by Jane Morton
Poets, who are wordsmiths, need to be careful craftsmen as much as blacksmiths or carpenters do. A blacksmith doesn't make three good horseshoes and then forge a fourth which doesn't quite work. A carpenter doesn't make three oak legs for a table, and then, because he can't find another piece of oak, make the fourth of maple. By the same token, a poet who writes lines which are supposed to rhyme, needs to make sure they do rhyme. Close doesn't count: green/cream; kick/blink; and down/towns do not rhyme. If you aren't sure about a rhyme, check a rhyming dictionary.
In an early draft of "The Cottonwoods," I had written:
Firefighters came to fight the fire
from all the nearby towns.
By battling flames into the night
they kept the damage down.
I struggled to find another word to rhyme with towns, but I couldn't find one that worked with the rest of the verse. When I thought of using every instead of all in the second line, it worked, because every is singular. Now the line read, from every nearby town, and that solved the problem. Several times I have been able to change a singular word to a plural, or make a plural singular so the rhyme will work.
In an early draft of "Coloring The Horses," I had written:
Most troopers didn't give a hoot
for Custer's color scheme.
They liked the horse they'd ridden with
the black, the brown, the cream.
The problem with give a hoot was that it sounded as if it didn¹t make any difference to the troopers who had to give up their horses. So I changed the line to read: Most troopers didn't care at all. That was a fairly simple change, and I felt satisfied with the verse until I had friends critique it. One suggested that there really weren't cream horses at that time, and if there had been, Custer wouldn't have wanted them in his cavalry, because he was aiming for uniformity. I knew that what she said was true. If I had any doubts, I would have done more research. It had
been easy to think of the word cream, but it wasn't easy to find a replacement. I came up with green, which didn't work, because green would inject humor, and this wasn't a humorous poem. Besides, green doesn't rhyme with scheme.
I liked the phrase for Custer's color scheme, and I didn't want to throw it away, so I tried and discarded many other possibilities for lines three and four, such as: To force a man to trade his horse, seemed cruel in the extreme, which didn't really work, because it isn't obvious that the line
refers to Custer or to his color scheme. How about forcing a man to trade his horse? No, that line had the same problem as the previous one, and in addition, the word forcing threw the rhythm off.
Although I liked the word extreme I couldn't make it work. I went through my rhyming dictionary again and stopped at team. A soldier and his horse are a team. Surely, I could use team. After many more tries, I changed the third and fourth line to: Which forced a man to trade his horse, and cruelly split a team. This clearly refers to Custer's color scheme, and now it reads:
Most troopers didn't care at all
for Custer's color scheme,
Which forced a man to trade his horse,
and cruelly split a team.
Another problem that often comes up is making sure the subject agrees with the verb. That wouldn't be so difficult if the words at the end of a line didn't have to rhyme, but they do. Here is another verse which gave me trouble, also from "Coloring The Horses":
One grizzled veteran felt he took
an arrow through the heart
When his old pal got handed to
a cocky young upstart.
I was satisfied with that line until I realized it reads as if I knew that for a fact, but I didn't. I had read an account of troopers opposing the change, but I didn't know exactly how they felt. I would be speculating. So I tried changing it to:
Some grizzled veterans felt they took
arrows through the heart,
When their old pards got handed to
a cocky young upstart.
That didn't work either. If I use the plural veterans I'd have to say hearts and upstarts, and it still sounds as if I knew how they felt. After many, many revisions, this is the finished verse:
Old veterans likely felt as if
flint arrows pierced their hearts
When they saw pardners handed off
to cocky young upstarts.
There are a few other points I want to address, about inverted syntax, working harder for the right rhyme, and about not letting the rhyme drive the meaning of the poem.
- Some poets think they have "poetic license" to turn a sentence backward to make it rhyme. For example, the horse he did ride, or to the store she did go. There is no such license that gives us permission to do this. Poetry should sound the way people speak. When I hear an inversion, as I call it, the poet loses me, because we don't have to do it. There is always another way. We just have to work hard enough to find it.
- Horse rhymes with course, of course, but it is such an obvious rhyme and way too many people use it. If you insist on trying to rhyme horse, the choice of words is limited. However, identifying the horse opens other possibilities. You might say: the gray, the bay, the dun, or the mare, the colt, steed, mount. There is always more than one way to say a thing.
- I may change the direction of a poem during the course of the writing—which reminds me of novelist and essayist Wright Morris' comment, "How do I know what I want to say until I've said it?"—but I never change it in order to find a rhyme. If a word doesn't work, I don't use it. I go at a line from a different direction. This little verse carved on an old tombstone in New England says all there is to say about this:
Underneath this pile of stones,
Lies what's left of Sally Jones.
Her name was Briggs. It was not Jones,
But Jones is all that rhymes with stones.
(That poem, which came from a New England tombstone was used by Albert Lee in the book Weather Wisdom. He also pointed out that the correct sense of a weather proverb can be lost in the rhyming effort. I love that poem!).
The classic cowboy poets generally did it right. That's why their poems have lasted and why we enjoy reading them today. I think by taking more time and doing more revising, many poets can make a good poem better. When I taught school, many students wrote a rough draft, and considered the assignment finished. I made comments and asked them to rewrite. To some,
"rewrite" meant "re-copy." They had done it once, and that's all they wanted to do. Some poets, too, may be satisfied with their first attempt. I sometimes wish I could be. However, I find that each revision strengthens my poem. The final result is worth the extra effort. "A Recipe for Poems or Bread" expresses the way I feel about revision. It helps me immensely to Let it sit and rise a spell. I hope it will help others.
A Recipe for Poems or Bread
Mix them well.
Let mixture sit
And rise a spell.
Then punch it down,
And knead the dough
You push it, pull it
To and fro.
You stretch it out
And push it back.
Before too long,
You¹ll have the knack.
Again let sit.
Again let rise.
Until it grows
To twice its size.
You push it, pull it,
Knead it down.
Then shape and bake
Until it's brown.
When bread is baked,
You're done. You're through.
You can't revise
But poems are fluid
In my view.
And what I've done,
I can undo.
Until my words
Are carved in stone,
I'm free to polish,
free to hone.
© 2006, Jane Morton, All rights reserved
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
See our feature about Jane Morton here, which includes some of her poetry and more about her publications and recordings.
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