Dear Dr. Boli: My English teacher wants us to write a poem. It’s supposed to be about something that’s personally meaningful to us, but other than that she didn’t tell us anything except that it’s due Wednesday. She showed us some poems other students wrote, and from those I don’t even know how a poem is different from an essay, except that the lines are shorter. So what is a poem, and how do you write one? —Sincerely, Emily, Mrs. Prong’s Eighth-Grade English Class.
Dear Miss: As so often happens, there are two different answers to your question: the real answer, and the answer that will bring you success in school. In the real world, a poem is “a metrical composition,” as our old friend Dr. Johnson would define it. Meter is what makes a poem. It is possible to write a poem without a regular meter, as Walt Whitman did so well; but if you do so, you had better have a sense of rhythm as perfectly developed as Walt Whitman’s, or what you have is not a poem but a prose composition hacked into short lines.
The “poem” your English teacher desires you to write, however, is a prose composition hacked into short lines. You will often find that what you are taught in school is the exact opposite of reality, but as you grow older you learn to adapt to it instinctively. The good news for you is that a school “poem” is much easier to write than any other form of composition. It requires no research: in fact, research is frowned upon, because, as you mentioned, the poem is meant to be “personally meaningful,” which you may interpret as “made up out of your own head.” You may be confident that you are doing something wrong if this homework assignment takes more than ten minutes of your time.
As for the specific content, remember that you will be graded on your sincerity. This is, of course, a trap, because if you write down what you sincerely think and feel, you will probably be suspended if not expelled. So it is important that you simulate sincerity effectively. Write about finding a dead bird on the sidewalk and how sad it made you feel. That pretty much always gets you an A.