Alphabetic Morph Rhyme

L O V E letters floating in alphabet soup

There’s a good reason for the A E I O U arrangement of English vowels. Say A and the sound is high and at the back of your mouth. Say E and it moves forward. The sequence continues downward and forward until by the time you get to U, the sound is low and front. The same is true whether you’re vocalizing long vowels or short ones.

English being what it is, there are many words that vary only in that vowel sound, words like shape and sheep. Often, you can come up with a full set like taze, tease, ties, toes, twos. Sometimes by swapping the consonants around, you can add additional sets, full or partial, that sound similar—sate, seat, site, suit and stay, sty, stow, stew for example.

Marry that “rhyme scheme” to the standard iambic pentameter of English verse, and you come very close to a sonnet. In this case, it would be a five line opening stanza followed by two quatrains (each one rhyme word away from perfection).

To my ear, the first stanza of such a poem needs to use the full A E I O U sequence, to set the audience’s expectations. Subsequent stanzas may be missing a rhyme or two from the sequence, if there’s no word existing with that specific vowel sound. Or you can use a longer word (perhaps nasty and creosote to fill out the examples above). The final line of the poem pretty much has to end with a U word, or the piece just won’t sound finished.

Enjambment is generally important to keep the “rhyme” from banging its drum too loudly. But that’s not always the case.

I’ve been working in this form quite a bit lately, with some publishing success. The current issue of Verse Wisconsin online includes my single-stanza “Jenny by Moonlight,” for instance, and previous issues of the print magazine have included “Tom Thumb” (in which I “cheat” twice) and “Roman Holiday,” both reprinted below.


Tom Thumb
Like everyone, he owns a welcome mat
to wipe his feet. He hasn’t ever met
the neighbors, doesn’t know whose baseball mitt
lies in the yard, who feeds the midnight tom
prowling the alley, or the brindled mutt
tearing his trash. He’s sure that simple math
means one of these white houses hides a meth
lab. He insists that love’s a myth,
it’s sold like soap, or like a box of moth
balls. He will not be pinned under its thumb.


Roman Holiday
In the Vatican cafeteria, I say,
“Wine in milk cartons? That’s not something you see
back home. Red blood of Christ or white?” You sigh
and take the red, and chide me not to be so
flip. Upstairs in marble chambers old men sue
for holy favors. I say, “Come on, Ace,
we’re on vacation, here to take our ease
along the Forum, eat Italian ice
beside the Coliseum. No one owes
this gilded tomb. Let’s let spumoni ooze
come la lingua on our tongues; refresh our eyes
at Rome’s bright fountains; put our living blood to use.”


Photo by basheertome

One thought on “Alphabetic Morph Rhyme

  • December 25, 2011 at 2:14 am

    That’s a very interesting analysis of the vowel letters; the sounds you’re referring to are mostly their names. I’m not sure what you’re referring to by their location sounds. In “A” (IPA [eI]), the highest part of the tongue starts in the middle of the front of the mouth and moves up. In “E” ([i:]) it starts high front and may move a little higher. “I” ([aI]) starts way down in the back of the mouth and glides way up and forward. “O” ([oU]) starts in the back, mid-low, and moves to the high back, with the lips rounded. The name of “U”, ([ju:], or [yu:] for some Americanists), starts like “E”, high front and unrounded, and pulls back to high back while rounding the lips; but your examples leave off the initial [y] sound, so you’ve got [u:], which is fairly simple.

    Whatever you’re doing works for your poetry, but it doesn’t much match phonetic analysis of English. Oh… and whatever your reasoning may be, the vowel letters have the same order in all the languages that use the Roman alphabet, and the English sounds of those letters are vastly different from their sounds in most of those languages. As my daughter was overheard saying impatiently on the phone to a high-school classmate, “Of course I know what the Great Vowel Shift is. Everybody does!”

    –Dr. Whom, Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

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