In the spring semester of 1988, I signed up for a creative writing class in poetry. I remember the year and the season because a friend had died in a car crash the previous December. I remember the class because of the professor’s comments on one the poems, about the death of my friend, that I turned in as part of my midterm assignment.
Thirty years later, I wish I remembered his name as clearly as I remember his marginalia, so I could properly curse him.
I stopped going to class, forgot to drop it, and failed it. There were multiple reasons—depression, illness, money problems—but “banal” and “lacking insight” didn’t help.
Several years later, I started frequenting a coffee house that hosted regular poetry readings. Listening to poems that ranged from godawful to brilliant inspired me to try again. Some poems came into my head fully formed, others required an enormous amount of work. One that I wrote for a friend’s wedding took almost twenty hours over the course of three weeks to write. I was never prolific. I averaged perhaps a poem every two weeks, until August of 1998, when I wrote this one:
Day opens her veins into an
Unforgiving sky absorbs the last drops of
Light seeps scarlet stains into
Dirty smokestack gauze oozes across the
Horizon slowly betrays day’s trust to
Night seeps into my eyes
With the exception of greeting card epigrams, I haven’t written a poem since.
“Sunset” revealed more about my mental state than I was comfortable with confronting. I’d only intended to experiment with enjambment, but this is a poem informed by clinical depression and a rapidly necrotizing marriage. I didn’t want to risk more material like this bubbling up from my subconscious.
In time, I convinced myself that I actually couldn’t write poetry. I dismissed the fact that I’d written dozens of poems, had one published, and had given readings that were well received. I told myself that the successful poems were flukes.
My poetry was banal. Lacking insight.
I even told people that I didn’t like poetry, which was patent horsefeathers. I threw away the paper copies, and now I only have seven from that period. Eight, if you count a limerick about a man who had carnal relations with chickens.
And so I have not written poetry for almost twenty years. Earlier this month, though, I started thinking about trying again. Some thoughts and ideas are better expressed in verse, and besides, I feel incomplete as a writer without being able to write poetry. I asked Carolyn to get me a copy of a book I used to have: A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, by Mary Kinzie. I’ve started to read it, but I’m already stumped on an assignment from the preface. Paralyzed, almost.
What if it’s terrible? What if it’s banal? Lacking insight?
It probably will be, as rusty as I am. But I have to limber up somehow. I’ll write as many crappy poems as I have to in order to find my voice again, and start writing good ones.
Might I suggest Sage Cohen’s book Writing the Life Poetic? I found it quite interesting and inspiring. I reviewed it some time back. Good luck with the poetry writing! My advice would be to let it come as it come and tell Professor Banal Lacking Insight to shut up, or better yet to STFU. He doesn’t get a say anymore…
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Thanks, T. L. I’m having to take it easy re: poetry, simply because the novel I’m revising is taking up almost all of my non-work head space!