When I was in school—elementary school, high school, college and graduate school—not once was I taught how to write a poem. I suspect, with hindsight, that my teachers weren’t taught how either, so they couldn’t pass along to me what they didn’t know.
That didn’t stop them from assigning me to write poetry though. As a fifth grader, I remember sitting in front of a blank paper for what seemed like hours not knowing where to begin.
Years later, when my son came home from fourth grade with the assignment to write a poem a night for a week—with no instruction—he had that deer-in-headlights look I knew so well. “We’ll do it together—the whole family,” I told him before he could panic. “You’ll help, won’t you?” I asked his little sister and brother. Everyone was on board, though none of us knew where we were heading.
We chose the kids’ father as the topic for the poem since he was out of town on business that week. We talked about his characteristics—a hummer, a tickler, and a teaser. My son threw out the first line—“One father for sale”—and we laughed. “Write that down,” I said. I think it was my daughter (a second grader) who came up with the dime, nickel, penny follow through. My contribution was ending one line in the middle of a thought and continuing it on the next line. “You can do that?” asked my son. We learned as we went along. My son contrived the last two lines not because they fit but because he wanted the end to rhyme. That was fine with the rest of us.
And from such humble beginnings came this masterpiece:
One father for sale,
One father for sale.
One teasing, squeezing, father for sale.
Do I hear a dime?
He hums all the time.
Do I hear a nickel?
How that man can tickle!
Do I hear a penny?
Oh! I don’t hear any offers
For my teasing, squeezing father for sale.
What can I do?
This isn’t fair.
Dad, sit in a corner
And play solitaire.
My son stood up in class the next day and read his poem aloud to wild applause. That night he took out paper and pencil and led the rest of us in writing about a cat with fleas. “My friends can’t wait to hear what I write,” he said, grinning. Here is that opus.
My cat has fleas
Teensy, weensy, little fleas.
In the dark they bite at me,
My toes, my ankles, and my knees.
I know because I scratch.
One of these days I’ll catch
Those fleas, but ‘til then,
Pass the ointment, please.
From this experience I learned that writing poetry is not the daunting task I had feared as a child. When done with family or friends, it is silliness, laughter, and problem solving too.
April is National Poetry Month. I recommend, if you are lucky enough to have children at home, that you write some zany poems together. To warm up, read some Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein. Then pick a topic—the funnier the better.