22 August 2011

I won’t publish this until you’re dead (and other promises poets shouldn’t make)

I remember a Literature professor sharing with me the story of a poet who was very concerned with how her parents would read her poetry. And so, as a compromise, said poet promised her parents and herself that she would never publish certain of her poems until her parents were dead. I really don't remember why said Literature professor told me this story; I suppose she thought it was a beautiful anecdote. And at the time, I couldn’t think of anything more thoughtful and considerate in the world.

I don’t know what made me think of it today (perhaps the fact that a truck nearly ran me down in its hurry to flee the Safeway parking lot, or the fact that I witnessed a screaming match between a bike rider who clearly signaled a left turn who was also nearly run down by a truck in a hurry), but it occurred to me that such a promise is neither thoughtful nor considerate … In fact, it’s downright creepy. I’ll get to why in a minute (in yet another list of things I personally believe important enough to be shared on the World Wide Web).

But first, I want to think about why poets have to make so many terrible promises in the first place. And the answer to the question, I’m fairly certain, can be boiled down to one pesky, persistent little word: Feelings. I don’t really know what it is about feelings that puts us poets on edge. We don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. We don’t want to put our own feelings out there for others to see. We don’t … okay, another thing, and pardon the second interruption, but what’s with rhyming? Since when was it a cardinal sin to rhyme? And I admit, I used to fall into this trap, this dread of a rhymed line, the thought that somehow it was inferior; and maybe an entire poem of nothing but rhyming can be mundane and lazy, but maybe it can also be beautiful and spellbinding, so I think we need to get out of the habit of making Rhyme the poetic pariah.

And now, I’ll interrupt myself again to present a list of promises poets shouldn’t make, mostly about feelings, but also about rhyme:

1. “I promise I won’t publish this until you’re dead.” Yes, my love, this poem is 100% about you, and as a sign of how much I love you, I vow to hold on to it and the million varieties of shame and embarrassment it may cause you until after you’re dead and can’t do a thing about it. Which is really my way of saying, as a sign of how much I love this poem, I vow to hold on to it and the million and one ways it will probably cause you deathly embarrassment until after you’re dead (at which point it can’t be deathly embarrassing ‘cause you’re already rottin’, baby). Which is just a nice way of saying: I cannot wait until you die, because this poem is awesome!

2. “I promise I won’t rhyme.” Well, I might—some of the time. The rhyme might make the line. In which case, rhyme is fine. So don’t be so obtuse—it’s not like I’m Dr. Seu—OH NOOOOOOO, I’M RHYYYYMING!!!

3. “I promise I won’t write about you.” That is, unless you prove to be the single most important person in my life. Or unless you ask me to marry you. Or unless you say something that merits verse. Or unless you say something I find absolutely hilarious that inspires verse. Or unless you say something that would make the perfect epigram. Or unless I really, really want to … Let’s not put this promise in writing.

4. “I promise I won’t write stuff that goes above your head.” Until it does. In which case, it’s your fault.

5. “I promise I won’t be that kind of poet.” Until I am. In which case, it’s your fault.

6. “I promise I won’t write love poems.” Ever. Until I do. In which case, it’s your fault.

Featured Post

Sankofa: The Power of Known History

I recently took on two challenges in the sphere of political and cultural advocacy: understanding the roots of our democracy and national l...