Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme

by Frances Donovan

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes discusses rhyme within the context of repetition. This element of craft goes far beyond the end-stopped pure rhymes (mop/top) most people associate with poetry. Rhyme can be any kind of repetition of sound: slant rhymes (month/up); internal rhymes (the loud cloud growled); alliteration, consonance, and assonance (“tremendous fish,” “speckled with barnacles,” “coarse white flesh”); repetition of words, or repetition of entire lines.

Elizabeth Bishop uses all these techniques. Rhyme runs through her poetry like a subtle thread: always there, but not often when or how it’s expected. Even her prose poems (“Rainy Season: Sub-Tropics”) contain internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance: “My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, the wake of a ship, a wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe.” One can also interpret the overlap of events in these prose poems as a kind of rhyme. In each piece, the titular animal speaks but portrays the same encounters from a different perspective: “Beware, you frivolous crab,” says the toad. “And I want nothing to do with you either, sulking toad,” says the crab. “Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly,” says the crab. “What’s that tapping on my shell?” asks the snail.

Rhyme ties together a poem, giving it a structure through interlocking sounds that amplifies its meaning. Most of Bishop’s poems follow a clear narrative which leads the eye easily down the page to the end of the poem. But upon second reading the rhyme scheme begins to emerge. Her poems often use unusual or unpredictable rhyme schemes. They include both pure and slant rhymes, and they don’t always follow the same pattern from stanza to stanza. One element I see again and again is the repetition of sound throughout the body of the poem, not just within a single couplet, tercet, or quatrain. This global repetition without a set pattern acts like embroidery thread to sew the poem together with sound, but in an almost subliminal manner.

In “Anaphora,” – ironically, a poem that does not use anaphora –  it’s clear that the poem rhymes, but it’s difficult to make out exactly how without a pencil:

Each day with so much ceremony                              (a)

begins, with birds, with bells,                                     (b)

with whistles from a factory;                                      (a)

such white-gold skies our eyes                                   (c)

first open on, such brilliant walls                                (b)

that for a moment we wonder                                     (d)

“Where is the music coming from, the energy?         (a)

That day was meant for what ineffable creature         (d)

we much have missed?” Oh promply he                    (a)

appears and takes his earthly nature                           (d)

instantly, instantly falls                                            (b)

victim of long intrigue                                             (e)

assuming memory and mortal                                  (b)

mortal fatigue                                                          (e)

The A and B rhymes (both pure and slant) run through the stanza, but with room for new sounds to emerge. The second stanza follows a similar but not identical structure. I see this technique again and again in her poetry. A few examples: “Wading at Wellfleet” (abc / dec / efg / hcg / iih / gcb); “O Breath” (abaacbdedaefaaa); “The Prodigal” (abacdbcedbebbb / fgfhigjhkgilmm). “The Moose,” one of her most famous poems, starts out with a regular rhyme scheme (abcbdb) that then varies slightly in the fifth stanza (abcdcd) and loosens more and more as the poem continues and the narrative takes hold.

Not all of Bishop’s poems incorporate this kind of loose rhyme scheme. Some, such as “The Shampoo” (abacbc / dedfef / ghgihi ) are more regular.

In “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” Bishop repeats entire lines (“Please come flying”). She also preserves the technique of repeating lines in her translation of “Traveling in the Family,” by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

And some of her poems, such as “The Waiting Room,” and “From the Country to the City,” incorporate rhyme but in such a way that I could not discern a pattern at all.

I found a similar loose-within-structure approach to rhyme in Plath’s work. I tried this technique in “Two Trees,” also included in this packet. The struggle is to use rhyme as a scaffold rather than a straightjacket. In the case of my own poem, I consciously avoided too many pure end rhymes because I wanted the effect to be as subtle as it is in Bishop’s and Plath’s poetry. It was a real challenge and a completely different kind of writing than I’ve been doing for most of the past 20 years. Which isn’t a bad thing.


Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Mayes, Frances. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Writing and Reading Poems. New York: Harcourt, 2001.

Photo credit: Kathy Knorr via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

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