Poetry and I have a contentious relationship.
It’s not that I don’t like poetry. I do. I think I do. No, I do, for sure. I’m not sure I like writing it, but I’m blaming that entirely on my public school education and not poetry itself.
The problem is this: poetry, to me, is some kind of ethereal, ever-changing thing that’s alive and incomprehensible, like some kind of wriggling or slippery animal. I think I know a poem when I see one, but then there’s prose poetry. I think I understand a poem but then it’s not about appreciating life at all, it’s about capitalism and overconsumption. Poetry is rhyme and meter except that it isn’t, not at all.
But I believe in tackling skills that I lack head-on, so instead of letting my interest in poetry wane now that I no longer have to take classes in it, I decided to do NaPoWriMo instead.
For those of you that don’t know, NaPoWriMo is NaNoWriMo for the poetry crowd. Thirty poems in thirty days. Any kind of poetry is fine. Use prompts, don’t use prompts, just put pen to paper and do the thing and resist the daily urge to set your notebook on fire.
I mean, why not? I’m afraid of poetry–this is like when people used to go on Fear Factor to submit themselves to the most intense fear experience to get over it. Does it work? Do I no longer have a fear of poetry?
Not at all. Poetry might actually be more of a mystery to me now than it was a month ago. Are the rambling journal entries I wrote, eschewing line breaks and just letting the thoughts flow with a little metaphor for spice actually poetry or just pretentious? I really have no answers.
But I want to talk a bit about why I decided to descend into madness this way. I grew up reading Shel Silverstein, like most other kids. His poems were fun and occasionally very touching, but, to me, it was all about “The Worst.” I remember reading this poem for the first time and getting an actual, literal chill creeping up my spine. Never mind that I had my back to a wall and I knew for sure that there was no Glurpy Slurpy Skakagrall standing right behind me. The language was new and it inspired actual fear in me. I’m a huge chicken, so this isn’t exactly an astounding feat, but nonetheless it stuck with me.
So poetry was fine, even enjoyable. But then there was middle school, where we read nothing but Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” I’m not exaggerating–I remember reading these poems over and over, largely divorced from context and usually being introduced as, “This is it. This is poetry. If it doesn’t look like this, it’s not poetry.” And we didn’t do any type of interpretation, either–we read “Harlem,” were told the Meaning, and moved on.
And like, I get that middle school teachers in my podunk town probably weren’t really into poetry. But this happened so frequently that I started associating poetry with Meaning. Not meanings–just the one, singular, capital-M Meaning that, if you didn’t get it, meant you didn’t get poetry.
And I never got it. I was always interpreting things “wrong.” I can’t remember any examples of this until high school, which is where everything actually changed for me because I finally had an English teacher who had this crazy idea that you could actually instill an appreciation for poetry in 17 and 18 year olds if you’d give them half a second to work it out.
I’m going to head off on a tangent for a minute. I grew up in a house surrounded by blackberry bushes. There is nothing like stepping outside and smelling fresh blackberries in the summer sun; I don’t mean just smelling blackberries, I mean the very specific scent of late August, cut grass, and blackberries practically baking in the sun. I knew when I smelled it that they were ready to pick, and I would go outside, foregoing sanitary eating habits and refusing to wash them. I’d stain my fingers purple picking them, not caring that some of them were bitter or too tart or if I ate an ant or two; I grew up on the poor side of things, and fresh blackberries were a treat I didn’t have to ask for. Blackberries meant summer, blackberries were delicious and cost nothing, blackberries were practically sacred, one of the only things I liked about that old house.
So when read Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” in my AP English class, I may have had a slightly different interpretation of it than the rest of my class. As I listened to everybody else share their thoughts about its stance on consumption, on gluttony, on the frivolity of youth, I sank lower and lower in my seat.
How could I be wrong? Reading this poem was so personal–“Summer’s blood was in it” has stuck with me as one of the most powerful lines I’ve ever read. Summer’s blood wasn’t about destroying something, it was about living. And the ending, when all the berries rot, was sad, but not because the kids in the poem had taken more than their share, but because all good things end. This was important to me, because I was 18 years old and I still went out in the summer to gather fistfuls of the things, not because I wanted more than I deserved but because they were wonderful and free and I didn’t have to feel guilty about them.
Of course, my teacher called on me without me raising my hand, and, for some reason, I decided I would tell the truth. And I got laughed at. My classmates–some of whom were my friends–told me I was wrong, that I was stupid, that it was obvious the poem was about all these things and that I had made a mistake.
Thankfully, my teacher stepped in and told me that my interpretation was valid. While Heaney might have written the poem with the intent I had read, that didn’t mean that mine couldn’t be true for me. The reality of the poem didn’t have to be my reality, and as long as I recognized how the rest of the class came to their interpretation, I was free to view blood as a life force and not something to be afraid of.
That changed everything. I had never considered that more than one thing could be true at a time. And while that didn’t foster a great love for poetry in me, it did significantly change the way I approached literature. I could derive whatever emotions I wanted. There wasn’t a right or a wrong–no matter what my friends said–and there was so much freedom in that.
Of course, then I wrote a poem I was immensely proud of and my teacher put it first in our class book of poetry. That meant that when some jerk kid picked it up to read out of it mockingly, mine was the first one he saw. After that, nobody saw my writing for years. I was honest in that poem. Having my honesty and writing mocked to my face like that–especially when the poem was about my relationship with writing–absolutely destroyed my ability to feel any confidence in my work.
Obviously, I got over it. But–I swear, I’m getting to the point right about here, 1,200 words later–my relationship to poetry has still been one of fear. I can’t be genuine, because what if that kid shows up again to read my poetry in that stupid voice?
Thankfully, I was required to take poetry classes in college. I had to write poetry and I had to show it to people, even the bad stuff. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Now I’m dealing with being genuine, with expressing emotions as they are, not through dramatic understatement or hyperbole. I’m not sure if NaPoWriMo helped me at all with that, or if it just forced me to do the same thing over and over again, or whether one thing will lead into the other.
It took a lot of time. It stopped me from spending time on other writing. But I’m glad I did it, in spite of that, and I’m going to keep reading and playing with poetry in the hopes that, some day, it’ll make something like sense to me.