200 Bad Poems

Billy Collins was the special guest on National Public Radio’s “Wait. Wait. Don’t Tell Me” last week. (transcript | listen) My poetry friends know I have a bit of a nerd crush on Collins for his ability to write simple, clever yet powerful poetry. I’ve written about this before (“Poems Belong Everywhere”).

As much as I admire Collins’ work, I am even more appreciative of his ability to talk about poetry in a way that helps it make sense to non-poetry people. When asked about the bad poetry people write in high school, he said, “We’re all born with 200 bad poems in us… Middle school and high school is a good time to get rid of those.”

As a college librarian, I sometimes get the chance to talk to college students about their writing. When the conversation is about poetry, I ask how long they have been writing poetry. “I started in high school,” they usually tell me and then quickly add, “but it was all terrible.”

I understand their embarrassment. I started writing poetry in high school. It was awful. Long, tangled polysyllabic stuff crammed full of grand pronouncements, sweeping generalities and unclear abstractions. Oh, and angst. Lots and lots of angst. I wrote about death. I wrote about darkness. I wrote about my feelings of obsession with death and darkness. The weird things is that I was a happy kid. I have no idea where all the death and darkness stuff came from but, between the ages of 12 and 19, it gushed from my pen and stacked up on pages and pages of notebook paper.

I still have most of that poetry. I don’t read it. I’m not really even sure how to deal with it. I keep it as a physical totem. An object that connects me back to myself in some indirect way.

Hearing Collins say everyone has 200 bad poems inside made me very, very happy. Instead of bemoaning how terrible my earliest work has been and hiding that work from sight, I suddenly feel like I should share it. The next time, a young writer apologizes for the inadequacy of their verse, I want to show them the inadequacy of my own. I want to celebrate my 200 bad poems with them. I want to celebrate the fact of their 200 bad poems. I want to give them a stack of my most terrible verse, add up all the pages, place it beside their very worst and say “Race you! Let’s see who can get through their 200 bad poems the fastest.”

This, I think, is how the new poets will be born. When we give our students permission to be weird in public, to show off their mistakes and celebrate together our inevitable iteration through failure. That’s when poetry will be important again. That’s when poetry will recapture our minds as a new kind of language.

Poems Belong Everywhere

I love poems, but I don’t always particularly enjoy poetry.

I like the way a really good poem slices through the baggage of words and gets to the truth of things. I like the way a really good poem makes familiar objects seem unfamiliar. I like way a really good poem can surprise you, catch you off guard and force you to acknowledge beliefs you did not realize you held.

I love poems, but I have a terrible time with Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats and the crew. There was a time when I assumed that Eliot, Stevens and cummings spoke with ideas and a voice more rarified and brilliant than my own. I bashed my mind against their verse, trying to unlock their elevated ideas. It never happened, so eventually I stopped.

Then I started reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and I began to understand poems again. Poems are a kind of meditation. Poems are moments of complete attention where the object and the subject disappear. Poems are acts of gratitude. Poems are declarations not of how things should be but declarations of how things really are. Poems are prayers.

Poems are useful. They have a purpose in every day life. The problem is, too often, poetry gets in the way of poems. Poetry makes poems into an abstraction, an idea of a thing rather than the thing itself. We teach ourselves to fear poetry in high school and then feel ashamed about that fear for the rest of our lives.

I particularly like the way Billy Collins puts it, “It is a good thing to get poetry off the shelf and more into public life.” His 2012 TED Talk shares some ideas on how this might work. I was particularly amazed by the animated poem mashup he undertook to bring 5 of his terrific poems to a new kind of life.

Take a look:

What do you think about the idea of poems in public life? Where does the world need poems? How can we get them there?