Spectrum: “Impossible” Rhymes


Verse by Brian Allgar, Jerome Betts, Laura J. Bobrow, Chris O’Carroll, Catherine Chandler,
Daniel W. Galef, X.J. Kennedy, Bob McKenty, Orel Protopopescu,
Robert Schechter, and John Whitworth


by Bob McKenty

Gene Lees’s The Modern Rhyming Dictionary has a three-page list of “Words that Do Not Rhyme.” Included are the infamous ORANGE, MONTH, and PENGUIN. Oddly, CIRCLE, ENVY. SILVER, and PURPLE didn’t make his list. Light versers have considered the “impossible” rhyme not as a restriction, but as a challenge. (CHALLENGE is on Lees’s list.) The website mentalfloss.com has a more manageable list in an article titled “23 Notoriously Unrhymable Words that Actually Have Rhymes.” One entry, “BULB rhymes with culb, an obscure 17th century word for a retort or a barbed reply,” is representative. Obscurity, however, is the domain of heavy verse, and unfit for Light. But their list of unrhymables is helpful. Along with BULB and a few of the usual suspects, it lists ACRID, ANGST, BEIGE, CHAOS, CIRCUS, CONCIERGE, FALSE, FILM, FILTH, GOUGE, GULF, MUSIC, REPLENISH, RHYTHM, WASP, WIDTH, WINDOW, and WOMEN (I’ve eliminated DUNCE, because of “once”). Also worthy of inclusion (from Lees’s list): BISHOP, CYCLONE, FAITHFUL, HAPPEN, ITEM, KITCHEN, OSTRICH, PADLOCK, PROBOSCIS, POLKA, PYGMY, SOFA, STALACTITE, STALAGMITE, and TRINKETS.

It is instructive to see the circumventions poets have used—techniques I like to call “rhymenastics”— that can enliven anyone’s verses. The “unrhymables” are a good jumping-off point for exploring rhymenastics. Let’s start with ORANGE. No less a light heavyweight than Arthur Guiterman rejoiced on discovering in Central Park, the statue of

…Redoubtable Commander H. H. Gorringe,
Whose name supplies the long-sought rhyme for “orange.”
— Arthur Guiterman, “Local Note”

So Proper Nouns—not commonly included in rhyming dictionaries—provide one workaround. A sitcom character gave me a rhyme for CIRCLE:

Who needs Urkel?
Any jerk’ll
Rhyme with circle.

And now we have another workaround: the mosaic (rhyming one or more words with multiple words, or with a contraction). Lyricist Tom Lehrer, in “A Christmas Carol,” wrote,

Relations, sparing no expense’ll
Send some useless old utensil.

In her Christmas poem “Holly Daze,” Maureen Cannon observed,

Attempts to recycle
The gift you don’t like’ll
Lead straight to debacle (who’ll save it?)
If, deep in a swivet,
You happen to give it
Right back to the giver who gave it!

When late hockey legend Gordie Howe was still playing in his fifties—on the same team with two of his sons—I predicted that

Someday Gordie Howe’ll
Toss in the towel
And give up the hat tricks
For geriatrics.

Gordie finally died—at age 88—in 2016.

Edmund Conti uses a mosaic to create an ingenious rhyme for ENVY:

often been filled with envy
for those who know that X is ten, V

Ogden Nash used one masterfully in “The Perfect Husband”:

He tells you when you’ve got on too much lipstick
And helps you with your girdle when your hips stick.

Stephen Sondheim, in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) has this delicious rhyme:

Someone who, when fetching your slipper will
be winsome as a whippoorwill…

Bill Cole’s oft-anthologized “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses” is loaded with mosaics, including:

How we covet all the skills it
Takes in making Chevre or Tilsit…


Likewise, pick a Beaune, not Coke for
Pointing up a Bleu or Roquefort…

If you can rhyme one word with two or more, why not break words in two? Willard Espy’s Words to Rhyme With (he had the courage not to call it a “dictionary”) includes many excellent examples, among them his crack at ORANGE:

The four eng-
Wore orange

And somewhere else he notes

That it is unth-
inkable to find a rhyme for month.

And who says you have to use only English words? With six years of French under my belt, I thought immediately of Il mange / l’orange (he eats the orange), but that was cheating, so I amended it to

A rhyme for orange?
Because I’m foreign, je

… adding a mosaic to the mix.

Rhymes that intermix languages are called macaronics. The master of macaronics is Tom Lehrer, erstwhile Harvard math professor turned author of scurrilous songs in the ’50s and ’60s. My all-time favorite rhyme, using the Greek phrase for “Lord have mercy” in the old Latin Mass, is his

Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison
[from “The Vatican Rag”]

In “In Old Mexico” he rhymes “Guadalajara” with “tomarra,” while in “George Murphy,” he muses that

… even in Egypt, the Pharaohs
had to import Hebrew braceros.

and in “Bright College Days,” he has this delightful sequence:

Turn on the spigot.
Pour the beer and swig it
And gaudeamus igit-

… breaking a word in the process.

My contribution is “The Tourist”:

Wo ist es?” and “Wieviel uhr ist?”
Asks the nervous, novice tourist—
Questions certain to embarrass
When he learns that he’s in Paris.

When all else (mosaics, macaronics, whatever) fails to yield a satisfactory rhyming word, make one up—or force an existing one to fit. This is a technique I call Nashing, in honor of the poet who made it his hallmark. In “The Tycoon” (my favorite Nash poem), he wrote of St. Louis Cardinal legend Stan Musial,

The business life of Mr. Musial
Is, to say the least, unusial…

Nash’s “Introspective Reflection” is

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nousiance.

Who else would rhyme “flotsam and jetsam” with “forgetsam”? Or say, “… if called by a panther, / Don’t anther”?

Although no one can match the Master at Nashing, the rest of us like to try our hand at it from time to time. I love Roy Blount, Jr.’s “Song Against Broccoli”:

All the neighborhood stores were out of broccoli.

Tom Lehrer, who excels at all kinds of rhyming, says we’ll “Send the Marines”

…to the shores of Tripoli
But not to Mississippoli.

Mae Scanlan’s “Invitation”—a masterful celebration of Nashing—opens with

Do come join me for dinner tonight. We’ll start with drambuie,
And then move on to something chuie,
Some delectable little hors d’oeuvre
Which I shall s’oeuvre…

Warning: Never try Nashing with your spell-checker turned on.

Would you dare to be brasher than Nash? Try what I call Carrolling and invent your own language, as in “Jabberwocky”:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe. …
—Lewis Carroll

Louis Phillips, in Further Thoughts on Rhyme, his update of Espy’s Words to Rhyme With, calls such made-up terms “nonce words.”

Maybe you don’t need to mangle the language, just tweak it a little with a dialect, or a speech impediment. Alma Denny concludes her “Lisper’s Delight” with

It’s nice to be with
Kin you can kith.

Cole Porter introduced a little Brooklynese and Yiddish into “You’re the Top”:

You’re my thoist,
You’re a Drumstick Lipstick,
You’re da foist
In da Irish Svipstik

And if you put on your finest Irish brogue, you’ll find that all the lines in my poem about “McSorley’s Old Ale House” rhyme:

People come from near and far
To meet McSorley’s Matty Maher
And see his antiquated bar
With sawdust strewn upon the floor;
Where chamber pot and cuspidor
And turkey bones are objets d’art;
Where scores of ancient carvings scar
The tabletops; where FDR
Hangs grimly; where the repertoire
Is “light” or “dark”; and where there are
No strains of amplified guitar;
Where Time’s stood still (a grand memoir!)
Since eighteen hundred fifty four.

Never say never. Dream the impossible dream. Push the envelope. Your verse will be the better for it.

And speaking of envelope pushing…
Here are our favorite responses to 
Light‘s call for short poems that rhyme on Lees’s “Words that Do Not Rhyme,” or on words from similar lists. (For longer poems in the same vein, see Daniel W. Galef‘s and Bob McKenty‘s pages in this issue.)
Many thanks to all who submitted!


The Defenestration of Prague

The councillors admitted: “We have sinned! O,
Kindly throw us from the nearest window.”

Ecclesiastical Eructations

Regrettably, our vicar, Reverend Worple,
Cannot digest his port; that extra slurp’ll
Have him groaning, then a mighty burp’ll
Turn him a rich ecclesiastic purple.


A violinist who would well bow
Needs a very supple elbow.


Cheers for the Chancellor

As Earth completes another circle
And humans gorge and bellies bloat
Let’s toast our Angela, the Merkel
Who keeps the Eurozone afloat
And hopes no Press-repressing Turk’ll
Make some rash move and rock the boat.


The Hyena

An Italian once slapped a subpoena
on a visiting laughing hyoena.
“What you do when at home,
is forbidden in Rome!
Take your paws off of that signoroena.”

Mother Turtle

Let us pity the poor mother turtle
who is prone to shed tears when she’s fertile,
for she knows, without doubt,
when her babies dine out
that the soup will cost more than dessert’ll.


Explaining Betacism

For the Spanish, the v
is pronounced like the b;
so the Ranger’s horse, Silver,
and the poet named Wilbur
perfect-rhyme in Havana,
but not Indiana.

a further orange

you going too far
with your enj-
some asked e


There Was an Old Man of the South

Edward Lear popularized the limerick, but his verses differ from today’s in that (1) they are clean and (2) the last word usually rhymes with itself. The latter was unacceptable to writer/comedian Ronnie Barker, who in 2001 composed substitute final lines for 112 limericks in Lear’s 1846 Book of Nonsense. Barker himself often used speech impediments, foreign accents, and other verbal gymnastics to justify rhymes, so it is shocking that a single poem in Lear’s book was skipped: “There Was an Old Man of the South.” It is the only offending verse not remedied, as Barker writes in the margin “Impossible—no further rhymes.” Clearly, this cannot stand.

There was an Old Man of the South,
Who had an immoderate mouth;
But in swallowing a dish
That was quite full of Fish,
He was choked, that Old Man of the South.
He lisped: “How I wish it were grouthe!”


Beauty Hint

Here’s a friendly suggestion for women
Who seek to grow svelter by slimmin’:
It’s a fatal mistake
To take seconds on steak
And far wiser to suck a persimmon.


Stock Answer

A Boston broker
Danced the polka.

Tea on Toity-toid Street

Brooklynite’s peculiar foible?
He calls his decaf teabag “hoible.”


Bob said money was no object
(So the IRS had Bob checked).


Size Matters

The snacks bade Alice, “Munch me. Swig me.
Be a giant. Be a pygmy.”

The Not OK Corral

In the stampede’s deadly chaos,
I was trampled by a bay hoss.

Worse Than Chlorination

It’s rumored men pee in the water. Women
Therefore find this pool unfit to swim in.

A Policy of Tedium

The speaker was the dimmest bulb,
His topic life insurance.
The lecture that he gave was dull b-
Eyond mortal endurance.


Matchless Words

Pity the rhyme-poor words without a mate.
The terminally single can relate.
Where can you turn for solace if you’re purple?
What choice between a hirple or a curple?
But if you’re rhymeless, timeless Russian borscht,
just go with sour cream and bread, of courscht!


They Took Manhattan

At first I was Brooklyned, but soon was outmeansed
by snooty young gentry, so next I was Queensed.

The process continues. With genuine angst,
as rents keep on rising, I fear I’ll be Bronxed.


My brain is slow.
I have but one th-
ought or so,
at best, per month.

Dress Code

was the color
I felt the most silly in
for most of my life
until ver-

Fine Distinction

The brothel’s pompous concierge
explained, “Both labels suit.
What some may call a demi-vierge
some call a demi-pute.”


The Woes of Ganymede

I am a catamite of Jove’s.
He likes me best wivout me cloves.
He likes me lithe. He likes me lissom.
He likes ter grab me balls ter kiss ’em.
He likes ter grab me balls ter bite ’em.
That’s why we first became an item.

At dinnertime, before we dish up,
He doesn’t want ter bash the bishop.
He wants me prone wivout a stitch on,
Upon the table in the kitchen
And sets up such a frantic rhythm,
I can’t say no or reason with ‘im.

Brian Allgar is the featured poet in this issue.

Jerome Betts lives in Devon, England and edits the quarterly Lighten Up Online. His verse has appeared in a wide variety of British magazines and anthologies as well as UK, European, and North American web publications such as Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, Light, The Asses of Parnassus, The New Verse News, Per Contra, The Rotary Dial, and Snakeskin.

Laura J. Bobrow uses poetry extensively in her career as a nationally-known storyteller. She has been likened in print to Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and A.A. Milne. One of her poems appears in a fourth grade textbook in Abu Dhabi. www.laurajbobrow.com

Catherine Chandler is an American-born Canadian poet, teacher and translator who has lived, worked and raised her children in the Montreal area since 1972. She currently resides in Saint-Lazare-de-Vaudreuil, Québec. Deo gratias.

Daniel Galef has written light verse, heavy verse, sketch comedy, prose fiction, comic strips, death threats, one short-lived scientific advice column, and just about everything else for a hundred different venues in a half-dozen countries. His next musical play, The Original, premiers at the Montreal Players’ Theatre in March 2017.

X.J. Kennedy has written several books of verse, most recently Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines (Grolier Poetry Press); two dozen children’s books, including a much praised novel The Owlstone Crown; and schoolbooks used by millions, including An Introduction to Fiction. His first comic novel for adults is A Hoarse Half-human Cheer.

Bob McKenty’s verses have appeared in numerous periodicals that have either gone out of print (The Critic, Datamation, The Formalist, Marriage & Family Living, McCall’s, Manhattan Poetry Review, and The New York Daily Mirror), or discontinued poetry (The American Journal of Nursing, The New York Times “Jersey Diary,” Reader’s Digest ‘s “Picturesque Speech,” and The Wall Street Journal’s “Pepper…and Salt”), and in books that have gone out of print. But for the past 25 years, he has still been unable to sink Light.

Chris O’Carroll has been a Light featured poet, and also has poems published or forthcoming in Angle, The Orchards, Parody, The Rotary Dial, and Snakeskin, among other print and online journals, and in the anthologies The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology and Poems for a Liminal Age (published in support of Doctors Without Borders). He did the spotlight essay on Brian Allgar for this issue of Light, but what he really enjoys is writing about himself in the third person.

Orel Protopopescu won the Oberon poetry prize in 2010 and a commendation in the Second Light Live Competition, 2016. What Remains (2011), her chapbook, was published by Finishing Line Press. Thelonious Mouse, her fourth picture book, won a Crystal Kite, 2012, from SCBWI. A Thousand Peaks, Poems from China (with Siyu Liu) was selected for the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age list. A Word’s a Bird, her animated, bilingual (English/French) poetry book for iPad, was on SLJ’s list of ten best children’s apps, 2013. Her poetry has appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Oberon, Poetry Bay, Light, Lighten Up Online, New Verse News, Socialism and Democracy, and other reviews and anthologies. She teaches at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, Huntington Station, New York. www.orelprotopopescu.com

Robert Schechter‘s poems have appeared in Highlights for Children, Cricket, The Washington Post, and various other magazines and anthologies. He was the winner of the 2016 X.J. Kennedy Parody Award

John Whitworth is one of those fattish, balding old English poets. You know the sort. He tries to win things and sometimes he actually does. His latest book is Joy in the Morning.