Write a poem about yourself.
Admittedly, I don’t think I’m that great of a poet myself. I sometimes dabble, if that—I think it’s becoming clear the further I go on that I’m much more useful as an editor than as anything else, which means I’m really good at rearranging things. Even knowing this, though, and that I’d probably struggle in writing one, I asked my students to write a poem anyway.
It’s difficult to be confessional. We’re a really open generation in terms of sharing, and we like posting moments from our lives for others to see (I’m writing a blog post about a thing I did, so this feels a little meta), but just because we post a lot of pictures of ourselves online doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any more confessional or willing to be emotionally intimate with anyone than our parents might have been. If anything, we might be more reluctant: with so much of ourselves available for public consumption, we have all the more reason to be a little more guarded. We have to keep something to ourselves if we’re providing so much else. So to ask someone to write a poem—which is often an engagement with crisis, from what I’ve been noticing lately—is a really big task.
A lot of the students are caught up on the fact that since so many poems rhyme, they think they have to. But we’re moving from Dickinson—with all of her slant rhymes—to Whitman, who is known for his exact lack of any particular rhyme scheme permeating most of his poetry. Part of this entire exercise is to get students to know and feel comfortable about the fact that it’s okay for poems not to have a rhyme scheme. Someone in the class mentioned that a poem doesn’t necessarily have to look like anything else in the first place, and I think he might have been onto something. Does Whitman’s poetry look like anyone else’s before him? Not really. Whitman wasn’t trained to be a poet, either. He was a journalist, and he got into the game not as a child prodigy like so many others, but as a 36-year-old adult.
Which maybe might give me some hope for my poetic abilities, after all. Maybe some criticism of Sylvia Plath is that some of her poetry does seem a little young, a little immature, that she was really only just starting to mature by the Ariel poems—but then, she was young. Can we really expect a woman in her 20’s (since she passed when she was just barely scraping into her 30’s), to write with the hand of a 50-year-old? It’s unkind, I think, to do so—like wine, perhaps, writing and writers are things that need to age, and there’s a 30 year old difference between the two.
(Keats, of course, is an exception to the rule.)
I’m not expecting these 17 and 18-year-olds to be giving me so much in the way of style and form—especially since these are kids who might never have written a poem before in their lives, and don’t have much desire to do so on their own—but I do want them to go out on a limb and at least give it a shot. Life is about taking chances, and you’re not going to be good at all of the things you do. They probably don’t also realize that there’s a lot of editing that goes into creating a poem; some might repeat that old refrain that “First thought is best thought,” but you’ve still got to refine it a little for it to mean much. It takes a lot of work to make something look easy: think about the pro-athletes who seem to dance on their fields and courts, and remember that if you had spent your life doing it too, you’d probably seem just as graceful. If Frank O’Hara claims to have shot off a poem on the way to a reading and we believe the story to be true, it’s only because he’s had a lot of practice doing it.