In the name of being thorough and keeping myself humble, here are some poems I wrote when I was in high school, 20+ years ago:
Ode to Writing a Poem
poetry can be full of Imagery
but it also can be a place for
things that don’t go in Prose
Ode to the Quadratic Formula
i wish i
knew it last week,
Ode to Writing in the Margins of Notebook Paper
Ode to Cool Stuff
the shoe tree at Boot Hill
an acid trip to the battery store
Elephants Eating Cotton Candy Through Straws with their Toes (written sometime in the fall of 1990)
my dad got the paper last sunday morning
i read it sunday night
i was going to bring it to school monday
but i forgot it monday
so now it’s tuesday
and I’m going to write a poem now.
Iraq, recession fears push economy to edge
Budget crisis over; Bush to sign bill
How local abortion foes size up election
I think I’ll go do something else now
if i knew what antithesis meant
i might say that this poem was
the antithesis of good poetry.
it’s a good thing
I don’t know what antithesis means.
So: I’m not claiming these poems are as good — as interesting — as poems I’ve written in more recent years. Then why put these out for public view? I mean, there are many other poems from this same binder (poems written and compiled during a creative writing course) that were far too embarrassing to share; these are perhaps the few that I felt were worth commenting on, the few that seem interesting to me now as a 38-year-old, but a 38-year-old who also remembers, incompletely, being the 16-year-old who wrote them. I can see that I made some grammar errors — errors I now despair when I see them in my students’ writing — but which errors I have learned to correct, and this reminds me that my students may one day learn this as well.
I can see a rather absurdist, perhaps smugly clever, perhaps preemptively self-criticizing, sense of humor here, in the Quadratic Formula, Margins of Notepaper, and Antithesis poems. I like that I had a sense of humor. I still like to point out things I find humorous, but I find it all too easy to make things that are merely clever. Much as I enjoy reading clever things for entertainment — The Onion, say — merely clever things don’t feel interesting enough (they’re too often merely reactive, not original enough, not surprising enough) to be art I want to be engaged in making. And then there’s the aspect of cleverness that is smug, that rhetorically positions itself as smarter than the object of ridicule. It’s kinda tedious; it’s not open and honest.
I find here also a sense of self-righteousness in my ideas of what poetry could be, in the Writing a Poem and Elephants Eating Cotton Candy poems. This sense of wanting to write poems that my writing teacher, who seemed to have a traditionalist sensibility, would not appreciate may have been inspired in part by my reading of Richard Brautigan‘s poems in The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster. It strikes me now as odd that I encountered that book as a teenager; I got it from my mom’s bookshelves, which had a lot of books but few by avant-garde writers. But that book wouldn’t have influenced me had it not resonated with something in me ready to take in those ideas, those modes of expression. Cool Stuff and Elephants Eating now strike me as poems clearly influenced by my reading of Brautigan; perhaps I was even aware of wanting to write in a voice like Brautigan’s, a whimsical-yet-melancholy voice. When I’ve read Brautigan in recent months, I still enjoy the looseness I find there, his willingness to publish unconventional works, but I also sense he was somehow limited in his conception of what his poems should/could be. I don’t sense that he was trying to go beyond his early conceptions.
But my criticisms of Brautigan aren’t the point, except to show how I have, as maybe we all do have, a flexible, perhaps ongoing, relationship with those artists whose work influenced us at an early age. I can see my high-school writing self as precocious — as a teacher of 16-year-olds now, I see few who are interested in similar things. But I was still a young person with a limited sense of what was possible. I see myself as being a bit too clever, as not being willing to let things work out, to become who I was to become. But then, what young person wants to wait to find him/herself? We want to know some of these things. And we don’t even know the process by which we will find ourselves — I seem to recall thinking that I had to will some of these things.
And in fact, I liked the idea of poetry better than actual poetry, for a lot of years. I thought I should be A Writer, but I didn’t know what kind of writer, or what I should be writing. I picked up other influences through college and after — Kerouac’s On the Road, Gary Snyder’s poems, David Foster Wallace’s essays, Wendell Berry’s essays, James Carse’s essays, and other influences I’m sure I’ve forgotten or wasn’t even fully aware of. Part of me now thinks, who would I have become if I hadn’t had these influences, and if I hadn’t had the other experiences (jobs, etc.) that led me to being who I now am? But not only is that unknowable, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all too easy, of course, to create a narrative that seems to lead to now. (I’m imagining that scene where Bugs Bunny falls asleep — or is drugged — and somehow the world colludes to provide him with safe passage back to his bunny-lair: things rise up for Bugs to step on; water delivers Bugs back to bed, etc.)
And maybe this post likewise has been leading me to say the following, which following thing I didn’t even know I wanted to say when I started this post: that when I look back at my old poems, I see things I remember vaguely, and through the memories of these poems, I construct an image of myself as a writer at that time, which image is also tempered by the judgment of my adult perspective. I feel pride at what I see (it’s better than I remember), but also some shame (what I then thought was good, I now don’t). I’m thinking now of some lesson learned, some summary thesis, but I don’t know if there is one. Perhaps the most I can say here is that our past works, our past selves, are things we must come to terms with, things we must try to understand and try to live with, as we try to understand and to get along with everything and everyone else we encounter in life.
As a writing teacher, I’m often reminded that the poems my high school students write are not as likely to surprise and amuse me (though they sometimes do) as are poems written by other adults — adult writers are, let’s say, more in control of their craft, and/or, adults are more likely to withhold poems they write that don’t meet a certain standard. Maybe adults are also more aware of being more accessible, in some ways, to their readers. Maybe as a teen, I was more eager to write poems that annoyed adults and peers because I wanted to provoke and/or exclude those readers. This prompts the thought that poems written by younger poets might be so different from adults’ poems as to be a different genre, to be considered differently. One thing I’m pretty sure that I did not consider as a teen poet was the sound of my poems. I remember thinking that poems were pretty much just different from prose, as Writing a Poem above says pretty literally. That was more or less a pissy manifesto I wrote in answer to the prodding by my teacher to write fewer three-line “odes” — those titles themselves were an intentionally mock-artsy step. I was aware enough to be clever, as some of the bright students I’ve had are, but I was not wise enough to be open. I wanted to assert my freedom from the traditional English-teacher sensibility, and I wanted to ally myself with Brautigan anti-traditional types. And I suspect I would be annoyed, as a 16-year-old, to be analyzed by a 38-year-old.
Post-Script: One of the things that still amuses and amazes me about looking at writing I did 20 years, or even that of 20 minutes ago, is that it came out as well as it did. I have a sense of having been an idiot at every moment in my life up until this current moment. That’ s a ridiculous thought (of the type not uncommon to us obsessives), and yet maybe it’s related to a feeling that I’m in control now and I may not have been fully aware of what I was doing then — which, clearly I was aware enough to pass my classes and otherwise do what needed to be done to survive to the age of 38. Of course, the corollary is that I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing at any moment in life — how much I get by on instinct, on luck, on acting on imperfect knowledge, etc.