The reactions when I announce this assignment are mixed: some students just incandesce the moment I start explaining the task. These kids aren't necessarily creative writers and often their poems aren't any better than anyone else's, but something in the assignment sparks their interest--maybe just the prospect of a homework assignment that they consider creative for a change. (At BU I had one student go totally nuts and write a series of TEN Spenserians, all fantastical and allegorical--and although they were damn awkward syntactically, she had the form down cold.)
Others groan, loudly, and give me looks of such bitter hatred that you'd think I'd just told them to come back on Thursday having read all of the remaining five books of The Faerie Queene and written a 10-page paper.
But I keep giving them this assignment and I keep being surprised by what I get. There are always a couple of amazing poems; a couple that make me want to kill myself via a singularly lethal, self-inflicted paper cut--and a whole bunch that are merely dutiful. But in almost all cases this assignment brings out a completely different side of my students: some write deeply and disturbingly personal poems; some are unexpectedly cheeky; virtually all reveal what tin ears they actually have for poetry (their use of meter is, pretty uniformly, abysmal). And beyond the pedagogical utility of the task, I think that this may be why I keep assigning it: just to see what they'll give me.
Here's a summary of what they gave me this time:
One (but only one!) of the standard meta-poems about how much the student hates writing poetry, Spenser, and indeed majoring in English.-----------------------
Several poems about True Love (found, lost, etc.)
Several poems about God (including one about the poet's having found her own knight of holiness, who revealed himself as "a part of God's omniscient plan")
One entire poem about Black Francis, of the Pixies
"You make me feel sick, like I have the flu"*
"They will go wild and get drunk on vermouth"**
And one totally nutty (but therefore, I think, truly Spenserian) stanza that involved a girl buying an elaborate gold purse; seeing her lover walk by drinking soda pop and leading a goat on a leash; and deciding then and there to escape from his "folds."
*No, this poem was not addressed to me.
**I assume "vermouth" was chosen in order to rhyme with "truth," two lines earlier, but I couldn't resist writing in the margin, "it would take a whole lot of vermouth to get drunk on!"