I was looking for a poem today.
It was the first poem that I ever wrote, or at least the first I can now remember having written. It was nearly fully-formed in my head when I woke up one morning, and I remember the experience very clearly. It was after I dropped out of college and after I moved out of my parents’ house, in that first non-familial dwelling where I lived with countless roommates whose faces were constantly changing. The quality of light in my bedroom was strained: the sun had no doubt lightened the sky as best it could before actually emerging above the horizon, but there were also curtains to mute the brightness even further. Everything in my room seemed to have a grainy quality, like a badly filmed movie. I got up and grabbed one of my college notebooks, which I had not thrown away because there were still blank pages in them, and I wrote it all down. I believe I had to make up part of it, so the last few verses aren’t nearly as good as the intial ones, which were a gift from my subconscious. I can still recite the first two stanzas nearly perfectly, after all these years ...
But now I can’t find it. I know I still have a copy; probably more than one. I transcribed it several times, in different media. (No doubt it exists on a few dead hard drives as well.) At the very least, I should have the copy that I submitted for my poetry class, during my second tour of college, since I saved nearly everything I ever wrote for any of my writing classes: two semesters of fiction, two of non-fiction, one of poetry, and one of advanced writing. My poetry professor said it reminded him of Poe’s poetry. I said, thank you. He said, that wasn’t a compliment.
I never cared much for poetry. It’s dense, and difficult to parse. Fiction has a flow to it; once you get properly cranking, you can just write it forever. Or at least I can. Poetry is more about agonizing over every word. It’s spare, and exacting, and needs to communicate one thing while saying another. If you’ve ever wondered if poetry is as difficult to write as it is to read, the answer is yes.
Oscar Wilde once said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” My poetry professor certainly believed that. His attitude was, if you want to pour all your personal feelings out on paper and call it poetry, that’s fine. But, as soon as you bring it into my classroom, you give me permission to tell you it’s crap. He made at least one person in the class cry, that I recall. I made sure that any emotions I tried to capture in my poetry weren’t my own. Much safer that way.
While I couldn’t find my first poem, I did find the first poem I submitted for that class. Rereading it, I suppose it isn’t terrible, though it certainly isn’t great either. It was based on someone I’d met my first year back in school, and it was an attempt to capture a more complex emotion than just the simple one-word things we typically use in our everyday speech. I don’t know how successful it was at that, but at least it recaptures that emotion for me, as I reread it. But then I knew what I was trying to say in the first place, so it may not work as well for you. But judge for yourself:
I am not in love.
I mean, he’s a sweet guy and all, but
it’s just a fling.
A brief encounter.
A few weeks of passion.
It’s just shallow.
I met him
where I work.
He comes in a lot.
The stale, smoky air,
the cool green felt,
the constant clack of the balls—
it has an undeniable attraction for some.
I remember noticing him.
I liked the easy way he moved,
his long, blonde hair tucked under a hat
or a bandana.
His intense concentration,
his confident style:
he was like an artist at work.
He has good hands.
We never really spoke, he and I,
until that night.
I was drunk and he was drunk
and we were together
and he was intelligent
And I was surprised.
I mean, a lot of guys wear their leather
and their long hair
and play their boyish games,
and they think they’re cool.
But they have no substance.
But he ...
he was different.
He is different.
What? Yes, I know.
He has a girlfriend.
But she’s far away,
and it doesn’t really matter because
it’s just shallow.
Am I wrong?
Don’t sit there so quietly,
tell me what you think.
You won’t hurt my feelings.
It’s not like I love him.
The other night I was alone.
It was the first night I’ve spent along since
that first night.
But I didn’t miss him or anything.
I sat around, I did some homework,
And I dreamed ...
I dreamed I was a little girl
and I was standing in a field
and the field was full of beautiful flowers
and the sun was shining—
I remember how warm it felt on my skin—
and birds were singing ...
it was really pretty.
And off in the distance,
way far away,
was a tree.
It was the most perfect tree—
it was a maple,
with perfectly shaped green leaves
and strong, straight branches
that started close to the ground and went up
almost like a ladder.
It looked so cool and inviting,
and I wanted to climb it so badly,
so I started running
and I ran and I ran
and the tall grass whipped my legs
and the wind tugged at my hair
and I was going faster and faster
until everything around me was a blur of sound and motion
but that tree never moved.
It never came any closer.
It was exactly as far away
as it was before.
And when I woke up,
I felt out of breath
and my legs ached.
Isn’t that odd?
He’ll be over again tonight.
I’ll be glad to see him,
even though I wonder
He’s going away for the summer.
He’s going to saty with his girlfriend.
And by the time he gets back,
I’ll be gone.
Didn’t I tell you?
It doesn’t really matter anyway—
it’s just shallow.
I hear him on the stairs now,
so you’ll excuse me.
The time we spend together won’t last long,
so it’s very special.
I treasure each moment.
But, in a way,
I’ll be glad when summer comes.
One can only take so much intimacy.
I am not in love.
From the condition of the copy I found, I suspect this was a first draft, so it might have gotten better; I can’t recall. But it still has a certain quality that I like, despite the fact that it was written when I was young and foolish, and (to plagiarize They Might Be Giants) I feel old and foolish now. It could have almost been a prose piece, but I think the linebreaks actually add something to the flow (or non-flow) of it that makes it more interesting than it would be if it were just written in paragraphs. But of course I’m biased.
I’ll keep on looking for the original poem that I actually wanted to share with you. Or maybe the rest of it will come back to me. In the meantime, I revisited my cento from a few months ago and produced a key for the original references. I was starting to feel bad about not crediting the original authors. Plus it’ll save you some Googling, if you really wanted to know the sources.
- Title, first half: original
- Title, second half: A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
- Stanza 1, Line 1: traditional (recycled by Peter Straub, Shadowland)
- Stanza 1, Line 2: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (recycled by Charles Schulz, Peanuts, and Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)
- Stanza 1, Line 3: Jane’s Addiction, “Of Course,” Ritual de lo Habitual
- Stanza 1, Line 4: English nursery rhyme (recycled by Neil Gaiman, Stardust, and Stratus, “The Fear,” Fear of Magnetism)
- Stanza 2, Line 1: Guadalcanal Diary, ”... Vista,” Flip-Flop
- Stanza 2, Line 2: The The, “This is the Day,” Soul Mining
- Stanza 2, Line 3: Shakespeare, Macbeth, (recycled by Agatha Christie, book of the same name)
- Stanza 2, Line 4: Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, “Canto the second”
- Stanza 2, Line 5: John Irving, A Widow for One Year, (recycled by himself, book of the same name)
- Stanza 2, Line 6: V.S. Pritchett, At Home and Abroad
- Stanza 3, Line 1: Dead Can Dance, “Black Sun,” Aion
- Stanza 3, Line 2: “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens”, traditional Scottish poem
- Stanza 3, Line 3, first half: Frank Herbert, Dune
- Stanza 3, Line 3, second half: Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
- Stanza 3, Line 4: Emily Brown, “Enemy of Time,” This Goes With Us
- Stanza 4, Line 1, first half: A.S.J. Tessimond, “Cats”
- Stanza 4, Line 1, second half: Po Chu-i, “The Red Cockatoo” (translation by Arthur Waley)
- Stanza 4, Line 2, first half: Tool, “Disgustipated,” Undertow
- Stanza 4, Line 2, second half: Tori Amos, “Happy Phantom,” Little Earthquakes
- Stanza 4, Line 3: R.E.M., “Swan Swan H,” Life’s Rich Pageant
- Stanza 4, Line 4: Incubus, “Pardon Me,” Make Yourself
- Stanza 4, Line 5, first half: Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
- Stanza 4, Line 5, second half: The Beautiful South, “From Under the Covers,” Welcome to the Beautiful South
- Stanza 5, Line 1: John Mayer, “No Such Thing,” Room for Squares
- Stanza 5, Line 2: e.e. cummings
- Stanza 5, Line 3: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
- Stanza 5, Line 4, first half: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
- Stanza 5, Line 4, second half: Shakespeare, Hamlet
- Stanza 6, Line 1: Saiyuki, “Where the Gods Are”
- Stanza 6, Line 2: Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
- Stanza 6, Line 3: Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
- Stanza 6, Line 4: Blind Melon, “No Rain,” Blind Melon
- Stanza 7, Line 1, first half: Harvey
- Stanza 7, Line 1, second half: Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- Stanza 7, Line 2: traditional (recycled by Peter Straub, Shadowland)
- Stanza 7, Line 3: Satchel Paige (but also attributed to many others)
- Stanza 7, Line 4: Will Smith, “Just the Two of Us,” Big Willie Style
- Stanza 7, Line 5: the Kaiser Chiefs, “Time Honoured Tradition,” Employment