What defines a poem? To many people, it is as simple as writing several lines of words with similar syllable counts and an easily identifiable rhyme scheme. To others, it can be as complex as associating techniques such as internal rhyme or particular cadences, or sometimes it employs no rhyme scheme at all, but emphasizes its content through imagery, clever wordplay and other writing techniques such as symbolism or allegory. Ultimately, it begs the question: are written pieces such as nursery rhymes actually considered poetry?
Many who are more versed in written poetry would be tempted to say that poetry as a whole is a composition of words in prose or verse form (even if that form happens to be blank verse with no real, defined or recognizable structure at all), the end result of an attempt to portray vivid emotions and ideas. Rhymes, arguably, are really only one piece to this puzzle on a general scale, assuming they are even utilized at all (refer to blank verse). Considering there are various types of rhymes and rhyme schemes (when they even exist) that can appear in a wide variety of ways, to argue that a nursery rhyme is on par with ‘legitimate’ poetry might be taken as an insult to some poetry purists.
And while it is true that, by their nature, nursery rhymes in general are not at all complex in either vocabulary, posited ideas or imagery, or even any sort of complicated rhyme scheme (generally, they employ some variant of the easily repetitive a, b, a, b style with the rhyme pairs consistently appearing at the end of lines), the idea that nursery rhymes could qualify as legitimate poetry could very well come down to nothing but personal preference.
With that said, the main element in nursery rhymes is in fact the rhymes themselves. The easily identifiable rhythmic meter is precisely what gives nursery rhymes their unique quality as opposed to being pairs of potentially meaningless, written verse that may or may not have rhyming words coming together at the end of them. Often, nursery rhymes employ few other (if any) poetic techniques for the sake of being simple enough for children to understand. And consider nursery are written primarily for young children. Many young children aren’t interested in or able to identify internal meaning or even many rhyme schemes any more complicated than external rhymes (incorporating words that rhyme at the end of lines), even though other potential rhymes do exist, such as the internal rhyme (in which words within the same line rhyme with each other), the assonantal or consonantal rhymes (which attempt a rhyme scheme by either vowel or consonant sounds respectively rather than an entire syllable), or even alliteration.
So, while it is not necessarily inaccurate to say that nursery rhymes are poetry, it puts a very broad definition to an already broad and sometimes vague topic of discussion in defining poetry. The greatest debate seems to be that nursery rhymes exist primarily to highlight only one technique of written poetry – and only one technique that may or may not even be used consistently within poetry. Very infrequently does a nursery rhyme involve any other poetic qualities besides cadence and overly simplistic rhyme schemes. So, when asked if nursery rhymes are poetry, it’s really only a small corner of poetic possibility that nursery rhymes ever touch upon.