How to Write a Poem

Write down four nouns. Then four verbs.
Make sure they are not related.
Then use them to write something you’ve
never written before, a secret, a terrible
secret. Make it up if you don’t have one.
Make sure there is an even deeper secret
within the secret.

Rock. Pen. Hand. Earth.
Sing. Breathe. Bleed. Wrap.

What could I have done,
the passionate cancer already singing
in her lymph glands, the scooped out
tissue pulsing its truths.
The rock in my hand like a telephone
to anywhere but logic, the earth

breathing in my ear, what more would
my voice or pen bleeding regrets
and how sorrys. A year to watch
her die, a year to wrap it up.

Sheryl St. Germain
from her book The Journal of Scheherazade
University of North Texas Press (1996)
used with permission of the poet


For a Middle School English Class

Lesson Plan for Sheryl St. Germain’s “How to Write a Poem”
by Nancy Jaynes

After reading this poem aloud, I would ask students to discuss the meaning of the italicized part of the poem. The situation seems obvious, but I would want to make sure that my middle school students understand the scenario.

I would ask if they notice any difference between the first playful part of the poem, the part that gives the “how-tos,” and the second, morbid, italicized section.

This would be a good launch for a discussion of irony. The poet’s tone is not ironic, but the situation is so abrupt a change from the formulaic, conventional “How to Write a Poem” opening, to the breathtakingly poignant ending that, taken as a whole, the poem’s surprise ending has a certain irony about it.

Finally, I would do the obvious:

I would have my students follow the directions stated in the poem’s expository opening.

I might deal out cards that I’ve printed with nouns and verbs printed, instructing students that they can trade back only one noun and one verb.

I’d allow 20 minutes for writing, 5 minutes for revising, and then allow students to share their writings.

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