autobiographia poetica

I wrote a lot of poetry as a young child — aged seven, eight, nine. That may have been the time of my life when I was most confident in my poetic ability. It may have been the time of my life when I was most confident in all my abilities. Once you’ve knocked around the world a little, it’s hard to maintain the pleasant illusion that no one else can do things any better than you can. 

Anyway, naturally (or it seems natural to me, but maybe it’s not natural any more for children to do this?), all the poetry I wrote in this early part of my life rhymed. I’d been a big, big nursery rhyme fan in an earlier stage of my childhood, so maybe that was what did it. I knew all those damn things by heart — the Queen of Hearts, she baked some tarts — and I took them all to heart. I loved rhyme, the sound of it, the feel of it, and, aside from writing poetry, I used to spend hours and hours making lists of words that rhymed (maybe I was unaware of the existence of rhyming dictionaries that made this task unnecessary, or maybe I just didn’t care). There is something ineffably satisfying about words that rhyme, something that sighs with relief and pleasure in the back of our brains when we hear those matching sounds.

I wonder when I look at the stars,
Is Mars
Up there?*
As I stare,
I see dogs and cats,
Mice and rats…

Around fourth grade, though, I began to catch on that rhyming poetry, for the most part, was just Not Done anymore by serious adults writing for other serious adults. I was very serious at this age and I hoped to be an adult some day, so (I imagine regretfully) I knocked it off with the rhyming and started to write free verse that even at the age of ten I could tell was absolutely dreadful. I mean, all my rhyming poetry, I now knew in retrospect, had been absolutely dreadful too, but at least, you know, it rhymed. It had that going for it. It sounded good, even if it meant nothing, or nothing worth saying.

What I found astonishing was how much more seriously so many adults took my poetry once I started writing poetry that didn’t rhyme. It was as if the fact that my poems bore a superficial resemblance to the kind of poetry they knew was supposed to be Really Good Poetry, instead of to, say, greeting card verse, made adults (mainly teachers) stop looking for any actual sense or meaningful nonsense in the poems. Once I figured out that adults were so gullible I used to sometimes deliberately write bad poetry, which wasn’t difficult at all, and show it around, inwardly laughing at the admiring reactions I got. (I was kind of an obnoxious kid.) 

So that pretty much killed my poetry-writing career, for a long, long time. I didn’t trust myself to be able to write good poetry and I wasn’t sure I entirely understood what good poetry was (although I read tons of it, and studied it, and thought about it, and memorized it, and loved it, so I’m not really sure what the disconnect is there), and I definitely didn’t trust anyone around me to tell me whether my poetry was good or not. 

Every few years for the next, I don’t know, thirty years, I would be stricken with an urge to write poetry and I would do so for a few days or weeks, in a kind of inspired daze, but then I would come to my senses and look at what I had written and laugh. Or cry. Whatever. It wasn’t any good and, unlike when I wrote prose, I had absolutely no idea what to do to it to make it better. I understood prose at some deep level, I could work with prose, I was a prose whisperer, but when I wrote poetry I felt like I was writing gagged and blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back. I just looked at it and shrugged helplessly and stopped writing it until my next fit of fever.

It wasn’t until I fell headlong into haiku that I regained any sense of confidence or control around poetry, which I’ve generally attributed to an extremely short attention span that prevents me from concentrating on any piece of writing for longer than twelve syllables or so, except that, as you can see, when it comes to prose I can still blather on with the most long-winded of them. So that can’t really be it. 

And it isn’t just that I suddenly gained some deep understanding into how poetry works because quite frankly, when it comes to poetry any longer than haiku, I still feel completely at sea. I write it, but I have no more idea than I ever did whether what I write is any good or how I could make it better if it happened (I assume it usually does happen) not to be. 

One big difference is that I kind of don’t care any more whether it’s good. I like writing it and I throw it out to the universe if I think there’s any hope for it and sometimes some people like it a little, which is nice, and quite often no one seems to think much of it, which is fine too. I’m not writing it for people to like it, I’m writing it to write it. I’m not sure whether that makes me confident and mature or just a lazy git with no standards. I guess it just started seeming stupid to me not to write poetry just because it might be crummy poetry, when I like writing poetry. (Also, it seems reasonable to assume that I might get better at it if I do more of it, though I’m not holding my breath.)

I haven’t really gotten brave enough to show anyone the rhyming poetry I still write occasionally, though. As if. Dream on. Dream, cream, seem, steam, beam, ream, team, gleam…

despite the plates
and cups that shatter
pretend that nothing 
is the matter

*Note to my eight-year-old self: Yes.

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6 thoughts on “autobiographia poetica

  1. Mary Frederick Ahearn says:

    This is so interesting, Melissa. Rhyme away!
    I did a lot of drawing when I was a kid – always interested in the way people dressed, looked,their style – and it seemed the adults were impressed with my observations. Then it all went away – art class in school showed me what an untalented little artist I really was. Perhaps that’s when I took to words. ? Who knows.
    Thanks for your post today –
    Mary

  2. In the most hidden corners of my notebook I write poetry that rhymes too sometimes. It’s a guilty pleasure – but it feels so good. I think adults need to play more than they do!

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