Poems Flowing Like…Toothpaste?

Last week, I gave my students about twenty minutes to write a poem. Taking my own advice on finding a new place to write, I arranged for us to have class on the school’s front lawn. The students were permitted to sit anywhere, as long as I could see them (although I had to tighten the rules a bit when a few of the kids started climbing trees).

The assignment perimeters were relatively straight forward. Ten lines or more. Throw in a few of the poetic devices we talked about in class (simile, metaphor, etc.). Beyond that, go to town.

And still, so many of the students panicked. Even those who can pound out five paragraphs in five minutes suddenly forget how to pick up a pen. “This is hard,” moaned one particularly prolific student, as she stared miserably at me from across an empty page.

One young man decided to use the assignment to let me know how silly he thought the assignment was. The following day in class, when the students sat in a circle to share their work, he had this to say:

Poem

I am not a worker
and this
is not an assembly line.

Poems can’t be made on
command,
squeezed out of a writer
like the last bit of toothpaste.

Poems are the tips of pencils.
Sometimes sharp and coded,
left for the reader to decipher.
Sometimes dull, boring holes
in your brain with boredom.

The decision is yours:
Dull or sharp?

This student seems to believe that poetry should come from internal inspiration, rather than outside force–and ideally, he’d be right.

Practically speaking, of course, as a teacher I have no choice but to “command.” If I told a group of high school kids, “Write a poem, but only if you feel inspired,” how many poems do you think I’d collect? No, of course I ordered my students to write poetry (although the “assembly line” dig was a bit harsh, given that the students had the freedom to lounge around outside as they wrote). And when inspiration did not immediately make itself known, I required them to search for it. In the end, thirty-five poems were turned in–and that’s thirty-five more than would have been done if I’d made the assignment “optional.”

Not every finished poem was brilliant, of course. But I’m a firm believer that mediocre writing is better than no writing.

The best part of all? In trying to prove that a poem “can’t be made on command,” the aforementioned student ended up producing a darn good poem.

Now, imagine yourself at the end of the busy day. You could sit down and write, but you’re tired. And you haven’t got any exciting ideas anyway.

But before giving up, ask yourself: What would happen if you squeezed out that last bit of toothpaste?


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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6 thoughts on “Poems Flowing Like…Toothpaste?

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  1. I like what Billy Collins told a gathering of young student poets at the White House not long ago. He said we all have about 300 bad poems inside us, and often we need to write most of those before we start writing good ones (or he said something like that). Maybe telling them that you don’t expect that it is going to be a good poem, but that it’s an exercise could make it easier, though I am guessing you did say that. I don’t know. But I feel for the kid. I cannot write a poem on command, and even when given a prompt for NaPoWriMo it may take me all day before I get something out. We all know that writing a poem is indeed much more difficult than cranking out several paragraphs. If it wasn’t I would stick to prose. But I like the challenge of seeing what wants to be written. But of course what you are getting at is what happens after the inspiration– the editing, the refining, the polishing. It’s hard work distilling truth and beauty down to a few tight lines. I guess it’s a tricky assignment, but you get where he’s coming from, and hopefully he got your point too. While I cringe at the idea of mediocre writing being considered better than no writing, I do agree with you that in an educational environment such practice is necessary. I say, good job to you. It couldn’t have been easy for the teacher either. 🙂

  2. I am coming back to amend that comment. It’s true, I do cringe at the idea of mediocre writing being better than none, but I meant no slight toward you. The truth is, as I think about it, it is right. I would rather have my children playing guitar or piano badly, or as best they can than not experience music at all. I hope you follow my thought, and thanks for making me think harder.

    1. Yes, I do get your meaning! I think you’re not the only one who would “cringe” at the thought of mediocre writing being preferable to anything (I cringed a little, myself, as I wrote it) but I think in the end, you and I are on the same page. Hmmmm….this “mediocre writing” thing may well reappear in a future post…

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