Susan Tichy
George Mason

Bouncing Off Walls

S o u n d i n g


Slant Rhyme / From Exercise to Poem / From Idea to Ear
Vowels & Consonants / Vowel Scale / Writing with the Vowel Scale
Braised Rhyme / Rhyming Broken Words
/ Bounce Back

Five Slant Rhyme Exercises

1. This may be done individually, in a small group, or in pairs. For a group, each student should bring to class about five pairs of words that do not rhyme and that have no sounds in common. Students then swap lists and hunt for words to link the sounds . Every list should be worked on by more than one student. Examples:

 orange + udder = grudge, order, danger
 pearl + raft = elf
 book + hard = ark, bird
 black + pen = blank, peck, blend
 yellow + between = Halloween

2. You can also do this in reverse. Start with a word, add a word that shares some of its sounds but adds others, then finish with a word that picks up only the new sounds added by the second word. By this method you would start with yellow, add Halloween, then arrive at between.

3. Make pairs or chains of words that share sounds without quite rhyming, such as:

 snaffle, snail
 trumpet, trump, tramp
 onion, yonder
 speaker, spear, peak

You can keep a word-chain going until it evolves completely away from its original sounds, as in:

 tramp, trump, trumpet, petty,
 onion, yonder, jonquil, jocular, color,
 investigate, vestigial, digitalis, digit, jittery

This can be done in class as follows: a student writes a word and passes the paper to the next student, who writes a word with some sound similarity, then folds the paper so only the second word is visible. The next student writes a word with sound similarity to the second word, folds the paper and passes it on, etc. Each student sees only the last word in the chain. Once it’s gone round, read the list aloud and pick out some of the most interesting transitions. Put the whole list on the board and use these words in a poem.

4. You can also achieve a similar effect by using a word as a center piece and adding words that radiate out from its sounds--that is, add words that share sounds with the original word but not with each other, such as:

 investigate = vestigial, inveterate, marinate, invite, west, stigmata,
 purple = pill, burp, purge, Wyatt Earp
 speaker = spear, curse, pecker, peekaboo

5. If you want to create patterns of consonant or assonant rhyme, simply modify the above exercises to generate words that share vowel sounds only, or terminal consonant sounds only, such as:

purge, edge, garage, binge, dodge
aim, entail, graze, maybe, lately, able

6. Using a poem by John Berryman as a model, French poets of the Oulipo group, devised a rhyme pattern as follows: Begin with two words that do not rhyme; find a third word that includes the vowel sound of one word and the consonant sound of the other. Write a stanza using these three words in the rhyme positions, ending with the word that forms the bridge. For example: if you started with the word 'lute' you might come up with 'bloom' (same vowel), and 'cat' (same consonant). Your stanza would rhyme on those words, with 'lute' coming last. ° A more intricate variation would reverse the pattern in the next stanza: picking up the vowel of 'cat' and the consonant of 'bloom,' you arrive at (for example) 'tram.'

 From Exercise to Poem: Using Rhyme

1. Choose a rhymed poem whose sounds you like. List key words in the sound patterns: full rhymes, slant rhymes, assonance, and alliteration. Use this word list to write a poem that does not use end-rhyme. Pay attention to syntax as a tool to place key sounds where you want them and where they will be more or less audible. ° You can vary this exercise by choosing a poem with full rhymes, generating slant rhymes for its key words, and writing a poem from your new list of words.

2.) Choose an old poem of your own -- one you never finished or only like part of. Look up key words -- key for their meanings, not their sound. Now, do some slant-rhyme exercises to find rhymes for them. If you have a rhyming dictionary, you can look them up there. Use these word lists to revise the poem, with or without end-rhyme.

3. Study the rhyme in satirical poems. Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Edna St. Vincent Millay (in her satirical sonnets) and e.e. cummings are good choices easy to find in anthologies. Make lists of their rhymes and note how the rhymes work in context. Do they link like  words? pair opposites? pair concrete with abstract? Notice the frequent use of feminine and multiple rhymes, the rhyming of single words with short phrases, and virtuoso rhyming on very odd words. Using some of their rhymes, or inventing your own, write a satirical poem that relies on its rhyme for humor or wit.

4. Study the rhyme in Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, or Randall Jarrell. Make a lists of their rhymes and note how they work in context.  Notice the many kinds of slant rhyme and the interactions between full and slant rhyme, between rhyme and the modulation / moderation of emotion. Using some of their rhymes or inventing your own, write a poem in which strong emotion is alternatately deflected and concentrated by rhyme.

From Idea to Ear & Back Again: Composing a Page by Ear
In this exercise you will begin with sound associations, move to etymology, then work your way back to your subject.

a) Begin with a phrase that states or evokes a theme or idea. It may be concrete or abstract, but it should be at least six syllables long and should contain several different and distinct sounds, some soft and some hard. Use this phrase as the basis for any and all of the slant-rhyme exercises described in the first set of exercises at the top of this page.

b) Now go to the dictionary & look up all the words in your original phrase, plus eight or ten of the words you generated as sound associations. Make verbatim notes, paying particular attention to etymology & derivation, variants in sound and meaning over time, & dates of first use.

c) On a single page, compose a poem in which meaning & sound interact at the level of the word and phrase, without overt explanation. Once you have a draft, consider its relation to your original "theme" or "idea." Has the idea changed? should the poem change?

d) Revise, if you wish, but resist the temptation to explain yourself or to make the poem discursive or narrative. Remember that your purpose is to discover new avenues to thought, not to flee from them.

  • Use any of these methods of generating slant rhyme when writing a poem in a fixed form: sonnet, villanelle, quatrains, couplets, etc.
  • Use any of these methods of generating slant rhyme when writing a passage of prose.
  • Use these exercises to help revise a poem. Use key words in the poem as starting points.

Vowels & Consonants
Linguists classify consonants according to how they are formed in the mouth. As you read poems aloud notice how words feel, how consonants from the same group can almost be mistaken for one another. “Fish” and “visual,” for example, feel very much the same as you pronounce them.

r, l    liquids, “semivowels,” the most musical consonants

m, n, ng   nasals, firmer than liquids but still soft

h, f, v, th, dh, s, z, sh, zh frictives, produced by vibration or friction, abrasive

p, b, k, g, t, d   plosives, produced by blasting open a closed space, can’t be prolonged, the hardest consonants

We are used to contrasting synonyms and near-synonyms that derive from Latin or from Anglo Saxon roots, but developing the diction of a poem has as much to do with sound as with denotation and connotation. Say these word pairs out loud, slowly, several times: pillow/cushion, coast/shore, beast/animal, referee/umpire, whisky/booze.

a) Write two short passages. In the first, use language that is dominated by softer consonants; in the second, use language that emphasizes plosives.

Vowels can be similarly grouped--they can, in fact, be measured on a oscilloscope. High-frequency vowels show a busy, jagged pattern with many peaks and valleys. Low-frequency vowels show few oscillations. High-frequency vowels are made toward the front of the mouth in a relatively closed space. You can feel tension in our facial muscles as you pronounce them. Low-frequency vowels start far back in the mouth, which is open and rounded as you speak them.

b) Write several short passages, each one dominated by a particular vowel sound. Good choices are “aw” (call, appall, thought) and “ee.” Next, write a somewhat longer passage dominated by a cluster of vowel sounds from the same part of the vowel scale. Last, write a passage that leaps violently up and down the vowel scale.

Examples are easy to find once you start looking. Here are a few: Millay's "I shall forget you presently my dear" has very few low vowels on stressed syllables and makes strategic use of those few; Shakespeare's "Let me not the marriage of true minds" employs patterns of rhyme on high and low vowels; Frost's poems often manipulate high & low vowels within their surface presentation of "plain speech;" Plath’s “Daddy” is a classic example of an emotionally divided poem that runs its emotions up and down the scale.

c) Write six lines of alternating rhyme in which the odd-numbered lines end with dental consonants (d, t) and the even-numbered ones end with fricatives (h, f, v, th, dh, s, z, sh, zh)

d) Write five lines in which the final consonants of the end words are nasals (m, n, ng) but the other sounds are in contrast.

e) If you are having trouble getting started with these exercises, here are some sets of rhyme words to use in a poem: cuff, cough, calf; meat, mat, might, moat; ice, prize; crisp, din; loud, growl; blend, blonde, blind, bland; craft, after; soap, coop, open; heaven, soften; stared, shore; cut, cot, cat, kettle, kitten; kitten, soften; leaves, carves; twine, stem, emblem, pin, time.
Vowel Scale
Starting at the bottom of the list, recite these words up to the top of the list, then back down again. Pay attention to the pitch of each vowel sound and to the location in your mouth/throat where it is formed.



Middle vowels are good for action, thought, wit, quickness. Low and high vowels are formed deeper in the mouth. Their sounds are more ambiguous and can be more easily drawn out and complicated into dipthongs. Their emotional registers are similarly deeper and more ambiguous. The rhyme schemes of some of Shakespeare's sonnets can be analyzed as interlocking patterns of high and low vowels. Edna St. Vincent Millay can be examined in the same fashion. Read the following lines aloud, locating the vowels in the scale above. Note the emotional differences between passages dominated by middle vowels, low vowels, or high vowels.

slim pickerel glint
in the water (Donald Hall--describing a fish)

    ... the baseman
Gathers a grounder in flat green grass,
Picks it stinging and clipped as wit
Into the leather: a swinging step
Wings it deadeye down to first...   (Robert Fitzgerald)

in Just-

spring    when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee   (e.e. cummings)


Hail to thee blithe spirit!    (Shelley)


Rage, rage against the dying of the light    (Dylan Thomas)


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed    (Walt Whitman)


Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.    (Robert Frost)


...that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe.    (John Milton)


I shall forget you presently, my dear
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever;          (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
and your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.....

At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.  (Sylvia Plath)

Writing with the Vowel Scale
Read aloud all the examples attached to vowel scale, above. Practice the scale itself, very loudly, at home. Read all of Plath’s “Daddy” aloud--a great poem of love/hate and a great poem of high and low vowels. ° Now, look at a few poems of very decided tone: dark and broody, bright and gay, clever and cool, etc. What are the vowel sounds that dominate each poem? ° To write your own poem, choose a tone before you start writing. You may want to make lists of words in the part(s) of the vowel scale you expect to use most. ° Remember that placement of words is important to bring out (or suppress) the energy of their vowels. Line ends, line beginnings, stressed syllables, before and after caesurae, and the ends of sentences or phrases are all positions that draw attention. You can also use the vowel scale to revise an old poem.

Or, write a rhymed poem in which the use of high and low vowels are part of the pattern. Sonnets by William Shakespeare and by Edna St. Vincent Millay can provide examples. Here are a few.

See also
Transfusion poem & Homophonic Translation on the
Get Something Going Page
antitative Syllabics on the Working with Line Page
Front-Load Your Ears on the Diction/Image/Metaphor Page
Translexical Lexicon, Total Transfusion, & Rhyme Mining on the Imitation & Homage Page