Poetry is a dicey affair, especially free verse. Rhyming and metered poetry has specific criteria against which you can judge a poem: the effectiveness of cadences and the cleverness of the rhymes. However, even when I wrote the phrase, “judge a poem,” I winced. Poetry, unlike many other art forms, is not a “thing.” A painting is a thing. A symphony is a thing. The play is the thing (to quote Shakespeare). Poetry tends to be an invitation into the heart of the poet. “Come sit down. Have a spot tea as I tell you of two roads diverging in a yellow wood.” Or, “Is that death knocking at the door for me?” Poetry forces you to see what is there or might be there or is not there.
The first poem I ever wrote was a mere two lines. No teenager has ever written two lines of angst such as these:
Love hurts more than hate
when love is one way.
I was a teenage gay boy who was in “love.” It was my gateway drug into a closeted life of obsessive love with people who could not love me. I went to my junior high German teacher and asked her to translate it into German. It sounded much darker in German, “Liebe schmerzt mehr als Hass, wenn die Liebe ist ein Weg.”
My second poem was much cheerier:
Death of a Clown
Gray like the rain someday
I will die
and people will go back to their laughing way.
I submitted this poem to Clindon Hoard, my grammar teacher. Over horned-rimmed glasses he gave me a dour look, “This Mr. Jenkins, is most depressing. Creative writing should be banned from high schools.”
I wrote very few poems after that. However, in the meantime, I fell in love with three poets: Robert Frost, ee cummings, and Emily Dickenson. I was forced to memorize Frost’s, The Road Not Taken. While I failed at the assignment, my soul was etched with the thought of taking “roads less traveled.” Cummings was more than just the poet whose cap lock key was broken on his computer. How can someone read the words, “anyone live in a pretty how town with up so floating many bells down” and not smile? I cannot recite any of her poems by heart, but yet when I read them I am often brought to tears.
I began writing poetry again at about age 45, the age at which I began my coming out process. I belonged to a group of gay men who met weekly for a meal, prayer, communion, and silence. This group was probably the most transformative experience of my life. I had never experienced community at this level since my childhood, and never as one who was able to embrace and celebrate my emerging identity as a gay man. One of our leaders routinely hosted a Poultry Slam. We were invited to bring poems or writings that meant something to us or made us laugh, or think. I chose to write poems for the event.
There following poems are not to be read as an assignment or straight through in order. They are to be glanced at and if a word or phrase catches your fancy take the time to read it. These poems are not meant as “good writing,” only as invitations into my heart for tea. They are annotated and not in chronological order.
This poem was written for my friend Pat Moore, who grew up in Nebraska.
In Nebraska gifts
are singular not plural.
Perhaps a nice picture book?
Something suitable for a boy.
The request for a doll lay like a dead bird on the dining room table.
Awkward and difficult to remove.
And when the singular gift had been given,
when the paper and ribbons had been removed,
when the gift had been lifted from the box,
it became clear.
A compromise had been reached in the color of the doll.