Poetry can seem like a real waste of time for writers because most will never make a dime from it and reading in front of a crowd often generates more apathy than applause. You can bare your soul in front of a roomful of teenagers who are either too bored or too scared to share their own words and be devastatingly underwhelmed by the response. If you write prose about something political, you’ll likely get some feedback, but post your poetry online and the response will be crickets chirping and rolling their eyes.
But the right poem read by the right person can make you cry, give you chills, restore your faith in humanity, and maybe change your life. Yesterday I had to miss a poetry reading at school that I had been planning for weeks to attend with my classes, and from what I’ve heard, it was a good one. When my daughter woke up vomiting at 5 a.m., I hurried into school and scrambled up a list of directions instructing the sub to take my classes to the poetry reading. The sun was coming up as I left the school, and I had this uncanny sense that the kids might have a better day with the sub than with me there to nag them about all the usual stuff.
I wanted them to have a good day, really. Sub days make teachers nervous because we worry that the substitute teacher will be mistreated. We worry that some kids may take advantage of the fact that the sub has no idea a) where anything is b) what the rules are c) what the kids are supposed to be working on and d) what their names are.
But this is the opposite of what happened. When I returned to school this morning, I asked two coworkers how the poetry reading went and both said it was the most wonderful display of literary compassion they had seen in however long. I saw that the substitute teacher had written his name and its pronunciation in large letters on my dry-erase board. He had also listed the titles and authors of several famous poems. Apparently this particular sub was a gregarious former English teacher who referred to himself in the third person. My students liked this about him.
“So what does that mean in terms of characterization?” I asked them when they described their Sub Day. “If we were writing a story about him as a fictional character, what would it mean that he refers to himself in the third person?”
“It means he … he thinks of himself in a different way … I can’t explain it,” one kid answered.
Maybe it means he already thinks of himself as a fictional character and his life is an epic story, I offered.
So my sub was also a foil for me. “Foil” is a literary term that means a character whose traits contrast with another character’s. All bubbly, gregarious people are the opposite of me. If I were a fictional character, I might be a tormented, reclusive writer. I’d also really like to be an eccentric poet or novelist who lives in a pink Tudor-style cottage. The only problem is that my life isn’t as interesting as any fictional character’s. A storybook character would never spend the amount of time I do on mundane tasks. These duties are why I get terrible writer’s block. Many days, it is impossible to transcend the stacks of dishes and piles of bills which are anything but food for thought.
And in fact this is exactly how I was feeling after a long day at home yesterday with the vomiting and piles of dirty washcloths. At first I was happy to be able to comfort my own sick child, to get her ginger ale and watch movies together, but eventually I let the chores eclipse everything else and felt uncomfortably numb. I sleepwalk as a defense mechanism through experiences that could be worth feeling as well as retelling.
I even started wishing this semester would hurry up and end, which isn’t like me at the beginning of a spring poetry unit, when there are still so many opportunities for hatching metaphors and similes. But I just kept thinking about attitude and apathy and wondering what is wrong with the world that I can not get certain people to just stand up and share what’s in their notebooks for a refreshing change of pace. It’s good to bare your soul sometimes, fight the numbness.
When I got back to school, I heard about the great poetry reading that took place in my absence. I heard about the funny sub who talked about himself in the third person. A kid in one of my classes today stood up and animatedly recited a poem about football.
There are poems about football!
I played Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and had them write journal entries answering the question, “Have you ever felt like a complete unknown?”
Because I have – pretty much every time I write or read a poem.
Today, one student talked about the meaning behind Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” When I reread the words, it made me realize that I am not a real poet, at least not most of the time, because to me, the wind is not peppermint. It might be cold and bitter, but it’s not peppermint, and a peppermint wind is so much more beautiful than the unscented kind.
The night before the poetry reading that I missed, I had intended to practice reading a poem I wrote. But I decided instead to read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” to my son.
He has two Spring Peeper frogs that he brought home from my mother’s pond. They are currently living in a small plastic habitat in our family room.
He is now planning to set the frogs free, because now is their time, and because at night, they sing of freedom.