Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

“Rhymes can make sense of the world in a way that regular speech can’t.”

Hip hop mogul Jay-Z (Sean Carter) says it better than I can.

It’s no coincidence that someone who built a career in rhymes argues so persuasively about the persuasive force of rhyme.

“Think about it,” he writes in his memoir, Decoded.  “O. J. Simpson might be a free man today because ‘glove don’t fit’ rhymed with ‘acquit,’” recalling defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s famous couplet.  “That’s the power of rhymes.”[i]

Simpson’s ongoing legal problems hardly diminish Jay-Z’s claim: the sonic phenomenon of rhyme carries rhetorical force.  As Cochran well knew. 

As did the Republicans urging Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president in 1952, hoping their slogan—i like ike—would convince the General and voters alike.

And as the schoolyard bards who discovered that my surname rhymes perfectly with “mucus” also knew, all too well.

Rhyme can convince the mind of what the ear already knows.

We know that children improvise rhymes spontaneously as they explore and invent language. [ii]  As we come into speech the sounds around us begin to make sense, and we begin to sound out our own versions of them.

Recall the stubborn baby brother in A Christmas Story,rhyming over his dinner instead of eating it: “Meatloaf, smeatloaf, / Double-beatloaf.  / I hate meatloaf.”[iii]

So rhyme can make sense and make fun.  It helps us remember and—as advertisers hope—keeps us from forgetting.  Rhymes can be profound—“womb” / “tomb”—or silly—“If called by a panther, / Don’t anther” (Ogden Nash).[iv]

So why, someone will ask, doesn’t poetry rhyme anymore?

            I never know how to anther—err—answer.  I say that it still does, or that it never did.  I say: some poetry rhymed, and some still does.  Or I try to change the subject.

            Rhyme is a linguistic coincidence, an accident of corresponding vowel sounds and end consonants.  That loveable accident has come into and fallen out of fashion several times in the thousand or so years of English-language poetry.

The earliest Old English poems (think Beowulf, circa 700—1000 AD) use alliteration as a structuring principle.  Rhyme emerges in English poetry only by the early twelfth century, with the influence of Medieval Latin and French.[v]

So you can thank the conquering Normans indirectly for Geoffrey Chaucer’s couplet: “Spek, sweete bryd, I noot not where thou art. / This Nicholas anon let fle a fart.”[vi]  (Whether we can thank Chaucer for the wisdom that “whoever smelt it / dealt it” is another matter.)           

As we have seen, Shakespeare’s sonnets rhyme schematically, but his blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) sets the stage for hundreds more years of English dramatic and narrative poetry.  Rhyme endured in songs and lyric poems, sneaking on stage every so often to close out a scene.

By the time John Milton writes his prefatory note to the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674), he dismisses rhyme as “the invention of a barbarous age,” arguing that the “jingling sound of like endings” is a kind of “modern bondage.”[vii]

Milton always was a bit grandiose.

Forty years later, in his Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope used his own rhyming couplets to mock the clichéd “like endings” of lesser poets:

Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze,’

In the next line, it ‘whispers through the trees’:

If ‘crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep’,

The reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with ‘sleep’.[viii]

Today Pope might mock the rhyme clichés of pop songs: the “desire” that always burns “like fire,” a “love” that must come “from up above.”

            If you share Milton’s distaste for the “jingling sound of like endings,” you might prefer slant rhyme instead.  That is, a rhyme with the same ending consonant but a different vowel sound, like Macbeth’s “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”[ix]   If perfect rhymes are sugar to the ear, slant rhymes are salt. 

            We wait for the perfect rhyme to find its partner, but slant rhymes we may never see coming.  Take Paul Muldoon’s poem “Quoof,” a poem about a word—“our family word / for the hot water bottle”—and about the familiar and tribal idiosyncrasies of the supposedly common language we speak.

            In the poem, that single awkward syllable—“quoof”— falls between two near-strangers about to share a bed for the first time.  The poem acts out their giddiness with each other in its far-fetched, almost-mismatched rhymes:

An hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.[x]

I missed these rhymes the first time—let’s be honest—the first several times I read the poem.  Keep saying it aloud, though, and the rhymes emerge, each end word paired with an unlikely partner. 

“English” and “language” is a maddeningly glorious stretch.  Maybe you’ll protest, as I once did: “They don’t rhyme!”  And they don’t—at least until you chew them over, letting the sound convince you.  The English language we thought we knew seems to change there between the tongue and the ear.

I can’t read “Quoof” without thinking of Bun B’s (Bernard Freeman) verse on UGK’s song “One Day.”  The rapper and Rice University lecturer bends the sounds of words to rhyme

“drama / harm ya / bombers / palm of / California / hydroponic / marijuana / sauna / corner.”

On the page these may not read as rhymes.  But listen as Bun B’s enunciation links them together.  As the verse ends, he grieves for the death of a friend “behind a funky-ass dice game / I saw him once before he died, wish it was twice, man.”[xi]  The “a” in “man” lengthens to sound almost like “main.”  The rhyme locks into place.

As when Shakespeare seals a scene with a rhyming couplet, Bun B resolves the long series of rhymes with his own.  His voice convinces us of the rhyme; the rhyme convinces us of even more.

Your ear already knows all of this. 

It knows how rhyme’s hits and near-misses delight and surprise us.  How they lurk sometimes in the midst of a line—“The blonde assassin passes on” (Emily Dickinson)[xii]—or announce themselves and their rhymer—“’Bout my coins like Mario / Yeah they call me Cardi B, / I run this shit like cardio” (Cardi B, “I Like It Like That”)[xiii].

Your ear knows, but sometimes the mind needs a reminder.  Sometimes the world—at least in rhymes—almost makes sense.

[i] Jay-Z.  Decoded.   New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2010.  243.

[ii] Roland Greene, ed.  The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.  4th ed.  Princeton: Princeton UP,

2012.  184.

[iii] Bob Clark.  A Christmas Story.  MGM.  1983.

[iv] Ogden Nash.  “The Panther.”  The Best of Ogden Nash.  Ed. Linell Nash Smith.  Chicago: Ivan R. Dee,

2007.  5-6.

[v] PEPP 431. 

[vi] Geoffrey Chaucer.  “The Miller’s Tale.”  The Canterbury Tales.  Ca. 1385.  3805-6.

[vii] John Milton.  Introduction.  Paradise Lost.  2nd ed.  1674.

[viii] Alexander Pope.  “Essay on Criticism.”  1711.

[ix] William Shakespeare. Macbeth.  1606.

[x] Paul Muldoon.  “Quoof.”  Quoof.  London: Faber, 1983.

[xi] Bun B.  UGK.  “One Day.”  Ridin’ Dirty.  Jive.  1996.

[xii] Emily Dickinson.  “[Apparently with no surprise.]”  1884.  Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved

Them.  Ed. Christianne Miller.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2017.  5.

[xiii] Cardi B.  “I Like It Like That.”  Invasion of Privacy.  Atlantic.  2018.

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

            It’s happening again.

Even as we speak, elsewhere — in a college dorm, maybe, or some recess of the internet — a word is changing.

Just as “cool”evolved in African-American jazz circles of the 1930s and 40s, coming to refer to musical temperament instead of temperature, so this word — whatever it may be — will change now.[i]

In two years I’ll complain about hearing it from my students. In three years I’ll be saying it myself.

This is the trajectory of slang, that unofficial but essential wellspring of our language. The aspects of English we were never required to spell or diagram, and some we weren’t allowed to say in class at all.

When the word “slang” first appeared in English, in 1756, it named “the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type” (OED).

The historians of the language at the Oxford English Dictionary can trace the word’s evolving definitions, but even they are unsure of its etymology.  “Slang” began, it seems, as slang: faddish, vogue, forgettable.

Yet it endures, “low and vulgar” — and in the work of great poets.

Shakespeare, for example, coined or repurposed hundreds of words (“dwindle,” “lackluster,” “swagger” ). In Sonnet 135, he shows off the versatility — in standard and slang usage — of just one:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,

And Will to boot, and Will in overplus

[. . .]

So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will

One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.

The scholar Stephen Booth counts thirteen instances of the word “will” in the poem, referring to the poet’s name, the wish to act, the auxiliary verb (as in “I will”), and a euphemism for both male and female genitalia.[ii]

We twenty-first-century readers may not register these slier, slangy connotations without some scholarly help. So brief is the shelf life of most slang that we miss the dirty jokes that had the Elizabethans snickering into their ruffs.

Slang endures because of — not in spite of — this changeability. In his essay “Slang in America” (1885), Walt Whitman describes slang as the democratic aspect of poetry, the material by which anyone, elite or coarse, might make of their own vocabulary a pleasure and an art:

Language, be it remembered, is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, taste, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.  Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having the most to do with actual land and sea.[iii]

Whitman admires “the daring and license of slang”: in Tennessee, he writes, undiluted alcohol is “barefoot whiskey;” a plate of ham and beans in New York is “stars and stripes.” What the OED calls “low and vulgar” Walt Whitman treats as a commons, a reserve in the realm of language where anyone can meet anyone else.

At least in theory. 

After all, as Michael Adams argues in Slang: The People’s Poetry, slang is “rooted in [. . .] the complementary needs to fit in and to stand out.”[iv]

One function of slang is to communicate with some (a teen clique, maybe) what it conceals from others (parents, teachers, other cliques); in this way it also communicates its own status as privileged dialogue. 

Slang stakes our claim to belong to a particular group and establishes a position within that group. The creativity of slang, Adams writes, “asserts our everyday poetic prowess.”

This is just what I mean when I argue that we live with poetry all the time.  Even if you haven’t read a poem since high school, your slang contributes to the artistry of language. In your own words, this thousand-year-old mongrel tongue becomes renewed.

As it is in the words of the teenagers who speak Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool”:

the pool players. 

                                    seven at the golden shovel.

We real cool.  We

                        Left school.  We

                        Lurk late.  We

                        Strike straight.  We

                        Sing sin.  We

                        Thin gin.  We

                        Jazz June.  We

                        Die soon.[v]

In the poem’s teen lingo we can see the poet’s formal mastery.

Listen to the long vowels of the monosyllabic words as they walk the edges of their short lines.  At the end of those lines—all but the last—Brooks strands each “we,” syncopating the rhythm of these curt, declarative sentences.  (Listen to Brooks read the poem aloud and you’ll hear it clearly.[vi])

What do they mean by “We / Jazz June”? We may think first of the musical form — a noun — but “jazz” can be a verb too: “to make a mess of, to ruin;” “to excite or thrill,” “to stimulate or intoxicate;” “to enliven;” “to have sexual intercourse with,” “to trick or tease” (OED).

These possible meanings could apply to the month of June or a woman named June. We don’t — we can’t — know. But that’s the point of the pool players’ slang: their “we” does not include us.

Brooks said she imagined the young men in the poem speaking as if graffitiing their names on the wall to prove they were there.  They say “we” to convince us, to convince themselves who they are.  The poem tells us they may die before they ever know.[vii]

The slang and sentence structure of “We Real Cool” — like so much exciting linguistic invention in contemporary language — derive from African-American English. Too much of this innovation continues uncredited; too many white speakers of “Standard English” appropriate Black slang in one breath and dismiss “Ebonics” in another.

But slang can also be a tool for marginalized groups to reclaim power over the words used to stigmatize them. As socially relevant as poetry can be, slang is where some of the most political work of language occurs.

Think of the use of the word “queer” to shame sexual minorities, and more recently as a means of empowerment adopted by some of those same groups. The word can even function as a verb: “to queer a text” is to read it from the perspective of queer theory.

The word “bitch” follows a similar path from its Anglo-Saxon origins as “the female of the dog” to a pejorative term for a woman a few hundred years later to the title of a feminist-minded pop culture magazine by 1996 (OED). “Bitches get stuff done,” declared Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live in 2008.[viii]

In such instances slang fulfills Whitman’s ideal of a democratic poetics. To change the way we use a word is to change a small, but significant, part of the world.

Listen for slang in the different parts of your own world — at home and at work, with friends and family or with colleagues. You may catch yourself in the act of making the language new again.

            You may listen for slang, but what you’ll hear is poetry.


[ii] Stephen Booth, ed.  Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

[iii] Walt Whitman.  “Slang in America.”  North American Review (1885).

[iv] Michael Adams.  Slang: The People’s Poetry.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

[v] Gwendolyn Brooks.  “We Real Cool.”  The Bean Eaters (1960).

[vi] (Provide hyperlink in text if possible.)

[vii] Brooks.  Report from Part One.  Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

“An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).


Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell