This post is not about Mary Oliver. I have no thoughts on her. I am not familiar with her work, but this past week, since her death, I have been seeing all sorts of posts on social media paying tribute to her and at first, I just felt left out, but then I realized I was being reminded of something from my past.
I have always been dense when it comes to poetry. I don’t do symbolism or foreshadowing very well-I am more of a literal person, when it comes to writing. I would say I am more of a prose girl with journalistic tendencies, (according to one of my college English teachers).
Which made my 10th grade English class so difficult.
I love writing, but not poetry- at least not the kind that is forced on us in the 10th grade and I had a teacher that year- Mr. McNeely, who had no problem calling his students out if he didn’t think we were paying enough attention.
Because I couldn’t understand the symbolism of the red ball one day. My mind drew a blank. It’s a ball- it’s red, end of story. To which my teacher said to me, “next time Theresa- pay attention!”
But I was paying attention, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get poems that didn’t rhyme. And if they rhymed, apparently that meant they weren’t deep enough – artsy enough.
Then one day Mr. McNeely started teaching about meter. Now rhythm and meter, I understand. Iambic pentameter? I’m on it. Trochaic? I get it. We would be given homework assignments- to write poems in whatever latest meter we working on and I would see this as a challenge. Never mind what the actual words were- I knew how to rhyme – and quickly. As in I would write a rhyme in the class period before English and still turn my homework assignment in on time.
Then my teacher decided that we would have “poem contests” and he would read each one of our poems out loud in class- (anonymously-he simply assigned our poems each a number). And the class would vote for our top three poems by their number.
And whoever landed in the top 3- would get an automatic “A” – even if the poem, by the teacher’s standards- sucked. And then the winning poems would automatically be submitted for consideration into our school’s literary magazine- “Backroads”. Backroads was run by a club of artsy fartsy students who wrote and understood “real poetry”.
I won these class poem contests all the time. Not because I knew how to write poetry, but because I knew how to rhyme and make my peers laugh. It got to the point where my teacher would disappointedly say, “And the winner is………………..Theresa. What a surprise.” I may not have not understood symbolism, but I could entertain people. I guess you could say I was a sell-out. And my teacher would be forced to give me an “A” even if he thought my poem sucked. And he was forced to submit my poems to Backroads where each one of my rhymes was rejected – every time- by the artsy fartsy kids.
So I was beginning to learn I had an audience, even if the audience wasn’t my teacher or the high brow students from Backroads.
But I still didn’t get “real poetry” so you can imagine my fear when I found out during my 12th grade senior English exam, that we had two hours to write an essay on some artsy fartsy poem. It could have been Shakespeare- I don’t recall. I just knew that the dreamy language put me to sleep and panic set in. I have to write about this poem for my final exam?
I got angry. I felt as though I was being punished because my brain was wired differently than people who love poetry. So then I started writing about my anger towards the poem and why I thought it sucked and why I didn’t get it and two hours later I turned my paper in. As I was walking out of class, I overheard one of the smartest kids in class say to the teacher “finally, a poem I like!”
My heart sank. If one of the smartest kids in the class liked it- then what does that say about me?
The next week, my teacher handed back our papers and to my surprise- I got an A! She told me, “You will do really well in college, because you know how to think for yourself.”
I was stunned. You mean I was allowed to think for myself? You mean I don’t have to agree with the teacher or the artsy kids in order to get an “A” or succeed in life?
I’ve been honing my own voice ever since. Using humor whenever I feel left out of the cool artsy fartsy conversation.
And I still have no thoughts on Mary Oliver.
And that’s okay.