On Poetry

When I was in grammar school, I wrote a poem that was printed in a book of student poetry. It was one of those gimmicks where you sent in a payment for the publisher to print the poem, and they accepted almost every poem that was submitted. I worked a plumbing job with my dad and used the money he paid me to buy the book. I read the poem while laying in my parent’s bed one morning. “Lost in a world of hate and confusion…” was one of the lines.

It was a really, really bad poem.

Throughout high school and college, I was fortunate to have English professors who challenged me to read poetry much better than I would’ve written on my own. In 11th grade, Mr. Sweeney had our honors English class give presentations on some of them. Mine was on Robert Lowell. In his critique afterward, Mr. Sweeney told me I spoke with a “valley girl voice” and that my thick, black hair, swung over the left side of my face covering most of my forehead, made me look “like I was wearing a helmet.” I’m thankful he led me to great writers, but he was an asshole.

In my final year at William Paterson University, Dr. Hauser got a more interested version of me than Sweeney had. He exposed me to more Frost, T.S. Eliot (and books by Hemingway and Fitzgerald) and I happily consumed it all. One of the poets whose work I most enjoyed was William Carlos Williams, who grew up a few miles away in Paterson and remains famous for his poem about the plums that you probably read in an English class. Until this past week, the last time I thought about Williams was in Dr. Hauser’s class.

Last Tuesday, I watched the movie Paterson at Regal Downtown West and it all came back. The movie focuses on a bus driver-poet and his life in the city with his artsy Persian wife, English bulldog, and the people he encounters in his everyday routine. The bus driver-poet, played by Adam Driver, is influenced by Williams (in a way, it reminded me of The End of the Tour about a writer and his relationship with David Foster Wallace). It was a beautiful movie that only lasted a week in Knoxville because “there were only like four people who watched it,” the lady at the ticket counter told me Sunday night when I went back to watch Moonlight.

For me, poetry remains hard, raw, and unsettling. I am rarely happy with any of the poetry I write. Since college, I’ve pretty much avoided it, sticking to sports, reporting, and the occasional short story. I’m not interested in poetry that doesn’t make sense to what I feel. The art that I consume all touches me in some personal way; they mimic moments, conversations, images that I’ve to some extent experienced. There’s epic poetry out there that is beautiful, but I quickly lose interest if I cannot connect it to some aspect of living.

So, inevitably, when I write poetry, it’s personal in an unsettling way. It’s not like short stories where I can hide behind so many words and scenes. And it’s scary to write this way because I worry what others might think of me:

Will you judge me? Empathize with me? Will you be angry? Or pity me?

Every work of art I say I love has a heavy dose of candor to it. Poetry is cathartic and therapeutic in that sense. And, I’m glad that Paterson and Williams have gotten me writing it again.

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