Trying to use this column to teach anything may come off as dorky. But someone needs to take a stand against bad poetry before the cancer spreads any further.
Universally criticizing non-rhyming poetry is difficult. One person's terrible poem is another person's Gertrude Stein. So for the purposes of this article I will only discuss rhyming poems. Rhyming, non-metered poems.
I'm going to be mean in this column. I'm going to be picky. But I'm also going to provide you with fodder for when your aunt sends you a card that says something like, "I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. Which is not Earthday." That's a real card sent to a real friend of mine, who had a real hard time patching up things with his aunt after she overheard him mockingly suggest she should submit her work to the fine folks at Hallmark.
Meter is a part of rhyme. It is the structure that makes rhyme catchy; it is the foundation of a good rhyming poem. And it's insanely easy to figure out, unless you're either deaf or the vast majority of people who write rhyming poetry.
Meter is the rhythm of the words. Do you notice that words "rhyme" and "rhythm" are pretty close to being the same thing? That should be your first clue that rhyming poems need meter. Your second clue should be this following excerpt from Kay. She was kind enough to post her poem on the internet, where people like me could make fun of it.
As I sit here in class,
I observe my friends
And look forward to the year
Coming to an end.
Meter is created when there is an equal number of syllables and pattern of stress throughout corresponding lines of a poem. That is not what happened here. What happened here was Kay observing her friends instead of paying attention in class. Had she, she'd have learned how to count. Continue, dear Kay.
I remember the day
When I came back
To be with my friends
And get on the right track.
This, aside from lacking meter again, makes little sense in the plot of the poem. This was Kay trying to continue writing, coming up with nothing, and saying, "Screw it! I'm writing this anyway!"
We had so many moments;
Some bad, most great.
I'll always remember the love
And erase the hate.
Erase the hate? I swear I once got chain mail like this. It said if I forwarded it to ten of my friends, the society for punctuation would donate money to research errant semi-colons.
Kay later ends with the stunning conclusion that she doesn't want the year to end after all, because she will miss all of her classmates with whom she's totally BFF. Couldn't see that one coming.
Even if Kay's poem didn't take five stanzas to explain a feeling that could have been summed up in seven words, it would still grate on my nerves. Because it reminds me of every bad poem ever written. When I write a poem, I do not choose rhyming words despite their meanings, and I do not compromise the flow of the poem to say something that doesn't fit. I choose the medium of poetry only when I think that whatever it is I'm writing can benefit from the addition of rhyme and meter. Not because I thought of two words that happened to rhyme and decided to write four more stanzas hoping more would come to me.
If you must express your feelings in rhyme (and for some odd reason, a few people must), do it correctly. Pay attention to stress. Don't get bored halfway through and stop rhyming, only to start again when you can think of an easy one. Don't use imperfect rhymes, like "end" and "friends" (I'm looking at you, Kay). And for the love of Ogden Nash, don't rhyme good and food. The words may look similar, but they are pronounced differently. Despite the internet, poems are not meant to be appreciated silently.
Kay is now old enough to be a freshman in college, where I hope she's learned a bit more about poetry, or stopped writing it altogether. And if neither scenario is true, perhaps she, my friend's aunt, and maybe even you, can benefit from the following stanzas.
A sense of humor's certainly commended
When work you've done is lampooned to instruct.
I hope Kay understands no harm intended.
I only used her poem because it sucked.
I hope, if feelings hurt, they are now mended.
Despite her being laughed at by a dork.
I'm glad her poem eventually ended.
If not, I'd gouge my eye out with a fork.
"Spork" would have also been an adequate end to that last line.
Steve Hofstetter is the author of Student Body Shots, which is available at www.SteveHofstetter.com. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.