Bitslice Rhyme

Bitslice rhyme is my name for a type of rhyme pattern in which multiple sound elements are repeated in an interleaved arrangement. It’s easier to show by example than to explain. As far as I know, I’m the first and only poet to use bitslice rhyme. If you’ve seen another, let me know! All the similar poetic effects that I have seen are one-off devices (“here’s a cute bit to emphasize this point”) rather than elements of form.

Joined Bitslice Rhyme

Here is the simplest bitslice rhyme scheme. The first two lines rhyme in the vowel. The second two lines rhyme in the consonant. The middle line participates in both rhymes, creating an overlap effect.

I go
with them.

For notating bitslice rhyme, I use vowels A E ... to stand for vowel rhymes and consonants B C ... to stand for consonant rhymes. A line that participates in more than one rhyme is a “join point” and gets more than one letter. A line which does not participate in any rhyme can be marked X (though there are no X’s below).

Instructions from the Clan Chief uses a more elaborate version of this basic scheme. In this poem, the join at the end of each stanza is symbolic.

  If ever the ships come to break our clan
    And carry you away,
  Remember your first days: You had to learn
    The strength in gales,
The long work carved from the long sky in rain.

Joined bitslice rhyme schemes emphasize the join point words.

Crosslinked Bitslice Rhyme

In a crosslinked scheme, multiple rhyme words are join points. This creates an effect of dense interrelation in which no element is singled out for emphasis.

The light was before the dark,
But until the stars were made
The universe was opaque,
So seeing things was hard.

In a fully crosslinked scheme like this, every possible pair of elements occurs exactly once. You can scramble the rhymes into any order with only modest changes to the audible effect. (By the way, the cosmology in the example below may not be strictly correct.)

Darkness is older than light.
The primordial reboot
Took place at zero time,
When there was zero room.

Just for fun, here is a three-element fully crosslinked bitslice rhyme scheme, suitable for silly poems like this bit of nonsense. As a side effect, it rhymes conventionally with ABCDABCD. (The rhymes could be reordered into couplets or quatrains to make the conventional rhymes stand out above the overlap effect.)

Do not pat
The heated pan:
It is a pit
In which a pin
Drops like a cat,
Or like a can
Built from a kit
That has no kin.

In a partially crosslinked bitslice rhyme scheme, two or more words form join points, but not all do.

The aliens stated as a fact:
They will destroy the Earth,
Every mountain and every worm.
Yay! I can skip my bath!

A continuous bitslice rhyme scheme keeps unrolling to create a seamless rhyme fabric, similarly to terza rima. The End of History uses the simplest continuous bitslice rhyme scheme. It is natural to finish off with a couplet (though another idea is to wrap around to the beginning: AD AB EB EC IC ID).

I pulled on a loose thread of history
And unraveled a seam that I hadn’t seen.
How did it happen? I can’t explain.
History’s disparate parts disarrayed
And I dropped the theoretical thread.
Not kinder, not gentler, not on the mend—
Now history runs to a ragged

Further Notes

Many other bitslice rhyme schemes are possible. More bitslice rhyme schemes exist than traditional rhyme schemes. Bitslice rhyme affords richer possibilities of tailoring for specific purposes. One way to think of it is that traditional rhyme is a special case of bitslice rhyme. The traditional rhyme ABAB can be written in bitslice notation as AB EC AB EC.

Various kinds of unusual or partial rhymes can be written simply in bitslice notation. An example is Wilfred Owen’s deliberately dissonant “para-rhymes”. (Note the Hopkins-like “vowelling off” effect: The second vowel of each rhyming pair is lower in pitch. The notation could be extended to capture that.)

(from "Strange Meeting")
It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned....
Wilfred Owen

The general technique of bitslicing can also be used with material other than rhymes. I’ll leave the possibilities to your imagination.

This essay first posted October 2007. The technique was renamed “bitslice” rhyme on 14 November. The “Instructions from the Clan Chief” example was added August 2008.