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.
No. 1.—How the World Was Made.
Before the dawn of time, the Mayor sat in his office and said to himself, “I should like to have a city to be Mayor of, and I should like to have a world to contain the city and supply its department stores with imported goods.”
So the Mayor summoned all the powers invested in him by virtue of his office, and he created a Contract. And in the Contract were specified all the materials and measurements of the city, and of the world in which it was to be built.
And when he had created the Contract, the Mayor said, “It is not good for the Mayor to be alone.” So the Mayor created Woman to be his wife, and he created Man to be the woman’s brother, and he awarded the Contract to the brother-in-law whom he had created.
But the brother-in-law said in his heart, “I will grow fat on the profits of this Contract.” And he procured materials greatly inferior to those that were specified in the Contract, and he submitted false expense reports to the Mayor, and the project ran sore over budget.
And that is how the world came to be made of inferior materials sloppily put together. And the mayor looked at the world, and behold, it was very bad. So the Mayor ordered an investigation into the construction of the world, and that investigation is still going on today. And whenever you feel the wind blowing through the tall buildings downtown, you know that the investigation is taking testimony from expert witnesses.