by Bill Dodds
It can be tough coming up with an idea for a poem and harder
still to figure out a first line. "If I
be just the boost a writer needs to clear both hurdles in a
A Fundamental Rule
The "If I
" poem works so well because it allows
your students to follow one of the principles of creative writing:
Write what you know.
Whenever I share this principle with a class, at least one student
immediately responds, "I don't know anything." That
simply isn't true. Each of us knows a great deal. Because we're
so familiar with that knowledge, we tend to brush it aside.
We argue, "Yeah, but everyone knows what I know
or "Okay, I know about something, but it isn't interesting
to anyone else."
One time I was teaching an adult writing class, and a fellow
told me his life was boring and he didn't know much about anything.
No, he couldn't write about his work. It was so routine. He
had been on the job for thirty years. Same old, same old.
"Well," I pressed, "what is your job?"
"I work for the city."
"I'm a lieutenant."
"So, for the last three decades you've been
fires and handling life-threatening medical emergencies?"
He shrugged and gave me a what's-the-big-deal? look. "Everybody
I work with does that," he said. "That's not interesting."
I would have to do a lot of research before writing about firefighting.
He had all that information firsthand. With just a little more
prompting, the stories poured out. Some sad, some touching,
some very funny.
What he didn't know was how much he knew.
What do your students know? They know about being in this particular
grade in this year. They know about soccer or band or scouts.
About baby-sitting or being baby-sat. They know about computers
and cell phones and the Internet. They know about having a pet
dog and a little brother and visiting Grandma. They know which
school cafeteria lunch is dreadful, which TV cartoons are the
funniest, and what makes the coolest shoes the coolest shoes.
Every child is a walking encyclopedia on countless subjects.
Each is an "expert" on his or her own opinions and
life. The "If I
" poem allows students to write
about that very knowledge in a creative, expressive, and entertaining
(Picture this: A young Laura Ingalls Wilder whining to her teacher:
"But everyone lives in a little house on the prairie.")
The Big "If"
That takes care of the "I" part of the "If I
poem What about the "if" before it and the ellipsis
that follow? Here a little imagination will fill in the blank.
It's the Cowardly Lion crooning, "If I Were King of the
It's the Fiddler on the Roof lamenting, "If I Were a Rich
It's a grade-schooler explaining, "If I Were Ruler of the
That's one of my poems in Kids
Pick the Funniest Poems. What does the narrator talk
about? His little brother, older sister, icky vegetables, household
chores, his school, a park. Nothing extraordinary there. The
twist is how he would use his newfound power in relation to
(Illustrator Stephen Carpenter does a great job taking it even
further. Mom's on bended knees offering ice cream; Dad--looking
peeved--waves the royal fan. Even the family dog is eager to
please, delivering a comic book.)
Have the students write "If I ______" on a sheet of
paper, and then ask them to fill in the blank with whatever
comes to mind. If your students aren't too sure about how to
fill the blank on their own, you can offer a list of examples
"If I Were Invisible."
"If I Knew How to Fly."
"If I Had a Million Dollars."
"If I Had Done My Homework Last Night."
"If I Were Teacher for a Day."
"If I Played in the NBA."
(Of course, the "If I
" poem doesn't have to
be humorous. Allowing your students to choose how they will
fill in that blank can lead to some serious and touching reflections.)
Meter, Monkeys, Rhyme, and Rock 'n'
The meter and rhyme I chose for "If I Were Ruler of the
World" are ones that your students will find very natural.
The meter--using an "iambic foot"--is basic. It's
an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The
English language is loaded with them, and we tend to speak that
way. (We TEND to SPEAK that WAY.) The rhyme scheme is elementary,
Here's what one stanza of an "If I
" poem looks
If I were ruler of the world,
I'd make some changes fast.
I'd say, "The ruler's always first;
His little brother's last."
© Bill Dodds, reprinted from Kids
Pick the Funniest Poems published by Meadowbrook Press.
Add a tune that can be played with three chords on the guitar,
and you have the makings of a lot of rock 'n' roll oldies. Many
of those melodies sounded so similar because young songwriters
listened to what was playing on the radio and unconsciously
copied the beat and the rhyme scheme.
We all copy--imitate--what we hear. That's how we learned to
speak. In a sense, we're all monkey see, monkey do. Monkey hear,
monkey speak. Monkey read, monkey
Because--as you know--a poem is written to be heard (to be "performed"
like a song or a play), reading an example to your students
can get them thinking in that meter and rhyme. And if it's a
very simple poem, which "If I Were Ruler of the World"
certainly is, it can also encourage them to say "Hey, I
can do that!"
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