“Want to know the shortest poem in the world?” I asked my Advanced Placement students when they were overwhelmed with the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton. I wanted to use a related poem to demonstrate a close reading, one of the skills students should have in according to the Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts, but they needed a little fun.
“It’s called Fleas.”
I wrote the poem on the board:
That’s it. Three words…actually two if you consider the contraction “had’em” as one word.
The poem attribution is generally given to Ogden Nash (1902-1971) although there are some who credit Shel Silverstein (1931-1999). An article by Eric Shackle, however, found the originator of the poem was Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954). The article notes:
“At last, after searching dozens of websites, we discovered the identity of the mystery poet. It was revealed on a US National Park Service website describing Mount Rainer National Park, in west-central Washington state. The Mt Rainier Nature News Notes of July 1, 1927 contained this brief item, tucked away as an end-of-column filler:
‘THE SHORTEST POEM
We like poetry but we cannot stand it in too large doses. The following, which according to its author, Strickland Gillilan, is the shortest poem existing, deals with the antiquity of “bugs”. It runs thus: Adam had em!'”
Authorship clarified, I asked my students, “So, what could you write about this poem?”
They stared at me. Surely I was joking…what kind of discussion or essay could a poem of this length generate?
After several minutes, however, here is what they came up with structurally:
- iambic (duet?)
- rhyming couplet
- rhyme (am/em)
- perfect internal rhyme (ad)
- there is contraction
- no punctuation
- uneven number of letters; shorter first line
Here is what they came up on the topic of fleas:
- Scientists have discovered that fleas probably fed on dinosaurs
- Fleas feed on warm vertebrates’ blood
- Fleas need Adam; Adam does not need fleas
Here is what they came up with figuratively:
- the name in the first line establishes context
- literary allusion: Adam from the Bible, the first man in literature
- Eve was not mentioned, so the setting may be earlier than Genesis 2:20
- the tone is casual and comical
- the mood is humorous
- Adam has fleas; the fleas don’t have Adam
- the title is critical to the understanding of the message
Unanswered questions they had on the poem:
- Could there have ever been just one flea?
- Does Adam bathe?
- Is the past tense verb “had” mean that he has cleaned up his act?
- Close reading three words yields a fun discussion;
- Concise poetry captures the relationship between ancient man and an ancient insect pest.
Fleas– the world’s shortest poem!