ESSAY: “My Own Ten Rules for Writing Children’s Poetry” by J. Patrick Lewis


No one asked me to deliver inviolable commandments on the writing of children’s poetry. It so happened that between sharpening a gross of Ticonderoga #2 pencils and awaiting an editor’s email—promised before the first moon landing—I was struck with the idea like the wolf descending on the fold. So get into your pj’s, pour yourself a cup of cocoa, and comfy down by the hearth. Here they come…with a disclaimer. If you find any of these admonitions offensive, actionable, or dead wrong, no harm was intended in their creation. I encourage you to devise your own list.

RULE ONE: Resist every temptation to ask your friends and family members what they think of your verse. The inevitable chorus of responses—“Miranda, this is brilliant,” “Bound to be a bestseller, Morty,” or “Sacheverell, you could be the next Dr. Seuss”—are words every writer might long to hear. Believe them only if they are delivered from several states away by a disinterested editor! Quite apart from the dicey issue of an intimate’s taste, a moment’s reflection will convince you that we call people “friends and family” for a reason: They dissemble (read: lie). Otherwise, they would not be our friends and family. The newly minted poet should resort to any tactic to silence them, short of a permanent restraining order or the gift of a muzzle. Hide your work from said “experts.”

If you feel compelled to ignore RULE ONE, make an ironclad promise to yourself that the print run of your self-published masterpiece will not exceed six copies, dispensed lovingly but exclusively to those earnest confidantes.

RULE TWO: If you think your work is brilliant because it is “just like Shel Silverstein,” think again, and then start over. We had one Silverstein. He was terrific, but one was quite enough. Check your driver’s license. The name that appears there is the one the world may well be waiting for, not some Silverstein or Seuss manqué.

RULE THREE: Never a writer be, only a rewriter. Robert Frost said that he once worked on a poem (“New Hampshire”) all through the night. Stunned by the sun, he got up from his chair, stretched, went out on the porch to welcome the dawn, and returned to his desk to write “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” “My hand,” he said, “barely left the page.”

Frost’s experience with this one poem is so rare as to countervail the notion harbored by classrooms full of schoolchildren and many adults that writing without the prefix “re-” is the way it’s done. It’s not. Frost—and the rest of us now blessed with his immortal poem—got lucky. Writing without rewriting usually results in a poem with the half-life of lettuce, or what Donald Hall memorably called a “McPoem.” Whatever comes easy is cheesy. (Like that sentence.)

RULE FOUR: Making your verses sound like the Aurora borealis looks—creamy, dreamy, lambent, heartfelt—is akin to composing with ink manufactured by Mrs. Butterworth. Some adult suckers for smarm may reach for a hankie; some children, also overwhelmed, might flee for the toilet. Most of us are properly transfixed by this spectacular natural wonder for perhaps fifteen minutes before tweezering our chin hairs or a running to the dry cleaners. Try to imagine your poem having a slightly longer existence.

Corollary: Ugsome lines, calculated with the odious aim of putting emotions on sale, are best left to greeting cards. If your writing role model is a Hallmark employee, an operation may be required to uncongeal your aorta. Barring that, consider becoming an accountant or a bookie.

And another thing: Write a poem about a teddy bear or the marvel that is Aunt Sally’s peanut brittle only if your pen (or keyboard) is satiric, acidic, and possibly toxic.

RULE FIVE: Unless Yeats were to be reincarnated as a social networker, do not imagine that only blogs can make a poem. Like newspaper trifles, such poesy is usually composed in less time than it takes to wash your socks.

The first of the 21st century suns revealed a curious phenomenon: Nearly every American adult and child had become a poet. Poetry critics disappeared. Hence, the now nearly universal “critical” internet refrain—and acclaim—to blogger verse consists of two words: “Love it!” Or one, “Awesome.” If this is also your kneejerk response to most blog poems, count yourself among “friends and family”—the dissemblers.

Corollary: For those who are serious about poetry, spending large chunks of a day on Facebook and Twitter is time spent away from your avowed enthusiasm: poetry.

RULE SIX: For every day you write poetry, reserve the next one for reading it. Yes, you will have to slog through a slough of witless, mindless verse. I am not the first to remark that in any age most poets are bad. Reading poetry is much like digging for oil: Nineteen out of twenty wells are dry. But sooner or later, you will reach the Mother Lode Coasts of McCord, Causley, and Kennedy, where also dwell Merriam, Kuskin, and Worth.

RULE SEVEN: Practice something other than common measures and ballad stanzas. True, the four-beat rhythm runs deep and insistent in us all, but give alternating tetrameter lines a rest. After a time, they become monotonous. Surprise yourself and your readers with, say, a foreign verse form you may have never heard of. (An exception: in the history of poetry, no one has ever written a readable diamante.)

RULE EIGHT: Describing the “purrfect cat,” a “moooving cow,” a “hissing snake,” or saying “bone voyage” to a runaway dog is cruel and unusual punnishment. Repeating pet puns—repeating any pun—provides readers with all the proof they need that you and your Muse are estranged. The cat, cow, snake, and dog examples were mildly amusing the first time they appeared, but Monty-Python-dead-parrot dead the second. And yet that has not discouraged some pet shop owners from memorializing stale onomatopoeia in neon or kept readers in grocery store aisles from emitting “awww” (not awe) sounds whenever they spot them on greeting cards.

(I speak with some authority on the subject, having shamefully committed to print these ignoble misdemeanors myself. Once.)

Corollary: Children may guffaw at booger/fart giggle verse. They are children after all. But this is not the stuff that will lead them to carry poetry with them beyond elementary school.

RULE NINE: If you are passionate about poetry, you will hardly need to be reminded of a truism: Unlike most of the world’s citizens, Americans stand almost alone in viewing poetry as slightly more interesting than curling and its practitioners enormously less interesting than curlers. Consider yourself a rebel. Let no one and nothing come between you and your passion for the high art.

Corollary: Disabuse yourself of the notion that poetry—for children or adults—will remunerate you with anything more glamorous than an occasional Happy Meal. But then, what poet was ever in it for the pelf?

RULE TEN: I have saved the most important rule for last simply because it is the most important: Learn the rules of prosody. Before committing a line—a word—to the page, immerse yourself in the details of metrics and form. The best free verse poets know this from the start: You are allowed to break the rules only after you have learned them.

Why people always stop at ten of anything befuddles me, but these ten rules may be sufficient (a) to pique your interest, or (b) to get your dander up. If either applies, I will be a happy sand boy.

J. Patrick Lewis is the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate and the winner of the 2011 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry.