Poetic Justice

Advice and insight from a professional poet.


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I’m submitting my PhD thesis and have to write the acknowledgements page. My supervisor was lousy and disinterested. Is there a poem that will express my disappointmentwithout making the examiners think I’m whiny and complaining?

P.S. my discipline is agricultural economics
— Emily G.

When you bring poetry into another discipline, the results can be pretty unpredictable, and in your case I think you should be especially thoughtful and deliberate. I don’t know much about agricultural economics, but I think I found a poem for you (if it’s not appropriate, let me direct you to two books — Bill Knott’s The Unsubscriber and Jefferson Carter’s Sentimental Blue — that contain concise, witty, somewhat aphoristic poems that can be used as subtle little jabs to your supervisor). But the poem I suggest for you first is a funny one by Edward Lear (they always say to mask your criticism with humor) and it is also open to interpretation so that your examiners, of which I assume your supervisor will be a part, won’t know that the poem is a direct complaint about your experience. Your dissertation will be more cohesive if the poem is thematically related, so maybe this would work:

To make Gosky Patties

Take a Pig, three or four years of age, and tie him by the off-hind leg to a post. Place 5 pounds of currants, 3 of sugar, 2 pecks of peas, 18 roast chestnuts, a candle and 6 bushels of turnips, within his reach; if he eats these, constantly provide him with more.

Then procure some cream, some slices of Cheshire cheese, four quires of foolscap paper, and a packet of black pins. Work the whole into a paste, and spread it out to dry on a sheet of clean brown water-proof linen.

When the paste is perfectly dry, but not before, proceed to beat the Pig violently, with the handle of a large broom. If he squeals, beat him again.

Visit the paste and beat the Pig alternately for some days, and ascertain if at the end of that period the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.

If it does not then, it never will; and in that case the Pig may be let loose, and the whole process may be considered as finished.

The pig is a metaphor for you and your experience, Emily. It cracks me up, but it might not be biting enough for you — I mean, I just assumed you were as non-confrontational as most of my poet colleagues, myself included, but maybe you’re not. Maybe you want your supervisor to know that she or he screwed up (with no whining or complaining on your part, of course). Maybe you don’t ruminate over your words and actions. Maybe you don’t need to have four-hour consultations with your colleagues before you complain to your supervisor. Wow. Good for you!  In that case, my next recommendation comes from Knott’s Unsubscriber:


I wish to be misunderstood;
that is,
to be understood from your perspective.

Oooh, that is so good but it’s a very powerful weapon, so use it with caution.

Let me know if I was helpful. Best of luck, Emily! • 21 September 2009