Posted by: Kate | November 26, 2008

I Hate Poetry.

My daughter is 8.

She’s a good kid, most of the time. Really almost all the time. She plays well with her brother, has an amazing vocabulary and artistic skills, and shows a developing sense of cynical humor that proves, without the need for a DNA test, that she is directly descended from Willem and me. She has faults, of course, but they just combine to create Emily, and she’s learning to live with our faults at the same time that we learn to live with hers.

But. She does have one little tendency, which pops up every now and again. She lies.

Not about big, bad things; she’s not accusing people of horrendous crimes or stealing objets d’art and fencing the goods. It’s always about little things… cookies in bed, for instance, or dubious origins of small toys and pencils that might have come from a friend on the bus or might have been selected out of the school’s lost-and-found box, whereby someone else did the losing and she did the finding.

I know that it’s just part of the way she rolls; Emily is a good kid, but she is not an especially thoughtful kid by nature. She is learning, a little at a time, how to consider the feelings of others and think before she acts, but it’s a conscious and deliberate process for her. She is so intensely focused on her own ends that she doesn’t realize that her actions might impact anyone around her, much less thinking about how her actions might impact them. She’s getting there, as we talk about it more and point things out to her, as other kids in school stopped wanting to play with her because she was too bossy and not listen-y, as she becomes more able to see the consequences playing out in her life.

But it’s a slow process, and we’ve just fallen into a new chapter. One to which I still haven’t decided how to respond.

It’s a high-level concept, having to do with intellectual property and plagiarism. Being a kid, in private art lessons and just on her own with some markers and paper, she’s going to have themes. She’s going to draw the same things over and over, until she finds a new theme to repeat ad nauseum. And most of those themes are going to be inspired by the world around her, and sometimes instead of translating that inspiration into a new idea, she’s just trying to reproduce the original. This is natural and valid, an important approach to learning to express herself. I get that. The important thing, in my view, is acknowledging the original source. Admitting that the inspiration came from without, and giving the other person’s work and creativity the proper credit.

It’s a deep thought for an 8-year-old, I know, and I know there are kids this age that couldn’t wrap their heads around it. I don’t expect a carefully annotated bibliography on the back of every piece of artwork; just an honest answer, if I say, “That’s a great drawing of a lion. Where did you get the idea to draw it that way?” And, until now, she has always been able to answer honestly and we could talk about the ways she had changed it to make it more her own style, blahbitty blah blah blah. It was working.

But then, rather out of the blue, she announced that she had written a poem. A fairly sophisticated poem, and with no prior practice and no first drafts. Not even having put crayon to paper; she was just insisting that the whole thing had sprung, fully formed, from her brain to her lips and back again, so that not only is it complete but it is also committed to memory.

I don’t believe her.

I want to. I know she’s smart and creative, and I know she has excellent verbal skills. She’s a voracious reader and speaks with much higher accuracy and variability than many kids her age. But this poem is just not her. It’s not Emily. The tone isn’t right, and the “voice” of it feels different.

It bothered me, nagged at me, but in a quiet way that I was able to suppress. I told her it didn’t sound like her style, and asked where she heard it from, but when she denied it – “I got the idea from seeing a restaurant with a cactus out front when we were in Boston” – I let it slide. Not worth a fight.

But then yesterday she came home and said that she had recited her poem to her teacher, and her teacher loved it. Teacher wants to publish it in the school’s magazine or yearbook, whatever the appropriate venue might be. And my low-grade nagging discomfort flared into a full-on unhappiness. These words just are not Emily’s. I know my kid, and this is not my kid.

My first step was to ask her to go write out this poem, because she still had not apparently actually translated it to paper.

Observe (typed as written, because I’m too lazy to go scan it in):

Where the tall green cactiy
sway, and the wind blows
sand away, tis this the ocean
color tan, the only difference
is, it’s made of sand.

I then had a serious talk with her, about how people have a certain style of expression and tone and so we know when words seem like they might come from a person and when they don’t. She understood this; we talked about how strange it would be for Jacob to suddenly start making loud demands or for Willem and I to start peppering every sentence with “like” and “ya know.” We talked about how one’s voice comes through on paper, as well, and she still followed right along.

But when it came to this poem, it is like talking to a stone wall. She simply shuts down, refuses to make eye contact, and insists that it is her original work. She is unwilling to even entertain the idea that perhaps she read it somewhere, or read something like it and changed it around a little. She won’t hear that poetry takes work, and that it’s very difficult to believe that an 8-year-old could come up with something with perfect rhyme and meter off the top of her head.

So, fine, then I asked her to write a few more poems. No time limit, no selection of topics: just write a couple more poems, whenever she felt so moved. She immediately got out some paper and markers and came up with three more poems, and while I’ll grant that they’re reasonably good output for third grade, I still retain my suspicions about that first poem.

Example #1:

It’s a shadowy night, there’s
nothing in sight, all I can see
is the fire – a birning bright in the

Example #2:

I can see a blue jay
I can spot a shiney rock
I can see a butterfly
But what I really wonder,
is what you can spot

Example #3:

I’m sitting in bed, the covers
over my head, my flash
light is on, and my eyes
are strong to see in the night,
when it’s not bright.

I hear Emily’s voice in those last three. They sound right; they feel like her. But the first one? Not so. And in a slightly more objective sense, all of the other poems – indeed, every story she has ever written, every essay in school, just about every example I’ve seen – prominently feature the word “I,” which dovetails perfectly with Emily’s tendency to see things only from her own perspective. She just hasn’t developed the ability to abstract to the third person and describe things from an outside view.

So, I’m in a quandary. If she wasn’t planning on doing anything with that first poem, I could comfortably ignore it, just let it drift away. But I am not comfortable allowing her to publish it anywhere under her own name, not without at least a recognition of where the idea came from (though I firmly believe this is not a case of tailoring an original work to fit her style; I believe she is reproducing, verbatim, the work of someone else – and I feel this way even after several unsuccessful Google searches yesterday afternoon). To my mind, if she were to publish it in the school magazine, there would be two possible bad consequences: one, someone catches on and she gets in trouble for plagiarism, something I’d still like to step in and protect her from if at all possible, or two, she gets away with it, and internalizes the lesson that sometimes you can steal someone else’s work and not get caught.


Happily, she is off for the next five days, so we have some time to work this through. I’ll be in touch with her teacher on Monday to find out when the submission deadline might be, and to share my concerns with her. And I’m still holding out hope that Emily will realize that I won’t be mad if she identifies a source and admits that she’s reciting someone else’s work instead of having created her own, that honesty far, far outweighs creativity for me any day of the week.

I hate poetry.



  1. Oog. Yep. Made my stomach hurt just reading about it. No easy answers on this one… I’ll be interested to hear how it turns out.

  2. Good grief, of all the things you think you’ll be worrying about at age 8 …

    It’s a heady lesson, that’s for sure … when I taught college English, I had the very same “people have a certain style of expression” talks with students who obviously hadn’t written the papers they turned it. They were 18 and didn’t always get it, so I can’t imagine trying to put it down on an 8yo’s level.

    Usually google is a great tool for uncovering the original source; I’m surprised that was a dead-end for you. I wonder if it’s a kids’ poem or in a collection of kids’ poetry and Emily’s school librarian might be able to help. Just a thought … whatever happens, I hope it works out to the benefit of your sanity and can be a learning moment for Emily.

  3. I, too, work in a college and plagiarism is a huge problem. I would definitely talk to the teacher and discourage publication, if only to let Emily know that if she can’t prove early stages of production (as we make the college students do by turning in all early drafts with the finished paper), that the final poem will not be accepted as hers.

    This is standard practice in freshman comp classes.

  4. Huh. I’m stumped. I tried to do a search for you and came up empty.

    Please keep us posted.

  5. Gee, the things I never thought I may some day have to deal with. I don’t envy your postion on this one at all. I hope Emily can give you more info to put you at ease but I totally see your point after reading her other poems. GOOD LUCK!

  6. I couldn’t find anything, but I wondered if it might be a song from a kids’ tape or show?

    I would have her write more over the week and then talk to the teacher with the new selection of work in hand…perhaps she’ll like one of the new works just as much.

  7. Oh Kate – it sounds like you are handling this situation the best way you can. Very tough. I fear I’ll be dealing with the same things as my daughter.

    I like Sara’s suggestion about writing more – that you know are hers for sure.

    The poem does sound quite sophisticated for an 8 year old (although Emily obviously has quite a brilliant mind). It is possible that she just had one of those BRILLIANCE moments.

  8. That sounds rather like something from an English or Spelling textbook example. You might try a quick flip through the books she’s using and see if it isn’t in there.

  9. Maybe she just ‘tweaked’ something she’d heard or red . . immitation is the greatest form of flattery and it’s not ‘techincally’ plagiarism. I hate poetry too!

  10. […] I merely strenuously dislike poetry. In any case, we have had some progress in the realm of poetic expression and the inspiration thereof.  I repeated my thoughts and concerns to Emily, and told her that if she was able to show me her […]

  11. Oh gosh…this takes me back to middle school…

    The assignment was to write a poem- something I was horrendous at. I read a poem that was simple enough about cats- I rewrote it, with my own style- using horses. My teacher gave me and F and told me I had stolen the poem from some known author.

    In my eyes, I didn’t steal the poem- I just borrowed the idea…but she didn’t see it that way. I was mortified. Honestly, I probably would’ve failed the assignment regardless b/c like I said, I’m a retard as far as rhyming and poetry go. (Figures, a girl who can’t rhyme her way out of a paper bag marries a rapper!)

    I feel for both you guys…good luck 🙂

  12. Your daughter sounds very much like my 9-year-old daughter! Thankfully I haven’t had to deal with a situation similar to this…yet. Interested to see how this turns out, I may need to use this example and any advice you can give in the future! 😉

  13. BB has a problem with lying too. There’s only 3 people living in this teeny, tiny house, so there isn’t much that he can get away with. When confronted with a question about something we know he did wrong, his first instinct is to lie, always. It’s infuriating. I don’t know what I’d do if he tried to pass off someone else’s work as his own.

    It’s interesting that when you ask her about it, she shuts down. I would think that if she really did write that poem, then she would be a little more outraged that you don’t believe she did, and would defend herself more vehemently.

    I think it’s a good idea to talk to her teacher and express your concerns. At the very least, you can keep the teacher from publishing the poem, even if you never figure out the truth.

  14. Ew sticky. In Texas plagiarism is a crime. As a college professor I can report students for violations and they can go to jail. A little extreme for 3rd grade, but if you can use that as an example you’re welcome to do so. -You don’t even have to cite me.

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