how to critique rhyming children’s poems

I credit the lovely Kelly R. Fineman for writing this article. I stink at talking about poetry so I leave the task to Kelly who is quite good at it.

1. Read it to yourself.

See if the words make sense and tell a story you can follow.

Look in particular for any words that seem like they were chosen specifically to fit (or force) the rhyme. Look also for scrambled sentence order — where people rearrange a sentence in a nonsensical way in order to end with a rhyming word. If there are any, note it. Forced rhyme is BAD rhyme.

Look for the usual things you look for in writing — good, solid word choices, grammar, punctuation, etc. Don’t get too crazy with punctuation because poets sometimes take liberties and it’s fine. Although using “its” when they meant “it’s” is NOT fine. Where something seems wrong or off to you, make a note.

If every verb in the poem is a form of “to be”, make a note — the poet most likely needs to go back and fix that (although maybe not always, as in the end of Sandra Boynton’s “The Going to Bed Book”: “the sky is blue/the sea is deep/we rock and rock and rock to sleep” — two lines with “is” in a row, both fine. Same with “roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet/and so are you”.)

2. Read it aloud.

See if you fall into a rhythm (usually, you should).

See if you trip anywhere (usually, you shouldn’t). If you tripped because you stumbled over a word or mispronounced it, read it again. If you tripped because you had to alter your reading rhythm, it’s the poet’s fault, and you should note it.

If, as you read it, any of the alleged rhyming words don’t actually rhyme, note it. While there are devices such as slant rhyme and/or near rhyme, they aren’t typically favored in children’s rhyming poems. That said, there’s a new book out from Tony Mitton (one of my favorite British poets) called Once Upon a Tide which evidently rhymes “shore” with “saw”. I can’t come up with any dialect in the English language where those two rhyme, but hey, whatever.

Same goes for words that look like they might rhyme due to similar endings, but aren’t pronounced alike (e.g., through and though). Those sorts of “rhymes” used to be favored in the 1800s in sonnets and the like, and are still used in some poetic forms, but not in most kids’ poems and certainly not if everything else actually rhymes.

Cynthea adds: have your friends read it aloud. And lots of them. Have these friends note where they tripped. People have all different sorts of cadence, dialect, inflection in their own speech. You want to try to keep the rhyme as universally acceptable as possible.


3. Do the math.

Count up syllables. In general, rhyming poetry tends to be metrical (regulated counts), although it needn’t be because the focus should be on the number of stressed syllables per line.

Metrical with regulated syllable count:
Roses are red (4)
Violets are blue (4) *Note: violets here has two syllables (VI-lets), and not three (VI-o-lets). More on that in a moment
Sugar is sweet (4)
And so are you (4)

Metrical with stressed feet (but not syllable count):
Down by the seashore (2 beats, 5 syllables)
Bess and I (2 beats, 3 syllables)
stood on the sand (2 beats, 4 syllables)
and looked at the sky (2 beats, 5 syllables).
(from Once Upon a Tide by Tony Mitton)

If you clap to the second one, you clap twice per line (down, seashore, Bess, I, stood, sand, looked, sky).

In most cases, one of the above ways of counting and/or clapping should work as you go along. If at any point the clapping part goes awry, there’s a problem, and you should alert the poet.

More about the syllable thing: the way a word is pronounced varies according to where you live, as you well know. In certain cases, folks who’ve lived the same place their entire lives are unaware that others pronounce words differently, and assume that they are correct. Not that you can rhyme it with anything either way, but “orange” is a two-syllable word. (Duh, Kelly, you say.) And yet in some areas of the U.S., it is pronounced as a single-syllable word: “ornge”.

Similarly, the word “roof” is pronounce with a long “OO” most places, but in the area around Pittsburgh, PA (and maybe in others, it is pronounced to rhyme with a short “oo”, as in the word “look”). You want to keep an eye out for any words that are being used in a dialectical manner, and not in their most commonly accepted pronunciation. Because most editors go with the usual, official pronunciations, and not regionalisms (unless the regional word is spelled out somehow, like “chowdah” for “chowder” in New England).

And there you have it folks!

You may read more ponderings from Kelly on her blog Writing and Ruminating. Note: I am not responsible for anything she says over there. Heheh!

Happy revising,

Cynthea

3 thoughts on “how to critique rhyming children’s poems

  1. Chowder, roof and orange…you can add ‘family’ which is sometimes two syllables (fam-lee) and sometimes three (fam-uh-lee). Best to avoid those tough words altogether!

  2. Hi,
    I was just wondering if it’s possible to change the rhythm of the poem mid way, to sort of indicate a change in the story line. If you do that, do you have to alert the reader in some way?

    Like, could you put an, “Until…” between the two stanzas where the change occurs? Or is that unecessary? Or is it just never okay to change the rhythm?
    Thanks for your time,
    Jen

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