Q: A friend of mine and I need to settle the score once and for all: do poems have to rhyme? —Lyrically Lost
A: Whenever I have a question about meaning and I need a reliable answer, I go to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the definitive record of the English language.” The OED defines poetry as “imaginative or creative literature in general” which is “in verse or some comparable patterned arrangement of language in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” So, rhyming isn’t mandatory for the definition of a poem.
On the writing of a poem, the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University says that “pattern is one of the most important ways of building form and structure, and one of the most difficult to master. In classical verse, pattern was established by using a traditional form and meter, where lines had set numbers of beats and rhymes and alliteration came at predictable places within the line …. Nowadays, as most readers and writers of poetry know, most poetry written in English is free verse,” free of rhyme and meter. Originally, rhyme was a mechanic for aiding memorization, which was especially important before the development and broad acquisition of written language. Poems and rhyme were used to record stories, history, family ancestry, and law. These days, the majority of us can rely on books and the internet to store and retrieve important information.
The bottom line: poems can rhyme perfectly, have no semblance of rhyme, and be anything in between! In fact, there is an entire subgenre of poetry called free verse which by definition “does not rhyme and does not have a regular rhythm.” Rhyme is no longer a necessary stratagem; use it to enhance the power of your message and be true to your voice as a writer.