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How to Write an "If I" Poem

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…" can be just the boost a writer needs to clear both hurdles in a single bound.

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."

"Doing what?"

"Fire department."

"What!"

"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."

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 way.

(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 Forest."

It's the Fiddler on the Roof lamenting, "If I Were a Rich Man."

It's a grade-schooler explaining, "If I Were Ruler of the World."

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 each.

(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 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. 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' Roll

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, 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 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…write? Right!

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!"

They can.

--Bill Dodds

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    Kids Pick the Funniest Poems