It can be tough coming up with an idea for a poem and even harder to write a first line. "If I
" can be just the boost you need to clear both hurdles in a single bound.
A Simple Rule
The "If I
" poem works so well because it allows you to follow one of the first rules of writing: write about the things you know.
Whenever I share this rule 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, but we just don’t realize it. 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
fighting 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."
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 you know? You know about being in this particular grade in this year. You know about soccer or band or scouts. About baby-sitting or being baby-sat. You know about computers and cell phones and the Internet. You know about having a pet dog and a little brother and visiting Grandma. You know which school cafeteria lunch is dreadful, which TV cartoons are the funniest, and what makes the coolest shoes the coolest shoes.
You are a walking encyclopedia on countless subjects. You are an "expert" on your own opinions and life. The "If I
" poem helps you write about that very knowledge in a creative and fun way.
The Big "If"
So know you know what your "If I
" poem will be about: you. But how do you write it? Think of this as a fill-in-the-blank question, and use your imagination to come up with the answer.
It’s the Cowardly Lion singing, "If I Were King of the Forest."
It’s the Fiddler on the Roof wishing, "If I Were a Rich Man."
It’s a grade-schooler imagining, "If I Were Ruler of the World."
That’s one of my poems in Kids Pick the Funniest Poems. What does the boy in the poem talk about? His little brother, older sister, icky vegetables, household chores, his school, a park—the things he knows about. The twist is that he wishes he were ruler of the world, and he describes how he would use his newfound power with these people and things.
(Illustrator Stephen Carpenter does a great job showing what this would look like. Mom’s on bended knees offering ice cream; Dad—looking peeved—cools him with a fan. Even the family dog is eager to please, delivering a comic book.)
Now it’s your turn. Write "If I ______" on a sheet of paper, and then fill in the blank with whatever comes to mind. If you aren’t too sure about how to fill the blank on your own, here are some examples or choices:
"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. You may fill in that blank with some serious or touching ideas.)
Once you finish the first line, think about what your life would be like if you were invisible, if you did know how to fly, or if whatever you filled in the blank came true. Just let the ideas flow.
Rhythm, Monkeys, Rhyme, and Rock ‘n’ Roll
Now that you have a few ideas, you can put them together in a poem. You don’t have to make your poem rhyme or have a certain rhythm, but adding rhythm and rhyme could make your poem even more special.
The rhythm and rhyme I chose for "If I Were Ruler of the World" are very is basic. The rhythm is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. That may sound hard to do, but it isn’t. The English language is loaded with rhythms like this, and we tend to speak that way. (Listen: We TEND to SPEAK that WAY.) The rhyme pattern is easy, too: ABCB.
Here’s what one stanza of an "If I
" poem looks like:
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 catchy guitar tune, and the poem would sound like a rock ‘n’ roll oldie. Many of those old songs sound so similar because the songwriters listened to what was playing on the radio and they copied the beat and the rhyme pattern.
We all copy 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
Reading a poem like "If I Were Ruler of the World" out loud can get you thinking in that rhythm and rhyme. It can also encourage you to say, "Hey, I can do that!"
Text © by Bill Dodds. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author. Any copying or use of these poems without consent is unlawful.
Permission is given for individual school classes to use this lesson and to make as many copies of the lesson as are needed for the students’ use. All other reproduction is prohibited under penalty of law. For use outside individual classes, please firstname.lastname@example.org. All rights reserved.
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