I’m reading Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, about a writer who’s struggling to write the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming verse. In making a case for rhyming poetry, Baker writes that “rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next.” The call and response of rhyming creates a suspense and sets up a puzzle–for both the writer and the listener. He writes that “poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing” and when poets find themselves “descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, [they] use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it.” [By the way, what a nice verb “tightrope” is, especially in the present tense. It looks good, too.] I don’t have enough interest in the academia of poetry to step into the old debates over to-rhyme or not-to-rhyme. In songs there is the expectation of rhyme and so, even when a line breaks with that expectation, I tend to hear the absence of it. Some songwriters may write a number of verses without any rhyming just to hit you with one during the chorus–maybe on the last line–just so we can all breathe a sigh of relief. More than poetry, lyrics are more transparent about their intentions. In the end, you want to connect with an audience and rhyming helps create that connection.
But I realize it’s this puzzle idea that excites me too. As I’ve described in previous posts what most inspires me to write is an overheard line or phrase. I want someone else to be as excited about that line as I am, to sense whatever bit of truth I heard in it. So from a mechanical aspect, sometimes the first thing I think about is pairing a rhyme with that phrase’s last word or words. If it’s used in a chorus for example, the preceding line leading into the line I love, doesn’t even need to be that important to the overall idea of the song. It’s just a transition; it’s just a means of getting to what I really want to say. The effect of the rhyming though, makes that line sound indispensable, profound. You can work it the other way around too. My friend Dom was once describing someone from his childhood who taught him how to swim. The conversation went on and we all agreed that was a pretty important lesson. I mean, learning how to swim is not only a very useful but also potentially life-saving skill. So I wrote in a notebook, “There’s nothing as important as learning how to swim.” Trying to work it into a song later that week, I looked for a rhyming line that could round off that idea a bit. I went with a near rhyme with “in” and the couplet became There’s nothing as important as learning how to swim / cause you never really know the kind of trouble that you’re in. Not terribly profound but I liked the bigger picture it tried to suggest. Often with those sort of exercises, you’re also trying to balance the specific with the general. In other words, if you’re going to write about something as specific as swimming lessons, you need to broaden it back out to the universal, so you don’t lose your listeners as they recall their own swimming lessons. (A great song should never be too specific–just a few deja vu parts.) Of course, by the time the two lines are paired, it’s not really about swimming anyway–the metaphor has taken over and the melody’s got you floating downstream.
And here’s what I do when a rhyme doesn’t come quickly: outsource it. I’m a big believer in rhyming dictionaries. I have a few different ones and also a program called Master Writer. They are curious books. Since the words are catalogued only by sound, it conveniently removes all logic, context, meaning, and knowledge–factors that can get in the way of brainstorming. The pallet of words I have at the tips of my tongue and brain don’t change enough to allow new ideas. There are words and phrases that I know but would never remember nor depend on. Right now I’m working on a song called “Dead Actors” — about a sort of purgatory our (classic) movie stars must wander around in because we never really let them go (or even think they’re real). Anyway, the verses are three lines and the last line of each rhymes with the previous verse’s last line. At one point, I had used mankind, sublime, and daylight — but still needed one more near rhyme for the group. In the Master Writer program, I can just click on the word, in this case sublime, and I can page through pages of exact and near rhymes. It can also provide me with rhymed common or cliche phrases and popular culture references–it’s a real hodgepodge. And this hodgepodge works to my advantage because there on the second page is pantomime. A very pretty word and perfect for a song about actors. I know the word and its definition, but I never would have thought of it on my own. And now since I’ve used that word, it makes me think of a more Elizabethan kind of acting and I picture an actor and the way he might clutch at his heart in an melodramatic death scene. So, not only has outsourcing my brainstorming helped me find the perfect word, but that word has jogged my memory in another direction. Basically, you’ve got to do everything you can to get unstuck, finish an idea while it’s still interesting to you.
Baker writes that rhyming is like “chain-smoking–you light one line with the glowing ember of the last.”