What did you love in your high school years? A band? A movie? A book that kept you up all night? It’s amazing how, in that fragile time between becoming an adult and still hanging on to childhood, those attachments you can’t explain can shape your passions for the rest of your life.
If I think about it long enough, go back far enough, I’d say I write poems today because of Emily Dickinson.
She’s a staple of the earliest literature classes, like Shakespearean tragedies and Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” the old stuff you have to read. Demure in photographs, with wide collared dresses and hair pulled back tight. But for me, and I suspect many other slightly awkward and shy teen girls, her poems burrowed deep into something I didn’t have a name for yet. My text books taught the “cleaned up” versions that toned down her eccentric obsession with dashes, but being drilled into memorizing “To make a prairie” and “I never saw a moor” stirred a sense of vast possibility.
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,— One clover, and a bee, And revery. The revery alone will do If bees are few.
I remember memorizing a lot of poems in 10th grade, perhaps the best thing I could have done in learning to love poetry (a story for another time, I think), but somehow in the middle of words upon words, hers always broke through. When I read the lines “I’m nobody — Who are you? / Are you — nobody — too?” it felt like I’d been given a new name.
So I’m not the only one who doesn’t find making friends to come naturally. So I’m not the only one that would rather hang out at home with my family than go do . . . whatever teenage girls in little towns do for fun. So maybe, when people expressed dismay that as a homeschool kid I wasn’t going to prom and playing sports, it was okay that I honestly didn’t care.
Emily felt like a friend. A weird, reclusive friend who saw the world with a clarity I couldn’t match yet but desperately wanted, who fretted about death and recognized magic riding on the backs of bees.
Tenth grade was when I wrote my first poem. I had to. It was an English assignment. It was a quatrain and it rhymed, kind of like hers, though the imagery was way too obvious, but fifteen years later, I can kind of see her influence. It was something about hope being a candle in the night, a faithful guiding light. In retrospect, it wasn’t very good, but it unleashed a good thing, pages and pages of words, and realizing that hey, maybe I could be a writer.
What is it about those years in between childhood and adulthood that sets the tone of our stories and follows us forever? Is it because we still hold on to our instinctive desire to keep playing, even though we’re getting acquainted with the sweat of the brow and the harshness of life? Maybe, as we’re starting to feel dampened by the world, a spark of recognition that “there’s a pair of us” is enough to light us up.
Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Malcolm Guite