Dear Dr. Boli: I have to write a poem for our high-school graduation, but the trouble is—and don’t let anyone know I told you this—I’m not very good at poems. What would you suggest I do? —Sincerely, Meredith, Age 18, Blandville Area High School.
Dear Madam: Write a sonnet, or some other relatively short form of poem in which both the meter and the rhyme are strictly controlled. And be very strict with yourself about meter and rhyme. Do not say to yourself, “Well, nine syllables are good enough for that line,” or “I suppose ‘mine’ and ‘time’ are close enough to a rhyme that I can get away with it.” Allow no deviations from the established formula.
Dr. Boli realizes that writing a proper sonnet takes some work—he usually allows himself at least fifteen minutes for the task—but he assures you that the work, which after all is a simple mechanical exercise that anyone can do, will be well worth the time. Your teachers, your peers, and all their parents are completely convinced that writing a formal poem is an impossible feat. They will be astonished by your literary virtuosity. And here is the really important thing: they will be paying attention to the structure of your poem so much that they will ignore the meaning.
That is vitally important. If you write a mechanically perfect sonnet, you always have the excuse that you had to let the meter and the rhyme push your thoughts in this or that direction. No one in the audience you’re facing will complain if your thoughts are a bit on the insipid side. But if you take what you probably think is the easy way out and write something in free verse, you have no excuse. You had those thoughts, and you wrote them down. Nothing prevented you from having different thoughts. If you write a vapidly platitudinous poem, everyone will know that you have a vapidly platitudinous mind. Your brain will be standing in front of that audience naked.
If you are Walt Whitman, you can get away with free verse, because you have brilliant thoughts leaking out of your brain all the time, not to mention a superb natural sense of rhythm. But you say that you are not very good at poems. Structure is therefore your most important ally, and the more perfectly you stick to your chosen structure, the less it matters how dull a person you really are.