Teaching Ironic Two-Line Poems

Ironic, two-line poems are everywhere!  Why not write a few?  Gather a friend or two, or a whole bunch, and do the following.

Take a look at some of the ironic, two-line poems in Structure & Surprise (Charles Bernstein’s “Shaker Show”) and floating around this blog, such as Ashbery’s poems under the “Ironic Structure,” and a two-line poem written by two student-authors (the 18/02/2009 post).  Check out the “Valentine Slams” collected here.  (Many of the Valentine Slams’ rhymes are great, but, as the examples from Bernstein, Ashbery, and the student authors show, you don’t have to rhyme an ironic two-line poem.)  Read the first section of Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer’s Nice Hat. Thanks. (nominee for Best Title. Ever.), a collection of collaborative two-line poems, many (but not all) of which involve ironic turning.

Though just two lines long, these poems fully enact the ironic structure’s rising-falling motion, its rapid transition from set-up to punch line.

These kinds of exciting, silly, revelatory poems don’t have to be difficult to write, if the writing process involves play and collaboration.

If you’re teaching a class or working in a writing group, get the group warmed up by offering the group the following first lines:

“You came to me with chocolate and flowers…”

“A little spring here…”

“Sing to me…”

And try to have group members try to come up with surprising second lines for these.

And then offer some second lines:

“…one rivet at a time.”

“…where violence sets the table.”

Have your group members try to develop interesting set-ups for these.

Have the group share what they wrote.  What worked?  What made people laugh out loud?  Or gasp?  Or smile knowingly?  Why?  (There may be lots of reasons here, but many likely will be about surprise, the delight of the unexpected, the thrill of reversals, etc.  All good stuff.)

Now, have each of your group members develop a few first lines and jot them down separately on small pieces of scratch paper.  The great thing about this stage of the process is that first lines are easy to write–they can be just about anything!  But, you might want to offer a few ideas: remember that we have all these binaries in our language (come/go; left/right; rise/fall; inside/outside; here/there; Jets/Sharks; now/then; yesterday/tomorrow; etc)–perhaps write first lines incorporating the first elements of these binaries; or, perhaps use modes of address, instructions, commands; though abstraction can be used to great comic effect, try to incorporate at least some touch of detail–even if it’s just an interesting abstraction(!).  (Note: you also might want to have group members put a “1” by these writings to indicate that they are first lines.)

Then, have group members develop second lines independently of the first lines.  (Note: these are second lines without first lines.)  Jot these down, separately, on pieces of scratch paper, with a “2” next to them, to indicate that they are second lines.

Redistribute this writing among group members so that no one ends up with any lines they authored.  Have group members “complete” these poems.

Read, and enjoy!

Note: Results will vary.  Some of the poems created will have the ironic structure, but perhaps not all of them.  This shouldn’t be a problem.  Poems work in many different ways.  (Ashley Samsa, in “Poetry and Process,” tried this exercise, and though she didn’t craft any specifically ironic turns, she made some lovely poems–which is the point, of course.)  If you’re focusing a lesson on the ironic structure, acknowledge, praise, comment on any poem that’s working, but just highlight (perhaps write on the board, etc), those that employ the ironic structure.

Why write funny poems?  Check out Matthew Rohrer’s thinking on this issue here.

For some excellent thinking about collaborative poems in an essay that makes frequent reference to Beckman and Rohrer’s two-line poems, see “Ouija, Canoe, Haiku: A Collaborative Investigation into Collaborative Poetry,” by Isaac Cates and Chad Davidson (in The Writer’s Chronicle 39.3 (December, 2006): 80-84).

–My thanks to Christopher Bakken, the first person I saw teaching the ironic poem in this way, and the one who came up with the line “You came to me with chocolate and flowers,” and who inspired the thinking above.

18 responses

25 02 2009
25 02 2009
Poetry and Process « A Poem a Day…

[…] I’m not connected to the internet, so it wouldn’t let me.  Anyway, I was inspired by Theune, once again, to do something silly (playful is his word) with my poetry.  I wrote five beginning […]

25 02 2009
Mike Theune

Hey, Poem-A-Day-Challenge People!
I hope you might send me any cool two-liners you developed–
Yours in Play and Productivity,

25 02 2009
Poetry and Process « A Poem a Day…

[…] TheSamsanator under Poem   For today’s poem, I was once again, inspired by the esteemed Dr. Theune.  I did this by myself, though, because I was at school on my lunch and I was flying solo […]

26 02 2009
Mike Theune

These poems are LOVELY, Ashley! And the photos help to make the process clear–dang, you’re good teacher!

25 02 2009
Q & A, Part 1 « Structure & Surprise

[…] that, as Jon suggests, ghazals can.  Check out this page I recently put up on the blog, on writing collaborative, ironic, two-line poems.  In an hour or two of playful collaboration, you (and a friend or two) can probably make 20 […]

16 04 2009

Goodness! I have just now found these wonderful comments about our poetry challenge, even though I have subscribed to the RSS feeds for both this blog and the comments to it! Thank you!

I’ll be linking up your blog here with our poetry challenge (the poem-a-day challenge is over after a gruelling month, but we will be continuing with a poem-a-week now!) so hopefully you will provide us with some fabulous ideas that we can test out.

16 04 2009
Mike Theune

I’ll do my best, Ashley!

18 04 2009
Teaching Poetry: The High School Version « Poetry For Our Time

[…] particularly riled up, so I decided to scrap the poem I had planned to teach, and to try some of Dr. Theune’s pedagogy in a fun, in-class […]

19 04 2009

I was inspired to try some two-line poems with my freshman English class the other day. You can see the process and the results here: http://poemadaychallenge.wordpress.com/2009/04/18/teaching-poetry-the-high-school-version/

Happy Writing!

20 04 2009
Mike Theune

If you’re thinking about using the ironic two-line poem lesson in your classroom, check out Ashley’s version of this lesson plan. It’s a good reminder: be sure to adapt general lesson plans to the specific skills and goals of your own classes.

Even if you’re not going to use the ironic two-line poem to teach, you should check out Ashley’s link: there are some excellent two-line poems there, including at least two (nos. 1 and 10) which are specifically ironic.

Thanks for your good work, Ashley, and for the link!


18 06 2009

I love two-line poem 🙂

18 06 2009
Mike Theune

Excellent–I’m so glad! I love ’em, too!

14 07 2009
Taking Turns (for Granted) in Sijo and Haiku « Structure & Surprise

[…] here for information on teaching short (two-line), collaborative poems that focus on the turn.  […]

21 04 2012
Surprised by Syntax: Stanley Fish on the Sentence’s Turns « Structure & Surprise

[…] one is bound to discover in high-quality fiction, and the writing on the turn in haiku and in two-line poems, two poetic forms that often are accomplished in the space of a single sentence, and two forms […]

31 05 2012
King of the One-Liners: Bill Matthews and the Volta « Structure & Surprise

[…] For more on surprising turns in short (one- to two-lined) poems, click here. […]

29 06 2014
Surprise/Moves | Structure & Surprise

[…] to use to teach young students the power of the surprising turn.  What about, for example, teaching the two-line poem?  Might such a collaborative exercise be appropriate for young students?  Are there other […]

20 06 2017

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