To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

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A war has been raging for decades. It’s a war we don’t hear about on the news. Like religion and politics, it isn’t discussed in civilized company. This war is not fought with guns and bombs, it’s fought with pens. It is the horrible, ghastly war between . . . rhymers and non-rhymers. The iambic pentameter crowd versus the free verse crowd. No prisoners are taken and no mercy is shown by either side.

All kidding aside, I like them both, but only if both are ultimately understandable. “Ultimately” meaning after two readings. If the poem is so abstract that only the writer gets it, the writer failed, not the reader.

The free verse army says rhyming poetry is childish and unsophisticated, largely as a result of syrupy poems in Hallmark greeting cards. And let’s face it, they usually are. It’s hard to rhyme well (without sounding like a nursery rhyme) and tell a good story that accesses emotion.

The rhyming crowd argues that it takes as much or more talent to write a meaningful, emotionally impactful poem that also rhymes and has meter, structure and rhythm than it does to write one that has none of that. To them, criticizing rhyming poetry is like saying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost and even Shakespeare (who wrote a heck of a lot of sonnets) were a bunch of nincompoops.

Here’s a good example of a rhyming, emotionally moving poem. The story behind it is almost as good as the poem itself.

A friend of mine found it at the bottom of an old box in his parents’ garage. He asked his dad about it. He said the author was a man named Vernon Watson, who performed in theaters around London in the 1930’s and 40’s. He would sing, dance, tell stories and recite poems. A little bit of everything. The audience would start out laughing and end up crying, or vice-versa. He performed under the name Nosmo King, and thought up that name one night while looking at a “No Smoking” sign in one of the theaters. Here it is. I dare you not to get choked up.

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Providence

Have you ever been broke? Just broke to the wide?
With what you stand up in and nothing beside?
Living on scraps the best part of the week
When you can get them, and with nowhere to sleep?

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I’ve been like that on a cold winter’s night
When the streets were deserted and nothing in sight
But a slow-moving bobby whose job is to see
That the public’s protected from fellows like me.
Who get put inside to answer in court
Why they’re wandering around without means of support.

It always strikes me as a queer sort of joke –
To pick on a man just because he is broke.
Do they think he enjoys wandering around in the rain,
Soaked to the skin with a dull, aching pain
Through his stomach, forgetting his last decent meal
And just praying for the time when he’s too numb to feel.
Life isn’t worth much when you get to that state –
Of just waiting to die and nowhere to wait.

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I remember the time, it’s a long while ago,
When I stood on a bridge with the river below.
The last food I’d had was two days before
And I never expected I’d need anymore.
That night was the worst that ever I’d known,
With a dirty, wet fog that chilled to the bone.
I set my teeth hard and I set down my heel
On the rail that my hands were too perished to feel
When a sniveling pup came out of the fog
And whimpered at me, just a scrap of a dog.
Bedraggled and dirty, like me, just a wreck,
With  a sad, little face on his poor, scraggy neck.

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A few seconds more and I would have died
But he licked my hand and I just sat down and cried.
I wrapped up the poor little chap in my coat
And carried him off with a lump in my throat.
I took him along to the one place I knew
Where they’d give him a bed and a biscuit or two.

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They didn’t seem keen on taking him in
But the sergeant-in-charge gave a bit of a grin
When I told him, “The dog could do with a meal.”
He said, “I’ll fix him up, but how do you feel?”
It may be perhaps that the sergeant had seen
the state I was in, I wasn’t too clean.
The hunger and cold that I’d suffered all day
Exhausted my limits and I fainted away.

Well, they fed me and slept me gave me two bob.
The following day, they found me a job.
I’ve worked ever since and I’ve put a bit by.
I’m comfortable now and I don’t want to die.
I’ve a nice, little house in a quiet, little street
With a decent-sized garden that’s always kept neat.
I’ve worked there a lot when I’ve had time to spare
And I’m so proud of one little corner that’s there,
With the pick of my flowers ‘round a little old stone,
That stands in a corner, all on its own.
It bears an inscription, not very grand.
The letters are crooked, but you’ll understand –
That I wasn’t too steady, I couldn’t quite see,
At the time that I carved it, quite recently.

These are the words I carved on the stone –
“Here lies my friend when I was alone.
Hopeless and friendless, just lost in a fog,
God saved my life with the help of a dog.”

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~ Vernon Watson AKA Nosmo King, 1930

 

11. Homeless

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The photo of the dog’s tombstone was actually made by a friend of mine as a prop for a filmed version of this poem we made. (I played the homeless man.) The words on the stone are a little different because I wrote it from memory and didn’t have this – – –

A YouTube video uploaded by someone who had one of Vernon’s old 78’s. (For you youngsters, 78’s were vinyl LP’s that pre-dated 33’s and 45’s.) His diction and delivery is very heightened and melodramatic, as was the style of the time. His voice reminds me of Boris Karloff’s quite a bit. Oddly, the version I have also has a few more lines than Nosmo’s recorded version. Enjoy!

End of the Road (love poem)

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I once walked through a forest,
deep and cool and wild,
filled with awe and wonder
as if I were just a child.

I once stood on a mountain.
Ancient winds flew through my hair.
It seemed the world around me
had become a silent prayer.

But despite the roads I traveled
and all the ground I gained,
this empty place, this darkness
in my spirit, still remained.

I’ve walked a thousand lonely miles
and crossed stormy oceans blue
searching for a feeling
that I’ve found right here with you.

And I could tell a thousand stories
of what the earth, to me, has shown
but all the beauty of this world
falls far short of your own.

For there is no greater wonder
nor peace that I have found
than holding you in darkness
with your heart the only sound.

Your laughter heals my deepest sorrow
and your eyes, so kind and warm,
have become this torn ships refuge
from a bitter, raging storm.

Gratitude (poem)

A segment of this poem appeared in the books Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body and Soul, and Chicken Soup for the Soul – Older and Wiser. I hope you enjoy it!

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Poets, it seems, are often too dismal
as if life and all in it were truly abysmal.
I too often strive to soothe worries with rhyme,
dwelling on sorrows and the passage of time.
When there’s so much to celebrate, to chance and explore!
Seems very ungrateful to wish there was more.

Say I wrote all my troubles, one by one, in a row.
How much further the list of my blessings would go!
Just look at this glorious Eden we live in.
Can you think of one thing we haven’t been given?
Miraculous! Perfect! Not one thing is wrong.
Still, men find every reason to not get along.
We have moonlight and sunsets and rainbows and flowers.
Deep, starry nights and bright, happy sun showers.
Wondrous creatures, every kind, shape and size.
Birds singing to greet us each day when we rise.
Such wonder and mystery without and within.
Well, I’m too full of love to hold it all in.
My heart feels as though it may split at the seams.
It can barely contain all my plans, hopes and dreams.
I’m completely astonished, awakened and free.
I’m everything that life should be!

I climb up a mountain to breathe in the air
and leave behind with each step one more useless care.
The sun ripples like laughter across the wide sea.
I smile at a flower and it smiles back at me.
The wind lifts a scent from the meadow below
and reminds me of the first girl I kissed, long ago.
I kneel in the clover, feel my spirit expand.
A bright butterfly stops to rest on my hand.
The clouds, ever present, yet no two the same
give lively imaginations a game.
“Look! A sailboat! A rabbit! An angel! A swan!.”
And it’s the best kind of game because no one’s ever wrong.

Everyone should have a special place like my hill
just to rest and let the mind roam free where it will.
Far away from the traffic, the noise and the dust
in the crystal clear sunshine of a world they can trust.
Life’s easy to master when we strive not to worry
and snatch up the whip from the cruel hand of hurry.
When we stop struggling to accumulate more than we need
for the god with the insatiable appetite – greed.
You can’t take it with you. That old line is true.
And you know, when it’s all said and done, we won’t want to.
For when our old, mortal husks fall away and are buried,
all we’ll need is the goodness and love that they carried.
So relax into life, breathe deep and let go.
Attain what you need but don’t sell your soul.
For it’s a treasure far beyond the mere baubles of men
and once lost, much harder to earn back again.

Just a few thoughts from my heart to yours
hoping that one or maybe two will endure
to make some dreary day a little bit brighter
and the load that you carry, perhaps, a bit lighter.
Though the author claims no special wisdom or power
to lecture from atop some ivory tower.
I’m just one more soul, no different from you,
whose made all the mistakes and a few new ones, too.
But somehow survived all those nights without end,
my tired, tattered spirit refusing to mend,
wondering what so much pain could be for,
the spiritual carnage of a personal war.
For it’s in punishing ourselves that we can be most unkind
and the most torn, fearful battles take place in the mind.
But the hardest climb leads to the best, brightest view
so this is my humble message to you
like a bottle set adrift on some far, lonesome shore
from my small, solitary island to yours . . .

Though we may never meet, we are friends through this poem.
In this way, we can never be truly alone.
For though we’re apart in time, place and name,
we are joined in the same, sanctified mortal game.
We may differ in doctrine, language and race
but in the most sacred ways, we have perfect grace.
We both dream and love. We both bleed and cry.
And as sure as we’re living, we someday must die.
So now, while the grapes are plump on the vine,
take time to laugh and savor the wine.
Turn your heart to the beauty that’s in and around you.
Walk gently, with love, and the same will surround you.
You’ll surely see further the farther you go.
And remember – it’s pain which helps us to grow.
For with all of its sadness, its heartache and strife,
with all of its sorrow, it’s a wonderful life.
Yes, with all of its sorrow, it’s a wonderful life.

 

Merely a Strand (poem)

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The Museum of Natural History tour
Was full of mystery and wonder that day
As the elementary school’s field trip
Was slowly ushered to each display.

The tour guide spoke about the beasts,
Stuffed and mounted behind the glass
And described the way they had lived
For the fascinated, wide-eyed class.

“This is an elephant,” the guide explained,
“It once roamed the African plains.
They went extinct because of poachers
Despite many conservation campaigns.”

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The class then moved to the next window
Where a lion stood, regal and strong.
The guide said, “It’s hard to believe
But even he didn’t last very long.”

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The class was awed but sadly silent.
Next, they saw a rhino on display.
“I don’t know how or why,” she said,
“But this giant was also taken away.”

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The same was true of the giraffe,
The gorilla, the hyena, the bear,
The moose, the elk, the buffalo,
No animals were left anywhere.

The museum was more like a graveyard,
Its wonder was so mired in sorrow.
So many species poached to extinction
By men with no thought for tomorrow.

They finally came to the last display,
Figures of a woman, a child and a man.
The guide said, “This is what ruled here
Before our time on this planet began.”

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“We sent scouts to find a new home for us
Because we devastated our planet, too.
They found this world, barely inhabitable,
With just enough resources to start anew.”

“We’re not really sure what happened here.
We know there was pestilence, famine and war.
But it’s a mystery why not one survived
When they once ruled from shore to shore.”

“There was an artist in their 15th century,
A man named Leonardo Da Vinci, who said,
‘All will be hunted down. All destroyed.’
What filled his heart with such dread?”

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“We also discovered a poem, or prophecy,
By a man named Seattle, an Indian chief.
It seemed he saw his conquerer’s future
When he wrote it through tears of grief.”

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“He asked, ‘What is man without the beasts?
And said all living things are connected
But there were too many who didn’t believe
So Seattle’s wise words were rejected.”

“He warned of ‘a great loneliness of spirit
From seeing nature not as friend but as rival.
And a world without other life forms marked
‘The end of living and beginning of survival.’ “

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“He warned man did not weave the web of life.
In all its complexity, he was merely a strand.
By destroying the web, they destroyed themselves
Which is why not one was left upon this land.”

“We certainly would have met the same fate
Had we not discovered this new place to live.
So let us learn from our past, and from theirs,
And always take much less than we give.”

~ Mark Rickerby

“Nothing will be left. Nothing on the land. Nothing in the air. Nothing in the sea. All will be hunted down. All destroyed.” – Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Little Things (poem)

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A man who hungers for the adulation of millions
and puts little importance on the love of just one
often finds nothing mattered more than that love
When the days and the battles of his life are done.

Little things like romance were a petty distraction.
Love taken for granted, vanity none could endure.
And at the end, in a lonely room full of trophies,
He finally learns how big the little things were.

That We Were Kind (poem)

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Does anyone know where the little boy went?
The little boy who used to be me?
He’s still alive somewhere inside this shell
Though the shell is all you can see.

Can you still see him reaching out for love
From behind these time-worn eyes?
The child with a heart as bright as the stars
Hiding beneath this thin disguise?

What a cruel trickster Father Time can be
Changing our costumes as we age.
From infant to child, and from young to old,
A new character with every stage.

We might as well be four different people.
The adult barely resembles the child.
The external transformation is so complete,
Young and old are rarely reconciled.

But there are some whose eyes still twinkle,
For whom the child within never dies.
The outside world can see only the surface.
Only they know how their surface lies.

What can we learn from all this changing?
From the fact that nothing is real?
How can we judge by a deceptive facade
That hides the way we truly feel?

The way to get the whole picture, it seems,
Is to think of everyone that we see
As the child they were, who they are today,
And the old person they soon will be.

We should also see them as dead and gone,
Their short life on earth finally done,
With all their trials rendered null and void,
All their battles either lost or won. 

Whitman wrote, “The powerful play goes on
And you may contribute a verse.”
The same is true for every person we meet.
We make their lives better or worse.

Thus, we should measure disheartening words
And make sure they need to be spoken
So we won’t be among those who caused dismay
If they reach the end of life heartbroken.

And when those we’ve known are old and gray,
Remembering years they left behind,
Comforting words we said might return again
With the memory that we were kind.

~Mark Rickerby