On New Hymns and Perfect Rhymes

On New Hymns and Perfect Rhymes June 3, 2014

A while back, I ran across some new hymns by progressive southern gospel songwriting regular Lee Black. He commented that it was hard to get them cut, but he saw no harm in performing them himself and putting them out there on Youtube. The first two were co-written with Gina Boe, another sought-after contributor to your favorite artists’ catalogues:
The Light and the Glory
That Death May Die:

All Glory To You, Jesus
Any of these new songs would be a classy and welcome addition to a church service. It goes without saying that they’re infinitely more intricate and contentful than the incoherent, monotonic dreck Jesus Culture is churning out (or whoever the kids are listening to, I don’t keep track to be honest). In fact, melodically I would say they’re even more interesting than “In Christ Alone.” So for well-written, yet accessible new church music, this is any worship pastor’s ideal. However, the songwriting purist in me can’t help wondering whether they could be improved in one respect: rhyme scheme.

The problem is an over-saturation of “assonance,” a technique that combines two words which share nothing in common except the middle vowel sound. In these songs, they frequently replace end-rhymes, although not quite completely, which creates a bit of poetic whiplash. For example, it took me a minute to even identify the pattern in “All Glory to You, Jesus.” It was only after looking at the Verse 2 lines, “For that lonely hill where you tasted death/And the pardon breathed with your dying breath,” that I realized these two lines in Verse 1 were supposed to “rhyme”: “For that humble place where you laid your head/On that holy night when you took on flesh.” And in “The Light and the Glory,” what appears to be an “abab” scheme is established in verse 1, but then every other “b” couplet attempts to rhyme words like “saves” and “change,” “soul” and “own,” and “wave” and “grace.” Almost none of the “a” couplets rhyme either save for one. “That Death May Die” is somewhat less spotty, but we still get “life” and “die,” “alive” and “die,” etc.
Now, I’ve relaxed my sensitivities to some extent when it comes to perfect rhymes in song. But even if I shrug away putting a singular with a plural, or coupling “-an” and “-and” (where the “d” falls quietly enough that it’s not too disruptive when sung), the likes of “head” and “flesh” are much tougher to reconcile. And all of this is particularly problematic in what is ostensibly a hymn lyric, because a hymn lyric isn’t just another song. It’s a very specific song form.
You see, song lyrics are like poetry. If you just sit down to write any old poem, you’re not bound by any particular constraint of form. But when you write, say, a sonnet, you need to follow a very specific set of rules, or it’s not really a sonnet. The hymn form, also part of the classic tradition of English poetry, is built on end-rhyme. So in English literary terms, completely replacing rhyme with assonance in the hymn form is a very recent development.  It leaves a “21st century thumbprint” which makes it instantly distinguishable from vintage pieces in the hymnbook. It arises from a contemporary habit of viewing assonance as “another kind of rhyme.” (For example, I watched a songwriters’ brainstorming session where they were looking for “-ar rhymes” and put out “heart,” among other ideas.) This is technically wrong. It’s much more akin to alliteration, where words beginning with the same consonant are pleasingly strung together. While assonance does commonly replace end-rhymes in French or Spanish poetry, in the English tradition it is more often used to create an extra flavor within a line. Here’s an example of internal assonance in Wordsworth, from a poem I’ve always hated, but it suits our purposes:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o‘er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…

Black and Boe are hardly alone in their reliance on assonance, as the Gettys and other modern hymn-writers use this technique quite a lot too. (I often joke that the lines “In Christ alone who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe/This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones he came to save” would rhyme… if I had a cold.) Yet I refuse to believe that veteran writers like these are unable to write a hymn in the old-fashioned way. It’s not like the modern man has lost the ability to rhyme exactly. Contemporary Christian folk writer Andrew Peterson relies almost exclusively on exact rhymes, as did influences of his like Rich Mullins, Paul Simon and Marc Cohn. Now I realize we can’t all be Rich Mullins, Paul Simon or Marc Cohn. No serious songwriter can deny that all those guys had a little extra something in the lyrics department. (Check out Cohn’s “Silver Thunderbird” for a particularly stellar example. And don’t get me started on Jimmy Webb—another day…) But I bring all these guys up because they prove that tightly crafted poetry in song, even popular song, shouldn’t be regarded as a thing of the distant past. Perhaps it would help if we began to sit down with our hymns and read through them as poems, not merely songs.

My point is that successful commercial writers are understandably used to allowing themselves the freedom of assonance for greater flexibility and broader appeal in their work. But it seems to me that when any songwriter sits down to pen something in a particular form, like a hymn, it should be accessible yes, but it should also follow the form—ideally, so that someone could even mistake it for a Watts, or Wesley, or Crosby-era piece. If those guys could churn out thousands upon thousands of perfectly rhymed hymns, surely a gifted contemporary writer can get through at least a few original contributions without having to fall back on assonance. If nothing else, it’s just plain good poetic exercise. And it’s fun! There’s a certain thrill that comes in meeting the challenges we humans set for ourselves, be it baseball, pole-vaulting, or writing poetry that touches people, follows a certain rhythmic pattern, and rhymes.
So, is it worth the extra effort to limit ourselves to perfect rhymes when carrying on the legacy of the grand old hymns? For tradition’s sake, for the sake of keeping our own poetic muscles in shape, and just for the sheer joy of it, I humbly submit that it is.

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  • John Situmbeko

    Great post.
    Today there are tools available to help in finding words that rhyme. One such tool is WordHippo.com, where one can type in a word and then select “rhymes with” on the options. A list is then provided of words that rhyme with the particular word one has typed in. I have used it myself before when I tried out songwriting, and I must say it is good, though it robs songwriters of that feeling of entitlement to pat themselves on the back for writing a stanza with perfect rhymes.

  • What you are referring to are slant rhymes or imperfect rhymes. Slant rhymes are extremely commonplace in songwriting and open up the writer to many other options when writing. Perfect rhymes limit the writer so much.
    While yes, you are correct, traditional hymns don’t use these kinds of rhymes and go for the more traditional perfect rhyme, Black’s and others’ modern hymns aren’t meant to be traditional. They are meant to be modern – thus taking on characteristics of both today’s songwriting trends and those of the traditional hymns.
    I’ve noticed that you are extremely critical of songwriting – going so far as to call some of the work of our popular songwriters “sloppy” just because you didn’t like a word they chose. (BTW, I haven’t critiqued your own verse replacements in that Taylors song because I was really be facetious about your rewriting them.) That being said, do you write yourself? If so, I’d love to see or hear some of it.
    Interesting food for thought none the less, even if I completely disagree with your assertions on songwriting so far. 😉

  • BTW – I also completely disagree about Andrew Peterson almost exclusively using perfect rhymes. Andrew does utilize a lot of perfect rhymes, however he also using as many if not more slant rhymes in his writing.

  • Yeah, slant rhyme is another name for it. I know it’s very common in songwriting, especially today. Seriously though, you should leaf through Paul Simon’s catalogue some time. I’m not claiming he never used an assonance, but perfect rhyme was his choice much more often than not, and I’d be interested to hear you argue that Paul Simon was a “limited” writer. 🙂
    I studied all kinds of literature (prose and poetry) very intensely in grade, middle, and highschool, so I guess I have a strong sense that things should be what they are when it comes to writing. If you’ve ever seen John Ford’s _The Quiet Man_, my approach is akin to the little Irishman’s approach to drinking: “When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey. When I drink water, I drink water.” If you’re going to deliberately write a “hymn” that doesn’t rhyme, I guess I’d prefer you just call it a song. Maybe it’s a very good song! But it’s no longer really part of the form. Again, in poetic terms, it would be like if I decided to write a “sonnet” with 20 lines (instead of 14, because it’s so hard to limit what I want to say to just 14 lines), lines of 10 syllables each except when that looks like it would be too limiting, and rhyme scheme not following any of the classic patterns because I’ve decided to create a new Modern Sonnet Form. No need for Shakespeare—now anybody could write a sonnet! (I’ve made only one stab at a sonnet myself, and unfortunately I carefully followed a rhyme pattern that turned out to be an amalgamation of two different schemas I’d studied. So what I ultimately produced was technically not a sonnet, though it followed all the other rules.)
    Of course that line in the Taylors song was sloppy, but it wasn’t sloppy because “I didn’t like it.” This reminds me of a scene in Adventures in Odyssey when Connie says Whit critiqued her play because “he didn’t like it,” and Whit goes, “It’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s that it wasn’t a good play.” By “sloppy,” I mean unclear, imprecise, which is exactly what a phrase like “such emotion” is. In my follow-up comment, I used the example of novel-writing. Even if the context is already establishing a general mood (positive or negative), a sentence like “Jenny was filled with such emotion” doesn’t really communicate anything insightful to the reader about what a character is feeling. Only when you get precise with the descriptor have you written something clear. As for its being the work of some of our most popular writers, hey, I just dissed Wordsworth in this post so you should know by now that I’m not afraid to call it like I see it, no matter who I’m critiquing. 🙂
    I do write and would be glad to share a few things. You can check your inbox later.

  • Really? I’ve enjoyed a lot of his stuff, but you’ve probably listened to more of his work than I have so I’ll take your word for it. (I’ve actually studied the work of his influences more thoroughly than Andrew’s own.) I do recall a couple songs where he used some assonance, but they were more recent and I haven’t kept up with his most recent albums. So he might be changing style a bit. However, the majority of the songs I’d heard of his were very carefully done. “The Reckoning” really struck me in particular. He seemed to be trying a lot harder than many other commercial songwriters to go for the perfect rhyme.

  • I was just leafing back through _The Far Country_, and I do see more assonance than I remembered, so “almost exclusively” was an overstatement. But then there are these long stretches that are all perfect rhyme. So I still think he’s more disciplined than the average writer. In my opinion, his perfectly rhymed work is always his best. It’s like a literary critic commented about Emily Dickinson—her work was sometimes technically flawed, but when it was good, it was technically good, because “There is no such thing as a good poem that is technically bad.”

  • Unfortunately, the comparison of those lyric with a novel just doesn’t hold up. The lyric of a song has to communicate in 6-8 lines per verse what a novel does over a few chapters. You HAVE to write things that cover a lot of ground quickly and that means implying a good many things and assuming that the listener will get it. Sometimes you have to go back and say “we didn’t really cover that very well” and go back and rewrite it. It’s just the nature of the beast.
    I get that you studied a lot of literature – but songwriting is a different art form and doesn’t and won’t follow the same guidelines that basic poetry or prose does. Songwriting has its rules, but sometimes those rules are meant to broken as well as the artform continues to develop (this is something hard for me to embrace as a songwriter, because I am a rule-follower by nature).
    Anyways, that’s just the two cents of a wanna-be songwriter.

  • Of course a song is briefer. Therein lies the extra fun in getting it right. 🙂 To clarify, I’m not saying they should have spent time trying to specify the emotion in the song, I’m saying that since they COULDN’T spend that time, the whole “emotion” idea should have been scrapped. Be precise or go somewhere totally different (and less sentimental, because there was that problem too).
    Well, of course I’ve also studied a lot of songwriting. But my point about a thing retaining its artistic identity, or just its identity, period, extends across a lot of different endeavors beyond just writing or literature. It’s true for things like sports, film, cooking, or worship too. I love hamburger—it is what it is. I love Chinese food too—it is what it is, but in a completely different way. I like Jim Brickman—he’s a contemporary pop pianist. Critics sneer at him, and I admit it’s basically nice elevator music, but it’s catchy and sweet and fun to play, like pop music. If Jim Brickman went for a change of pace and decided to write a sonata, but also decided he was going to change the rules for sonata-writing because he’s a “modern” pianist, that would be a cheapening of the art form.

  • YGG, I came across your post when I typed in “modern songwriters can’t rhyme” into Google (after listening to, of all things, a hip-hop song by Christian rapper “NF”). Your thoughts and follow-ups are PERFECTLY stated. They’re exactly what thousands of us have been thinking for at least a decade, chanting these mindless new worship songs.
    I have no proof of this, but my gut has always told me that this can’t-or-won’t-rhyme phenomenon is somehow related to the “trophies for everybody” mentality, millennials with a permanent head-bent-to-see-iPhone body, and just cultural illiteracy in general. Maybe many of these newer songwriters actually *don’t* have the ability to rhyme properly, based on their lack of understanding of poetry or writing or rhyme.
    And it’s not just worship songs, though; that’s the thing. The lack of ability to rhyme–or the lack of recognizance that words like “write” and “life” don’t rhyme–seems to reflect cultural illiteracy or ignorance. Christian music is just another patch of ground where the weed has sprouted again, possibly originating from the fact that most Christian children still, for some reason, attend government-run schools that chronically dumb down material, including literary forms that have beautifully served the English language for centuries. That could explain why we find horrible “rhymes” in newer country music, newer rap and hip-hop (like the above mentioned NF), newer pop music, and newer Christian music.
    Good writing takes work! And that’s what hymn writing is–work, with inspiration thrown in. I laughed out loud where you wrote that the bad rhymes immediately mark songs as new. Exactly! It’s not that poor rhymes are the most evil things in the world, obviously. But to me the bad-rhyme trend goes right on the shelf next to the current young generation’s lack of proficiency with times tables, wearing flip flops to weddings, and blaming “right brain and left brain,” “ADD,” or “learning disability” issues for simple laziness.