Friday, March 4, 2016

My Life In Poetry

While looking through my Google Docs for old essays I wouldn't need anymore, so I could use those files to put together the beginnings of my vomitous critical theory essay (which I need to start today, blecccch), I found this gem from two years ago - the final essay I wrote for a poetry class. That class, I took in spring 2014, a time of massive reinvention in my life. I'd just changed majors from computer science to English, I'd finally made my first real friend in God knows how long, I'd started writing Red Rain, and just a couple of weeks before this essay was written, I saw what's still my favorite movie ever - The Amazing Spider-Man 2.


The reinvention's not done yet, and so I'd like to share this old essay with you, my loyal Pinecones, before I totally forget all about it. You can see in the following words just how much I haven't changed in two years, and how mentally-still-age-seventeen I was back then.

One poem that very greatly captures a series of feelings I’ve felt throughout my life is Joyce Sutphen’s “Living In The Body.” Sutphen starts by declaring that “no matter which [body] you get, it will not / be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful / enough, it will not be fast enough…” Although society commonly associates body-image issues with girls more often than boys, I am living proof that young males can suffer this particular problem as well. While I have never developed any full-blown problems in this regard (such as eating disorders), I have still spent years wishing I were more attractive. Otherwise, I would have to rely entirely on my charm and personality to attract a mate, and I am equally deficient here - or, at least, so I perceive myself. I definitely have problems with self-control as well, as Sutphen outlines at the end of the first stanza, when she describes how the unsatisfactory body will “pull [one] down into a sleepy swamp and / demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.” I have often found myself eating these exact things even when I do not even need to do so, just because I want something delicious to fill my stomach with. Amusingly, when I look in the mirror each day, I already get “the same creaky knee when [I] get up from the floor” - although I have to wonder how much of that is just poor self-perception and how much might actually be premature aging of my joints. While Sutphen does suggest that it is not worth it to try and change one’s body - “The changes you can make are small and / costly - better to leave it as it is” - I have to disagree. I feel that perhaps small changes do not have to be quite so costly - they can include such things as better dieting, exercise, and getting out more in general. Having spent most of my life shying away from these things, I feel that I am long overdue for such improvements to my life.

In Gerald Locklin’s “The Iceberg Theory,” iceberg lettuce is defended despite being considered a less-than-pleasing option by many. Locklin insists that food critics will make up all sorts of grandiose reasons to bolster other, more different, varieties of lettuce, and yet “at any rate, [he] really [enjoys] a salad / with plenty of chunky iceberg lettuce, / the more the merrier…” I have to agree with Locklin - I’ve always preferred a salad with plain iceberg lettuce, or even romaine, which is equally plain and simple. I also have to agree with Locklin’s idea of taste: “the darker, leafier varieties / are often bitter, gritty, and flat.” Like most people, I spent my childhood not wanting to eat my green vegetables precisely for this reason - even today I find most of them to be foul-tasting and barely edible. At the same time, I also believe that Locklin hits the nail on the head when he outlines a rather strong criticism of iceberg lettuce: “it just isn’t different enough, and / it’s too goddamn american.” It is true that most American things (not just food, but also books and movies and music, in my experience) seem bland and uninspired, although that might just be the perspective of an actual American who is tired of the things he or she grew up with. In the end, though, the critics are simply forming their opinions to which they are entitled: “a critic has to criticize: / a critic has to have something to say.” I find myself often delivering harsh and/or unwanted opinions on a variety of subjects - food, music, movies, etc. Because my own life experience with all of these has been fairly limited, usually sticking to what I find simple and comforting, I guess it only fits that I critique things constantly - in keeping with the old maxim that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach - or, in my case, spout off strong opinions that people do not want to hear, but are the truth in my eyes no matter what others may say.

Another poem for me to relate to easily is “The British Museum Reading Room” by Louis MacNeice. Here he describes the way that “the stooping haunted readers / Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge…” I have spent most of my life going into libraries similar places - certainly none as majestic as the poem’s titular location, but all still equally suited for the advancement of knowledge because that is the purpose for which they were built. MacNeice says that those who come to libraries like this are a motley bunch: “Some on commission, some for the love of learning, / Some because they have nothing better to do / Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden / The drumming of the demon in their ears.” I have to admit that these (except for the first) are all primary reasons why I go for reading a book instead of proper human contact, given the choice - which is also why, throughout my life, I have had very few people I can call a friend.

In Robert Hass’ “Our Lady of the Snows,” the speaker describes how, as a child, he would be “standing at [his] older brother’s closet / studying the shirts, / convinced that I could be absolutely transformed / by something I could borrow.” While I do not have any brothers, I can still relate to this feeling just based on the contents of my own closet - which is full of shirts that I normally do not wear because they do not reflect the sort of person I am, including some I received as Christmas gifts during my teens but have never worn because I considered them embarrassing and nerdy (this despite the fact that I was enrolled in many honors and AP classes in high school, and my classmates would often wear similar clothes.) Looking back, I think that if I were to bring my younger self to the present day so he could see the contents of my closet, he would see an older version of himself, with few people to really look up to in life, insisting on doing things his own (usually easy in the moment) way, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps this experience could convince my teenage self to concentrate his efforts more on the life he wants to lead, a life I sometimes feel I may have missed the boat on because of my consistent inability to make friends or connections with others around me.

In my studies, I continuously find myself bored trying to divine any kind of meaning from the things I study. It would be much easier (and, again, only easy within the moment) if all people would follow the advice of David Budbill’s “The Three Goals:” “The first goal is to see the thing itself / in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly / for what it is. / No symbolism, please.” Unfortunately, most people would disagree with this, because it is only too easy to read into things and search for hidden meanings, which the author may not even have put in to begin with. It would certainly be helpful if the author simply stated what the hidden meanings were, in an interview or the afterword to his or her work. However, as an aspiring writer myself, I understand the urge to try and get the reader to figure the hidden meanings out on their own. Whether they do figure it out, though, is a mystery - and in fact, if the novel on which I am currently working is published, I highly doubt the reader will be able to figure out the obscure references on his or her own. That would be where the internet, or third-party reading guides, would come in - as it has often done for me during my life.

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