Finding Text Complexity in a Three-Word Poem

Rigor in the World's Shortest Poem

Fleas? Even "Adam Had'em".

The length of a poem does not define its text complexity. Take, for example, the world’s shortest poem:



That's it. Three words, actually two if you consider the contraction "had'em" as one word.

The poem’s 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 Rainier National Park. The Mt Rainier Nature News Notes of July 1, 1927, contained this brief item:

'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!'"

This short poem would meet the three standards for measuring text complexity according to the Common Core:

1. Qualitative Evaluation of the Text:

This measure refers to the levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands.

Teachers can review three poetic terms in this three word poem by pointing out that despite its brevity, the structure is a rhyming couplet of iambic meter.

There is even an internal rhyme with the “am” and “em” sounds.

There are even more figurative devices in the poem beginning with the name Adam in the first line. This is a literary allusion from the Bible as Adam is the proper name given to the first man created by God in Genesis. His companion Eve, the first woman, is not mentioned, it’s not “Adam and Eve/ had’em.” That could place the setting of the poem earlier in the Bible than her appearance in Genesis 2:20.

Despite the allusion to a religious text, the tone of the poem is casual because of the contraction, “had’em.”  The title “Fleas” associated with the character Adam is comical since it implies a certain level of uncleanliness. There is even a bit of ownership since Adam had fleas, the fleas don't “have Adam,” and the use of the past tense “had” infers that he might now be cleaner.

2. Quantitative Evaluation of the Text:

This measure refers to readability measures and other scores of text complexity.

Using an online readability calculator, the three word poem’s average grade level is a 0.1.  

3. Matching Reader to Text and Task:

This measure refers to reader variables (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and task variables (the complexity generated by the task assigned and the questions posed)

In reading this three word poem, students would have to activate their background knowledge about fleas, and some of them might know that that scientists  recently concluded that fleas probably fed on dinosaurs as they need to feed on warm vertebrates' blood. Many students will know the role of fleas in history as the transmitters of plagues and diseases. A few students may know that they are wingless insects that jump as high and as wide as an 8.5” X 11”.

Explained in the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) section of The Common Core State Standards is the description that they were built to

“create a staircase of increasing text complexity, so that students are expected to both develop their skills and apply them to more and more complex texts.”

The three word poem “Fleas” may be a little step on the text complexity staircase, but it can provide a workout of critical thinking even for the upper grade students.