How to Write a "What Bugs Me" List Poem

by Bruce Lansky

A list poem is one of the easiest kinds of poems to write because it doesn't require either rhythm or rhyme. But that doesn't mean your students should write anything down helter skelter. Here's a list of elements that makes a list poem a poem instead of just a list:

1) The writer is telling you something--pointing something out--saying, "Look at this," or, "Think about this."
2) There's a beginning and end to it, like in a story.
3) The list is arranged with stylistic consistency and the words are arranged to
create a parallel structure.

Here's an example to show you what I mean:

What Bugs Me

When my teacher tells me to write a poem tonight.
When my mother tells me to clean up my room.
When my sister practices her violin while I'm watching TV.
When my father tells me to turn off the TV and do my homework.
When my brother picks a fight with me and I have to go to bed early.
When my teacher asks me to get up in front of the class and read the poem I
wrote on the school bus this morning.

Notice how this poem fulfills the three requirements listed above:

1) It tells you what's bugging me.
2) It tells you that I wasn't thrilled with the assignment of writing a poem and I got distracted at home and had to write the poem on the bus the next morning.
3) Every line has the same structure: "When my ____ does something to me."

To get your students started writing a list poem about what's bothering them, I suggest you write a list of people or things that bug your students on the left side of the chalkboard. On the right side of the board, write the ways in which those people or things bug your students. Don't be surprised if everyone gets into this brainstorming session. (Students like to share their pet peeves!)

Here's how such a list would look:

My mother:

She makes me take the garbage out.
She makes me practice the piano.
She makes me turn off the TV and do my homework.
As soon as I go to my room, she turns on the TV and watches it.
and so on.

Then add similar details for other people and animals on the list including:

My father:
My sister:
My best friend:
The neighborhood bully:
The school cop:
My brother:
My dog:
My cat:
My hamster:

Once the students have their ideas on the board, make a composite poem with the best entries (as in my sample poem above), making sure to use parallel structure and trying as best you can to turn it into a story with a beginning and an end.

Then ask your students to go home and make up a complete list poem of their own. Here's an example of a list about a noisy brother:

My Noisy Brother

He slurps when he eats cereal in the morning.
He gargles milk.
He burps after eating.
He cracks his knuckles.
He whistles.
He snaps his fingers.
He squawks when he's mad.
He snores at night.

You and your students may not realize this but many (if not most) poems written with a consistent rhythm and rhyme pattern are based on a list. (For example, Shel Silverstein's poem "Sick" is based on a list of phony ailments.) Once your students have made a list about what bugs them, you can invite them to try to turn it into a poem with a consistent rhythm and rhyme pattern. Here's what I did with the list above:

My Noisy Brother

My brother's such a noisy kid,
when he eats soup he slurps.
When he drinks milk he gargles.
And after meals he burps.
He cracks his knuckles when he's bored.
He whistles when he walks.
He snaps his fingers when he sings.
And when he's mad he squawks.
At night my brother snores so loud
it sounds just like a riot.
Even when he sleeps
my noisy brother isn't quiet.

copyright 1996 by Bruce Lansky, excerpted from My Dog Ate My Homework with permission of Meadowbrook Press.

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