob), and five other kinds (reverse rhyme, pararhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance) often lumped together as near, off, or slant rhymes.
There are those who insist that strict rhymes are the only acceptable kind and dismiss slant rhymes out of hand. Poets who use slant rhyme, they say, need to get over their sloppiness and work harder. The very words “slant rhyme” are sometimes spit out with the kind of disgust reserved for things truly bitter and distasteful. Real poets, they say, do not resort to such lowborn practices. When it comes to making rhymes, they say, “slant” rhymes with “can’t,” and if you want to be a cowboy poet, you can’t slant.
Furthermore, those with such beliefs are often so firm in their opinions that they mistake them for commandments from on high or immutable laws, and will dismiss a poem for using slant rhyme and for no other reason.Those opinions about slant rhyme, unfortunately, do not correspond with the facts.
Slant rhyme is, in fact, a legitimate technique long employed by English-language poets, including those who use cowboy lingo. Easy to say—but who sez? Well, pull the slack out of your cinch and take a deep seat. The following list of examples should be convincing enough (to poorly paraphrase Charles Badger Clark) that a native of Missouri will own the claim is fair.
Since the sin of sloppy rhyming is often laid at the feet of “contemporary” poets, no living poet is included among these examples. The examples do, however, include cowboy poets widely considered to be some of the finest the genre has to offer—Bruce Kiskaddon, Curley Fletcher, S. Omar Barker, Charles Badger Clark, and other creators of the “classics” of cowboy poetry. I don’t know about you, but I hesitate to label any of these poets as lazy, sloppy, deaf, or dumb. Yet they all employed slant rhyme in their writing. And not, I suspect, by mistake—rather by design, intent, and with knowledge aforethought.
Let’s start this short ride down the slippery slope of slant rhyme with one of the most prolific of the traditional poets, Anonymous. The rhyme scheme in the classic poem “The Zebra Dun” follows an a-a-b-b pattern of rhyming couplets in four-line stanzas. The writers of the poem, whoever they may be, used slant rhymes in both couplets of the first stanza, rhyming Cimarron with some, then around with town:
We were camped on the plains at the head of the Cimarron
When along came a stranger who stopped to arger some.
He looked so very foolish that we began to look around,
We thought he was a greenhorn that had just ’scaped from town.
Slant rhymes are sprinkled liberally throughout the rest of the poem, including smear and share, Santa Fe with 7-D, sleeves with please, wild and mile.
Another poem whose authorship is lost in the dim past is the saloon shootout story “Silver Bells & Golden Spurs.” The rhyme scheme here is the traditional a-b-c-b ballad pattern, with the added treat of an internal c in the third line. Notice this slant rhyme from the poem’s fifth stanza:
They seemed to jingle merrily
To a tune that brought him luck,
But they rang the bell for the man that fell
When the dandy rang them up.
“D-2 Horse Wrangler” by D.J. O’Malley involves a more complex rhyme pattern in its eight line stanzas: a-a-a-b-c-c-c-b. In the last four lines of the fifth stanza, O’Malley starts a rhyme sequence with ground and around, then finishes it off with a slant rhyme, down:
When I got on he left the ground
Jumped up in the air and turned around.
I busted the earth as I came down,
It was a terrible fall.
A similar slant is used in the seventh stanza, with around sandwiched between down and town:
I’ve traveled up and I’ve traveled down,
I’ve traveled this country all around,
I’ve lived in the city, I’ve lived in town,
And I have this much to say:
Gail Gardner’s “The Sierry Petes” (also known as “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail”) is a popular, oft-recited classic. Note the soft slant rhyme of two and view in the second stanza:
Oh, they taken their hosses and runnin’ irons
And maybe a dawg or two,
An’ they ’lowed they’d brand all long-yered calves,
That come within their view.
“The Dude Wrangler,” also by Gail Gardner, uses a rope-broke slant rhyme in the third stanza:
He savvied all about wild cattle
And he was handy with a rope.
For a gentle well-reined pony,
Just give me one that he had broke.
Carlos Ashley’s “Ol’ Edgar Martin” rhymes then with in in its third stanza:
He growed up in these post oak hills, a-huntin’ fox and coon—
Hell, I can hear his ol’ houn now a-bayin’ at the moon
While boy and dog come down this flat—there warn’t much town here then—
Yeh, Edgar had a world o’ range to run them varmints in.
Curley Fletcher wrote a number of classic cowboy poems, the most famous probably being “The Strawberry Roan,” which includes a slant rhyme in the fifth stanza:
Sez he, "Get yure saddle, I'll give yuh a chance,"
So I gets in his buckboard an' drifts tuh his ranch.
Here’s the fifth stanza of Fletcher’s “The Cowboy’s Prayer”:
The cowboy said, “Let’s have a drink,
We’ll forget about our war.
Well, sure, let’s have another one
And then we’ll have one more.”
Other uses of slant rhyme by Curley Fletcher appear in “The Ridge-Running Roan.” First stanza:
He was fleet as a deer and as tough as a mule,
Pretty as a picture and nobody’s fool.
Well, I got him home and into the corral,
I fed him some hay and some oats for a spell.
I got a deep seat and I froze to the cantle,
I jabbed in my meat hooks clear up to the handle.
S. Omar Barker is considered by many to be the finest writer to pen cowboy poems. He was equally accomplished in writing Western fiction and magazine articles, with thousands of publications to his credit. His holiday appeal to heaven, “A Cowboy's Christmas Prayer,” uses slant rhyme to pair Lord with Word in its opening lines:
I ain't much good at prayin',
and You may not know me, Lord—
I ain't much seen in churches
where they preach Thy Holy Word
Although Barker often signed his work with his Lazy SOB brand, it is unlikely that laziness is the reason he sometimes relied on slant rhyme, including this one from stanza two of “The Cowgirl at College”:
There is a crispy tang from the sage to smell
And a smack of frost in the wind,
But I must hark to a college bell
That calls to the classroom grind
Smell and bell are, of course, strict rhymes, but in the poem’s a-b-a-b rhyme pattern, wind and grind create a slant rhyme.
Although I admire the work of all the old-time poets whose writing has endured, if I had to pick a favorite it would be Charles Badger Clark. For me, his poetry is in a class by itself owing to its intriguing stories and complex structures, as well as Clark’s unmatched ability to create imaginative metaphors and turn an apt phrase. He, too, employed slant rhyme when it suited his purpose, as in this opening stanza of the well-worn poem “A Border Affair,” which is also a popular song wherever cowboys gather:
Spanish is the lovin’ tongue,
Soft as music, light as spray.
’Twas a girl I learnt it from
Livin’ down Sonora way.
I don’t look much like a lover,
Yet I say her love words over
Often when I’m all alone—
“Mi amor, mi corazon.”
The eight-line stanzas of the poem utilize an a-b-a-b-c-c-d-d rhyme pattern, so the slant rhymes used in this first stanza are tongue-from and lover-over. Clark’s “The Legend of Boastful Bill” is often mentioned as a favorite of readers, reciters, and writers. Note the use of lightnin’s as a slant rhyme in the three-line scheme that comprises the last half of stanza six, especially in light of the fact that Clark could have easily made a strict rhyme simply by using “lightnin’” as a singular word rather than the plural form. He chose not to:
I have kept my talent hidin’;
I’m too good for earthly ridin’
And I’m off to bust the lightnin’s,—
Like “A Border Affair,” Clark’s lyrical “Ridin’” has earned a place in the cowboy tradition as a song as well as a poem. In the third stanza, wind with its short “i” sound and the long “i” in find make a slant rhyme:
When my feet is in the stirrups
And my hawse is on the bust,
With his hoofs a-flashin’ lightinin’
From a cloud of golden dust,
And the bawlin’ of the cattle
Is a-comin’ down the wind
Then a finer life than ridin’
Would be mighty hard to find.
Whenever and wherever cowboy poets meet, Bruce Kiskaddon is revered and remembered. Known as the cowboy’s cowboy poet because of the authenticity of his portrayal of the life, he wrote a wealth of poems in the first half of the twentieth century that have been widely published and performed ever since. He, too, used slant rhyme when appropriate—and even went beyond slant rhyme—as in the mountain-wind pairing in the opening lines of “Between the Lines”:
There’s something I’m not forgetting,
But it’s something I could not say.
I could not arrange the setting
And the scene, in the proper way.
The air of desert and mountain,
The smoke of the far out camp,
The whispering of the night wind
And the picketed horse’s tramp.
Here’s a slant-rhyming couplet from the fourth stanza of “The Cowboy’s Shirt Tail”:
And besides, he gits rassled and tussled around
Till the best behaved shirt tail won’t hardly stay down.
And the second stanza of “How a Cow Puncher Rode” features the same pair of words, and follows that couplet with another slant rhyme in short-sorts.
Of course, most of the hands that was workin’ around,
Would ride with long stirrups, and straight up and down.
Some rode with ’em medium, some with ’em short.
In fact, there was stirrups and len’ths of all sorts.
Kiskaddon’s humorous tale of “The Midwinter Bath” also kicks off with a reckon-bakin’ slant rhyme in the first stanza:
I’m home plenty early, I reckon—
It’s too soon to start cookin’ grub,
So before I begin with my bakin’
I’ll take me a bath in that tub.
There are more—many more—examples of slant rhyme as used by these and other classic cowboy poets. They’re there for the finding if you’re willing to look and listen and pay attention. But the point has been made. It cannot be denied that slant rhyme is and long has been a legitimate rhyming technique used by the very best cowboy poets. (Unless, that is, you’re so hidebound in your contrary opinions that even indisputable facts are unconvincing.)
To sum up, rhyme serves the same purpose as any other tool at a poet’s disposal—that of illuminating the expression of a thought or idea, or the telling of a tale using an exceptional level of language. The rhyme should serve the poem, not vice-versa.
Repeating for emphasis: The rhyme should serve the poem, not vice-versa.
To sacrifice a higher form of expression just to satisfy the desire for a strict rhyme seems sinful—a sin the best poets resist when circumstances require, as the above examples attest. A slant rhyme that serves its purpose, it appears obvious, is often stronger than a strict rhyme.
By the same token, slant rhyme that fails to lift a poem to loftier heights of language is every bit as useless as a poorly made strict rhyme. Slant rhyme is not a license to be sloppy, nor is it an excuse to be lazy. Nor does it relieve the poet of the responsibility to edit, rewrite, revise, buff, and polish a poem to its brightest luster; to make it sparkle and shine until it lights up the eyes—and hearts and minds—of readers or hearers. Only then, I think, does a piece of writing rise to a level where it is worthy to be called poetry.
In the end, we’re all entitled to our opinions, assuming they are informed opinions. But none of us is entitled to issue our opinions as edicts, and we’re certainly not entitled to expect anyone else to live up to our expectations of what is and is not acceptable in an artistic endeavor as subjective as poetry. To my way of thinking, there are only two kinds of poems: good ones, and those that could be better.
I confess a belief, though, that much of what is presented as cowboy poetry isn’t poetry at all—it’s just jokes and sentimental stories set to rhyme and meter (or not) with little thought, it seems, to careful word selection, inspired phrasing, relationships among sounds and rhythms, subtext and secondary meanings, imagery, allusion, and such like.
But that’s just my opinion—and you know my opinion on opinions.
*Categorizing rhymes relies on three parts of an English language word or syllable: the Initial sound, the Vowel sound, and the Final sound. The parts are identified hereafter as I, V, F. The kinds of rhymes are identified according to corresponding sounds in these three places, individually and in combination. “Bob” will show us how the taxonomy works.
I is a rhyme in the initial sound, as in Bob and Bill. Such correspondence in initial sounds, particularly with consonants, is called alliteration.
V, or correspondence in the vowel sound: Bob and mom. This is also called assonance.
F or final-sound rhymes like Bob and tab, are called consonance when the sounds are consonants.
IV , known as reverse rhyme, is created by rhyming both the initial and the vowel sounds, as in Bob and bog.
IF rhyme occurs when the initial and final sounds correspond, as in Bob and bib. Also called pararhyme.
VF, or strict rhyme, consists of rhyming the vowel and final sounds, such as Bob and cob.
IVF requires correspondence of sound in all three locations: Bob and bob; called rich rhyme, perfect rhyme, or a homonym.
© 2005, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry.
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