The rhyme equation: 1 + 1 = 3

Do your students struggle with analyzing rhyme in poetry? How many more times must we teachers hear “it helps to make the poem flow” or the cringe-worthy “it creates a sing-song effect”? Or maybe they avoid rhyme completely because they don’t know what to say if they can’t use the words “flow” or “sing-song.”

I have a solution that will offer remarkable improvement in your students’ ability to effectively analyze rhyme. It’s an equation, actually. Just tell them to think: 1 + 1 = 3.

I must give credit for this formula to the person who shared it with me at a professional development session on teaching poetry, Alan Michael Parker. AMP is an essayist, poet, novelist, and teacher of Creative Writing at Davidson College. He’s taught some of my all-time favorite poets, including Clint Smith and Rebecca Hazelton.

The formula works by taking the two individual words that rhyme (the 1 and 1) and creating a new meaning (the 3) by merging the two words together into a new idea. Let me show you some examples from my AP Literature student, Julia, who used the formula to examine rhyme in William Blake’s “Introduction to Songs of Innocence,” a poem that appears simple, but with this formula, can offer some insightful analysis.

Structurally overall, Julia notices that the stanzas are separated by the various actions of the piper, and by the different requests of the child on the cloud. (Fun fact about Blake: he claimed to have spiritual visions of angels and God.) Here’s what happens in the poem:

Stanza 1: piper encounters a child on a cloud

Stanza 2: child requests a particular song for piper to play

Stanza 3: child requests the piper to sing a song

Stanza 4: child requests piper to write his songs in a book

Stanza 5: piper writes the songs with the purpose of sharing them with other children

Based on these simplified stanza summaries, Julia takes a closer look at how rhyme enhances each.

The rhyming words “wild” and “child” in stanza 1 emphasize the playful and carefree nature of children in a peaceful world–and the cloud child sure is a happy kid. Not to mention, a little demanding. The child is oscillating between laughing and crying tears of joy, certainly “wild” in his joyful emotions.

Also in stanza 1, “glee” and “me” combine to mimic the child’s happiness infecting and bringing delight to the speaker. The cloud child is gleeful, wanting to share his glee with the piper.

Image from British Museum
Songs of Innocence

In stanzas 2 & 3, “cheer” and “hear” double-time and join forces to reiterate that hearing the piper’s song makes the little cloud dweller feel all the feels.

“Write” and “sight” in stanza 4 can be interpreted two ways. Perhaps the piper needed to see this divine vision in order to be inspired to write his joyful songs for others. And the child serves as his muse. Or, perhaps the child urges the piper to “write” the songs down so that all the world may see them, and receive the same joy the child is feeling. 

Also in stanza 4, there’s “read” and “reed,” which aren’t just rhyming words, but the exact same sound. So what do we make of that? Added importance? Julia thinks so. As a Romantic poet, Blake certainly finds inspiration in nature. This pairing of words shows us the connection between nature and art. The speaker is using a piece of nature, a reed, to actually scribe his songs for others to read and garner inspiration from. And as Blake offers this poem as an introduction for his book Songs of Innocence, it gives insight into his artistic connection to the natural world. 

Finally, “clear” and “hear” in stanza 5 serve as both a culmination to the poem and an invitation to the rest of the book. The piper, or the poet Blake, hopes others’ minds will become clear and find joy in the innocence and simplicity of childhood once they hear his songs.

There you have it. The rhymes Blake employs all contribute to the poem’s overall meaning of childhood innocence, imagination and creativity, and the connection between nature and art. Sounds better than it “helps to make the poem flow,” doesn’t it?

Here are some other poems from LIVING POETS that use rhyme to have your students practice their new 1 + 1 = 3 equation. 

Tyehimba Jess (2017 Pulitzer Prize winner) Sonnet crown for Blind Tom

Rachel Hadas “Triolets in the Argolid” – what is a triolet?

Patricia Smith “A Street in Lawndale”

Amit Majmudar “T.S.A.”

Diane Gilliam Fisher “His and Hers” 

Kristiana Rae Colón “a remix for remembrance” 

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith

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