Thinking in (Bad) Poetry

Creative Commons photo by Steve A Johnson on flickr
Creative Commons photo by Steve A Johnson on flickr

I used to think in poetry.

It was bad poetry, mind you. Juvenile. Reductive. Mimicry. But it was in verse.

Twenty-five years ago, I was consumed by music. Every dream I had about my future involved becoming a singer, and nothing about the realities of what it would take to accomplish that (i.e. get out of Corvallis, Oregon, when I was terrified of leaving home) swayed me. Having given up guitar and piano as too difficult to master – and, to my mind, impossible to play while singing – I convinced myself singing was enough.

And then came the poetry. I had been consuming a steady diet of song lyrics since childhood, and began scrawling my own bits on the college-ruled paper in the back of my high school notebooks. These were always intended to be song lyrics, not just words, which meant everything rhymed. And when one’s vocabulary is young and, it must be said, based on a lot of crappy rock music, the arsenal of rhymes at one’s disposal is pretty dismal. I’m somewhat relieved that I don’t still have the lyrics I wrote in high school, although I’m sure they’d make for amusing reading now.

Hearing my own words put to music for the first time when I was eighteen had a drug-like effect. Any (minimal) doubts I had about my abilities were gone, and I wanted more. There were more small tastes during college, but it wasn’t until a couple years after graduation that I joined a band that would become the center of my life for the next three years. And although I didn’t contribute the bulk of the lyrics to the song list, I still spent many hours furiously scribbling verses into notebooks.

And then, abruptly, it stopped.

In the thirteen years between when I left that band and when those bandmates suggested four months ago that we start playing again, I don’t think I wrote a single poem. Not one verse. I went on to jobs where I thought in prose. I now make my living thinking in either long-form non-fiction or 140 characters. The writing itself is not the hard part. The writing itself is easy. Somehow, it’s getting back to thinking in poetry that I find challenging.

I’m trying to think in verses again, and writing things down, and I don’t hate all of them. But I look back at some of the scraps of paper from the band days and I can’t quite believe the same brain in my head right now is the one that turned some of those pretty phrases. Maybe there are some tricks you can’t teach old dogs, even if the old dog was once a young dog that did the trick without thinking. Maybe I’m just more aware that everything I want to say has been said before, and more eloquently than I can say it. Maybe I can’t think in both prose and poetry at the same time, the way I could never manage to play piano and sing simultaneously.

Or maybe I just need to keep trying. Even if it’s still bad poetry.

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