Climbing Rhyme on the Burma Road

Tho our knowledge of Burma may go no further than the Road to Mandalay or the Burma Road made famous in song, movie and war, that fascinating country has been around a long time. Ptolemy wrote of it around 140 CE, and Chinese records mention it at about the same time. Burmese prose inscriptions on stone exist from the 7th century or earlier, tho the first datable poetry fragments we have are from 1113 CE.

Burmese poetry has a long and distinguished history. Classical Burmese poetry comes in many lengths and forms, but most of it is characterized by a repeated sequence of 3 internally-rhymed lines consisting of 4 syllables each–a pattern that has become known as Climbing Rhyme.

In English verse we are more accustomed to end rhyme, but most Burmese patterns employ a scheme of internal rhyme: the same rhyme appears in the 4th syllable of line 1, the 3rd syllable of line 2 and the 2nd syllable of line 3. This is called the 4-3-2 scheme; its characteristic stairstep gave rise to its name, climbing rhyme. The last syllable of line 3 begins a new series of rhymes, continuing the 4-3-2 pattern.

Since Burmese is basically a monosyllabic language, each syllable has independent meaning and can be used as one word. A 4-syllable line, then, is generally also a 4-word line. This Burmese sample illustrates the climbing rhyme effect. Rhymes are underlined:

za-ti pon nya
gon ma-na-hpyin
than-pa hon-son
hpet-me kyon-tha
a-thon htaung-hta
(x, x,c,x
x, c, x, d

This scheme is repeated throughout a verse, no matter the length. In longer poems, a poet may occasionally throw in a different pattern (such as 4-3-1, or 4-2 or 3-1) to avoid monotony. A verse frequently ends with a longer line, often of 5, 7, 9 or even 11 syllables.

Such a pattern should transfer well to English verse: It offers an abundance of sound harmonies for the lovers of conventional verse but placates lovers of prose verse by hiding the rhyme internally; it provides both a tightly controlled structure and a certain look and feel of freedom; its short lines suit the modern inclination and it accepts variation; it adapts easily to both short and long verses. The result in English might well be a line that flows smoothly and quickly, with a minimum of distasteful inversions and other manglings in the name of end rhyme.

Since an English line might be unworkably short at 4 syllables, we might try a line of 4 words, using the prescribed 4-3-2 rhyme scheme and ending in a slightly longer final line. Here is my 1st attempt:


Some party people I
greet will lie, feign
laughter, alibi their wrongs,
sing mating songs to
unhearing throngs at office celebrations.

Wanting to test the pattern in a longer verse, I tried the following in homage to Mr. Shakespeare:


Living’s merely the stage
untutored actors age on–
nothing sage, nothing profound
happens, only drowned emotions
some uncrowned king inside
continues to hide, refuses
to stride the world
unfettered, flag unfurled against
fate’s hurled arrows, cannot
invent his plot, must
speak what is penned
for him, suspend himself,
amend, pretend until he
becomes someone free, someone
striding Galilee, crowned messiah
in a world he never meant to be.

After following the pattern carefully for most of the poem, I wanted to introduce a surprise near the climax for emphasis: amend/pretend tries to do that. Then the verse regains strength by returning to pattern before offering surprises in the final long line and ee end rhyme. Repetition of world reinforces the familiar by revisiting an earlier pattern.

Why not try your own climbing rhyme? It shows definite promise. Try it in humorous verse, children’s verse, folk/myth verse or something else. Put it to work for you.

© Copyright 1995 Larry Gross

In a slightly different form, this article first appeared in HWUP! #31, December 1994.

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