First, it has to fit in between the instructions and the imperatives and the set of equations provided, the regular boilerplate and last words before a physics test. And then it must be one I think they might read, even if by simple accident. So it’s not Chaucer but sometimes a sonnet from Shakespeare, but more likely it’s Bly or Oliver or Kooser or even Whitman. I’ve already used “The Learn’d Astronomer” too many times over the years, maybe, but probably not as much as I’ve employed Billy Collins, and so maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the students keep turning over, year after year, oblivious to my tricks and my ways and my thin poetry catalog.
And I want it to be meaningful, but maybe not too meaningful. I have to explain before the first exam that the poem is just there to be a poem rather than provide any answers or hints or even any essence of practical meaning. Because then it wouldn’t be a poem, and maybe my implicit intent is to suggest that the written word is a good idea. It’s a subversive act of poetry. (And, I know this works, because I learned the tradition from my own professor of Calculus I back in 1994.) Really, the poem is just there for its own sake.
But especially on the final: How do I say all those things, like “Good luck” and “I’ll miss seeing you every morning at 7:30 AM” and “Thank God the semester is over” and “Take a deep breath” and “Here’s my last gift to you” and “I’m not especially good with words myself, but here’s this token, like the red and white lanyard I wove at summer camp for my mother, to try to suggest I am so fond of you all, however poorly I convey it as I’m handing you this ultimate exam with problems concerning quantum mechanics and electromagnetism.”
Or, simply, “Here’s a poem that I found and for no particular reason except for all of them I put this on the cover sheet of your exam.” Especially since, you know, there’s no hidden meaning in the poem. It’s just there for its own sake.