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:
I am not a worker
is not an assembly line.
Poems can’t be made on
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.