I entered the Poetry competition in the Academic Regionals my Junior year of high school. The whole trip and competition was a surreal experience that I’ll try to detail more when I get to that entry in my school memories series.
The way it worked was all the entrants would gather in one room with paper and pencils, and at the appointed time the proctor would announce the topic and start the clock. We’d have an hour to write a poem and then it’d get judged and announced later in the day. Our topic that year was “rain,” a perfect topic for a poem-writing angsty teenager, yes? I ended up writing a parallel sort of thing, with the first section being about nice, peaceful, refreshing rain and the second section being all stormy and violent. I was pretty happy with it at the time, though I’d be loathe to reproduce it here these days, I’m sure.
I’d never tried anything like this before – writing on a specific topic in a specific time frame. I’ve since learned that I work best with specific guidelines and specific deadlines, but at the time it was a new thing.
My friend Dave was in the same competition, only in the Senior category. When we were finished and were outside discussing the whole thing, he mentioned that when he turned in his poem, he happened to catch a glimpse of someone else’s poem in the stack. To this day I can still remember the bit he quoted. In fact, I sometimes just say it because the rhythm of it amuses me so:
I hear the pitter and the patter
As I sit beneath the tree.
Say that out loud in the sing-song way that most students read poetry in class and it might tickle your funny bone the same way it did ours. If it doesn’t, well, I guess that’s okay. It will never cease to amuse me.
It wasn’t that we were such fantastic poets, I don’t think. It was more of a recognition that it followed fairly basic poetic “rules.” The rigid meter was a dead giveaway that rigid rhyme schemes would follow. Dave and I wrote poems recreationally a lot, and he tended to be free-form and non-rhyming, while I was more about trying to be creative in the stricture of specific guidelines. Even so, I found the da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da meter amusing. It might be why I eventually strayed from it later on, though another big part of it was the poem I did in the competition my Senior year. Oog. It was every bit as laughable. Bad, bad, bad.
I went through the typical teenage phase of writing poems and “songs” and trying to get my feelings on paper in some way that people could understand mostly, but not fully. I tried to be deep and true and all of that. Man, I was going to be a writer.
I read some of that stuff every so often and I can’t help but shake my head. The sure-he-knew-everything youthful version of me never made it to my 34th birthday. I read what he wrote and remember why he wrote it, and I wish I could go back and tell him some things and try to get him to understand, even though I know he wouldn’t. Oh, he thought he did, of course, but one stage of life doesn’t understand the next, no matter how much it tries and prepares.
I read poetry sometimes, but it’s difficult for me. I know the poems mean more than they appear to mean, and since I don’t know what they’re trying to mean, I get frustrated. I can read a Robert Frost poem and immediately understand
Yet knowing how way leads to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
But when William Carlos Williams writes
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I wonder if I’m stupid for not getting it or if he’s the crazy one for writing it.
I like my allegories and allusions like I like my stop signs: evident and effective. Kenneth Koch hits at the very level of my frustration when he writes
In a poem, one line
May hide another line,
As at a crossing,
One train may
Hide another train.
It makes me feel ignorant. If I can’t visualize abstract ideas and am left with only concrete, what does that say about me? An imagination, an understanding of concepts and ideas – these are important to me.
Ultimately it was a Beatles song that helped me understand another concept. Rather, it was Dave’s explanation of a Beatles song that helped me. I complained to him that songs like “Come Together” make no sense to me. They weren’t telling any sort of story and the collection of phrases didn’t seem to have anything to do with each other. I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of his explanation was that sometimes words paint pictures inexactly and it’s more about the sound of the words used. It doesn’t seem like much, but that explanation has helped me appreciate many a poem and song since then.
These days, I’m more inclined to latch onto a line here or there from a poem or song – what it says, how it says it, something just grabs me every so often. It’s usually something I can understand right off the bat, which still bothers me some times, but I don’t know how to work on that particular understanding “muscle,” so I do what I can.
To my surprise, I came in second in the poetry competition that year. The judges returned my poem to me with comments all over it, and it was the first time I’d had major attention paid to something I’d written. One of the judges really liked my “English spelling” in a phrase I’d used: “Spectre of Death.” I always wished I could have talked to her about her comments, but it never happened.
I don’t write poetry much any more. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did. The closest I get these days is rewriting lyrics to songs, but that hardly counts. I just don’t seem to have the … heart or will or strong enough feelings or something. Poetry needs to come from somewhere deep and I feel so shallow these days that it’s not surprising.
I leave you with the following lines which caught my eye during this last National Poetry Month (April). The media specialist at school had put up a poster that had snippets and lines from a bunch of different poets, and one line struck me. It’s from Robert Penn Warren, and I think I like it because it says what it means:
You think I am speaking in riddles, but
I am not, for the world means only itself.