ASK DR. BOLI.

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.

 

Comments

  1. When composing personally-meaningful poetry about deceased avians, one can always study and imitate the works of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings.

  2. Emily has already written a poem and needs only to recognize that she has done so:

    Dear Dr. Boli:

    My English teacher wants
    us to write a poem.
    It’s supposed to be about
    something that’s person-
    ally 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? — Sin-
    cerely, Emily, Mrs. Prong’s
    Eighth-Grade English Class.

    Good job, Emily! You have certainly expressed yourself in a personally meaningful way and thereby taught yourself that any sequence of words can rightly be called a poem. I would urge you to try ‘nonsense’ poetry next! Here’s a hint: “Wants teacher English my.” Also, experiment with capiTalizaTion, mispeling, and bad grammars! You want to strive for authenticity, and nothing shouts authenticity louder than a middle school student’s poor command of language!

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  3. Clay Potts says:

    Dear Miss Emily,

    You might also consider the time saving Poetry Plagiarism Method of completing your assignment. I have taken the liberty of pre-selecting two “Dead Bird” poems which received good marks for originality. Remember to substitute you name for the writers! Hope you can use one of these!

    “Little Birdy” A Poem By Allison Appleyes, Third Grade

    Little Birdie in the grass
    Little Birdie, flies so fast!
    Little Birdie how you crashed
    Into Mommy’s window sash!

    Little Birdie in the grass
    Little Birdie breathed her last
    Little Birdies dead n’ smashed
    My, How little buggies eat so fast!

    Mommy toss’d you in the trash.

    The End

    “Bower’s Last Hour” A Poem By Billy Spindleknee, Sixth Grade

    Oh, Bowerbird building up your bower
    Popping up your tiny head above the dandy flowers
    Wish You’d held you head just a little lower
    When Daddy passed over with the spinning mower

    Like you, I lost my head, and cried for near an hour.

    The End

  4. Tom Ball says:

    I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas

  5. Caren says:

    I think a multiple-choice solution to this problem could work. For instance:

    Alas, poor (birdie, vole, clown, ungulate of indeterminate origin),
    Lying (dead, helpless, gnawed on, drunk) on the (floor, pavement, expensive rug, rooftop).
    You make me feel (sad, happy, confused, somewhat queasy) as I contemplate (life, death, the origin of the universe, lunch.)
    How I (wish, hope, want, don’t want) you to (live, die, go away, decompose) on this (sunny day, moonlit night, dreary season, evidence file).

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