Awhile back there was a thing going around the blogosphere where bloggers challenged each other to post their absolute worst, sappiest, most emotionally overwrought teenage poetry. I thought:
a) Great idea for a blog entry! Love reading other people’s bad old poems.
b) I should do this myself … but do I really want to unearth the old file of poems from the box in the basement? And can I stand the shame?
So I let the opportunity pass by, until today, when I had occasion to go find that old file of poems (which, after I ripped apart the box in the basement, turned out to be in the file drawer next to my desk). There was horrendously stiff competition for Worst Teenage Poem, but here’s the one I selected for its all-round specialness…
Was there ever a day like this day
With the blue sky all aglow?
Was there ever a song like your song?
Because you’re free, you know.
At least it feels like freedom,
But you never can tell from the start,
For the path that leads to sorrow,
May lead straight from your heart.
But never mind, that’s tomorrow,
And today is here, so live!
With all that the world can give you,
And all that you can give.
(There’s more … if you dare…)
But freedom can never be freedom
Till something takes the place,
Of the master you once bowed to —
‘Tis the fate of the human race.
I can’t say love’s the answer,
And I can’t say it is not
But take what the world can give you,
And give of what you’ve got.
And love can be your master,
And love can set you free,
So hark to the singing about you,
From the other fools, like me.
And don’t look down, look upwards,
It never has to end,
For freedom can be your partner,
And love your dearest friend.
Obviously I selected, not a poem full of sappy teenaged angst (although there were several of those) but something far worse, and typical of my writing style: a poem of Moralizing Uplift. A scrawled note on the top of the page suggests this was a poem written for a friend who was going through a hard time (probably a bad breakup). Gotta love the “‘Tis” and the “hark” in there too — the full-on Arcane Poetic Language.
It’s not that I didn’t succumb to angst and despair myself on occasion. Another particularly horrendous piece in the same spiral-bound exercise book begins: “The days is long/And the nights is cold/And it ain’t easy, none of it.” (Welcome to my Langston Hughes phase). But I was fatally unable to resist the lure of Learning a Lesson, of tucking a little nugget of moral uplift into every slice of anguish.
I was a terrible teenaged poet; I must have been an insufferable teenaged human being. To any of my lifelong friends who are still friends enough to be reading this: I apologize. Sincerely. Thank you for putting up with me.
Reading through a file of old poems is a hysterically funny and sometimes just hysterical endeavour. I was looking for something specific, of course, a couple of poems I’d written for a friend of mine (not the one with the bad breakup). I found those, and several others addressed to the same person which I had completely forgotten ever writing. I discovered I could chart my way through my biography of bad boyfriends and failed relationships using poems alone. I noticed that some relationships inspired reams of poetry while others left me speechless.
I was most mystified by a poem whose title bore the notation: (for Stephen). Reading the content of the poem didn’t enlighten me at all. I have never dated, liked, had a crush on, or been particularly close friends with a man named Stephen … as far as I know. I can only hope that “Stephen” was a pseudonym for the true subject of the poem, because I would hate to think there was once someone in my life named Stephen who was important enough for me to write a poem about, yet of whom I have absolutely no recollection.
(It’s important to label poems, and accurately. In another collection, a notebook my friend Sherry and I used to pass back and forth in high school, I wrote a touching poem about a love I’d never forget. In the margin, also in my handwriting but written a few years later, is a note to Sherry: “Do you have any idea who this was about???”)
It’s interesting to note that up till about 1991 I seemed to take poetry quite seriously — not only writing and keeping it, but making several efforts to collect, comment upon, and even illustrate what I’d written so far. And then — it just stops. There’s not one poem in the folder dated later than 1991. Did I finally realize I was no good at this? Did I simply not need that emotional outlet anymore? It would never occur to me to try to express my feelings in poetic form today, yet prior to 1991 I was churning out sonnets, free verse, all sorts of things. It’s not that I miss it, or that I think the world needs anymore of my poetry — I’m just curious as to why I suddenly stopped.
Going through old poetry teaches those of us who write and keep such things that heartbreaks that seem eternal at the time are actually fleeting. Time really does heal a lot of wounds. On the flip side, it also shows that insights which seem profound and meaningful at the time will look trite in hindsight. Nothing remains, except old sheets of loose leaf torn from spiral-bound notebooks.