A story. It is said that once when the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman was playing a concert in Carnegie Hall, a string on his violin snapped. His playing came to an abrupt halt. The audience expected the violinist to disappear backstage to restring his instrument. Instead, he motioned to the conductor to begin the movement again. Then, through sheer genius and determination, he proceeded to play the entire length of the piece on only three strings. The audience was stunned. He silenced them with one simple sentence: “The challenge in life is to make music with what remains.”
When it comes to expressing love in our time—and I write here of the word itself—the English language harbors some of the qualities of that three-stringed violin. According to one set of online rhyming dictionaries, Spanish poets have 636 words at their disposal to rhyme with amor, The French amour has 928. The English love, however, has a mere 6: glove, above, dove, shove, of, and thereof. As my friend Carolyn Wells put it, “They don’t call them Romance languages for nothing.” The poet Bob Holman simply suggests new pronunciations. “What I’d like to see is love rhyme with stove, ’cause that’s what heats it up and gets it cookin’.”
Words may be raining from above, but there are only a few that rhyme with love. The challenge for the poets writing in English is to create poems using the words at hand. And yet the best English-language poets compose beautiful music using just those six rhyming words. They find ingenious ways to turn what my wife, folklorist Amanda Dargan, calls a “creative constraint” to their advantage.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: act II, scene II
Not Hermia, but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806¬–1861), from “Sonnet XV”
Beholding, besides love, the end of love,
Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.
William Butler Yeats (1865–¬1939), from his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
English words don’t rhyme as easily as words in other languages, particularly Romance languages, in which conjugation and gender are expressed in easily rhymable suffixes. Often, translating poets who write in seamless rhyme from other languages can strain the syntax and result in the poem sounding sing-songy in English. Most contemporary English-language poets forego rhyme, perhaps for that reason, but songwriters, beginning at least with Stephen Foster, have rarely shied away from it.
Stephen Foster (1826–¬1864), from “I Would Not Die in Springtime”
… let me die in Winter
When night hangs dark above,
And cold the snow is lying
On bosoms that we love
Ah! may the wind at midnight,
That bloweth from the sea,
Chant mildly, softly, sweetly
A requiem for me.
Billie Holiday, “Like Someone in Love” (1957)
Each time I look at you,
I’m limp as a glove,
And feeling like someone in love.
The Everly Brothers, from “Bye, Bye Love” (1957)
I´m a-through with romance, I´m a-through with love
I´m through with a-countin´ the stars above
Dolly Parton, from “Coat of Many Colors” (1971)
Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin’ every piece with love
She made my coat of many colors
That I was so proud of
Def Leppard, from “Fractured Love” (1993)
Fractured love, fractured love
Iron fist in a velvet glove
50 Cent, from “Get Up” (2008)
I came to bring you that California love
And a lil’ New York hatin’
It’s all of the above
Certainly the great songwriters of the twentieth century have been undaunted by the limited rhymes for love.
Bob Dylan, from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (1975)
Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I Iove
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.
Some have also ingeniously used the ghazal style of using the same last word in each line, and rhyming the next to last. They use the same end refrain and a rhyming word before it.
Lyle Lovett, from “Farther Down the Line” (1986)
One day she’ll say she loves you
And the next she’ll be tired of you
And push’ll always come to shove you
On that midnight rodeo
So how do I love you? Let me count the words…that rhyme. What does the fact that there are only six words that rhyme with love tell us about love in the English language? “Maybe because nothing can even come near love,” says the poet Sahar Muradi, “it’s fitting that so few things rhyme with it—it’s either love or nothing.”
Fortunately, we don’t have to express our love for one another in rhyme, which would be particularly difficult in English. Certainly, sometimes it is not easy to say the three words that we do have: I love you. There are not six ways to say it, only one. And we water it down by saying, “Love you,” “Luv you,” “or, in writing, “Much love” or “Lotsa love,.” or “ILY.” Some of us are willing to sign some of our letters “Love,” while others feel that it might be sending the wrong message.
We can all find ways to express our love within the limits of the English language, where there can be six words that rhyme with it, three words that say it, or no words at all. Perhaps this Valentine’s Day, we can find those three words and tell someone, “I love you.” Or, as my high school girlfriend Tilly Lavenas signed a yearbook inscription to me, “I love you madly, endlessly, insufferably, etc.”
In the words written by my wife, Amanda, for her song “Better Angels,” she finds still new and ingenious ways to rhyme the words for love.
Reach for those who love you, angels
Let them fly above you, angels
Singing like a dove, your angels
Hallelujah by and by
* * * * *
“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.
Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to firstname.lastname@example.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. .
“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.
Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to email@example.com. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.