I accepted the offer to run a day-long seminar on poetry at my former high school, convinced it would be my greatest triumph. Not even the salaried teachers dared spend more than a week on a poetry unit. I was being called in as a scab, or a guru, or an expert witness. How delicious it is to finally be acknowledged as expert by the same institution that quietly rejected your entry for graduation speech because they were afraid you’d upstage the valedictorian on diploma day. Yes, the satisfaction of proving your potential is sweet. But that sweet sours quickly when you recall how alienating it was to be a poetry-loving teenager. Your verses were riddled with vague personal angst; you showed them to no one (because who could possibly understand your suffering?!). You hid in hallway corners during lunch brooding. You avoided the over-zealous women’s lit teacher who wanted to discuss your recently-shaved head. None of your friends knew about the spiral notebook full of endless drafts. You were completely and thoroughly alone. No one else liked poetry, and if they did, nobody admitted it. You were the weird one. Outside, observing. Silent. Because what could be less cool than talking about poetry?
This was my audience. They were everyone else I’d never dared to tell about the things I wrote. A few hundred kids forced to listen to recitations of, at best, Billy Collins’ most recent work post-vocab quiz. Any formal acquaintance with a poem meant it was a Shakespearian sonnet, or some Poe from a middle school Halloween party, or better yet, rhyming, moralistic greeting card verse safe enough to embed in public school curriculum. My game plan was simple: show, by example, that poems are not only by dead people. I made a list of ten writing prompts called “Exercises in Anarcho-Poetics”, hoping the name would confuse them into an at least lukewarm state of interest. Then, I Googled Robert Frost and made an occasion-appropriate Mad Lib out of his famous poem “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”. Spreading all my favorite poetry books around me on my bedroom floor, I picked out the image-heavy stuff that I knew would get kids listening. Ryler Dustin’s “My Old Man”. Carrie Rudzinski’s “Shutterdove”. I made a list of authors whose work hit me hard at seventeen, when I started writing daily poems as a mechanism for convincing myself I knew something about the world I walked in, something worth speaking aloud.
When the day of the teach-in finally came, I was shocked to find that the kids actually listened. Not only that, they asked thoughtful questions. They wanted to know more than I’d prepared to speak about. One boy asked me what I did to get myself to write. A girl in one of the afternoon classes begged me to tell her how to get published. The largest group of the day got into a raucous discussion of whether hip hop and poetry are of the family, which begotten a discussion of whether song lyrics belong under poetry’s umbrella, which ended in some students asking what poets I might suggest to them based on their favorite lyricists.
By the final class period, the kids spoke more than I did. And it made me feel excellent. One of my biggest fears about poems is how easy it is for them to disappear. People call them inaccessible because they are not willing to feel something new without total understanding. A Poem asks hard questions and lets you insert your own answers. A poem bends your mouth into new shapes. The sounds of a poem, the disparate images placed next to one another bring you to see the world differently. The open-ended nature of poetry, the part of it that frustrates so many people, is what makes it so necessary. And all of the students who passed through my pseudo-lecture that day understood that without me saying so. They knew it the same way I did when I was in the same place–some things about being a person can only be explained by purposeful silence.
by Emily O’Neill