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A few weeks ago I went back to the small town where I grew up and spent a day talking to some fourteen-year-old students about poetry. The town is called Hemlock, which was the poison that killed Socrates. This, along with the general state of mind of high school freshmen and the fact that they had until this point been reading Yeats, gives a good idea of their mindset.
I had my own group of nine kids who I got to work with for an hour. There was also an older lady who always sat behind one of the kids, although it was never explained to me why this was, other than that I felt obliged not to curse because of her (she had her hair in a bun). I brought along Tim Earley's amazing book of poetry, Boondoggle, as my example of fun and interesting and unique contemporary poetry. I figured most (all?) of the poems would be beyond the kids, if only because a couple of the poems are beyond me and the other ones are really really cool and weird. But I also figured it was called Boondoggle, and if I were fourteen I would probably like to say words like boondoggle that sound kind of funny and possibly dirty.
So I told the kids that what was so good about Earley was that his poems were always making declarations. I said Tim Earley was so busy saying things, and saying them in interesting and odd and beautiful ways, that he made you want to listen. I gave them examples. "What the Dauphin wants the Dauphin gets." "Time is a sunny balloon." "My lover is a small lion crying into her cereal." While I did this, one of the boys drew a picture of what I think was boobs and showed it to another boy.
I also told the kids Earley was good because he surprised you with his language, and that sometimes you wouldn't even know exactly what he had said, but you were happy to hear those words anyway. I read them more examples. "Ritual fidgets when hats agree/ the premise is all frontal tails and moaning/ branches unfix their designs." "The inexpertly wielded flange disrupted the parade." Then I asked everyone to guess what these lines could mean. I thought we would have a nice moment where we talked about all the possible meanings of words and connotations that Earley so expertly plays with, but instead everyone refused to talk.
At this point I got bitter and petty (never hire me to teach high school). I was going to talk about how funny Earley was. I was going to tell them that good poetry managed to make you laugh while it was making you sad. I was going to read them the entirety of "Crotch Poem," which is largely about his crotch hurting. I was thinking of also reading "Daily Permutations," a poem that cycles around beer and night and also a poem that keeps calling me a bastard, as in "That looks like a tongue or a tail, a tail or a noose, a noose or, or, or, nothing, bastard." But the only person listening was the matron, and her eyes said that I was failing, that now was not the time to laugh or call the children bastards.
So I finished up by having them write an imitation of an Earley poem. I showed them how most of his poems were simply called something poems, like "Goodbye Poem" and "Glomming Poem" and "Rusty Poem." I encouraged them to write funny words and nonsense words and declarative words. They wrote "Basketball Poem," which was rhyming couplets about basketball, and "Goth Poem," which was rhyming couplets about being goth.
High school students, it seems, are not good judges of contemporary poetry. They do not care that Earley knows how to lead you into a careful rhythm after five or six poems, then twist that rhythm with a new structure that grabs your gut. They don't care that his language manages to be technical, elaborate and dazzling while still making sense, or that he's just as good with a short, simple line as he is with those word pyrotechnics. They don't care that he's so witty he doesn't need to show it off, but instead is happy luring you in and surprising you with a funny image at the exact right moment. They don't care that Boondoggle is a solid collection, complete in the way a good rock album is complete by being at once cohesive and varied. But you're (probably) not fourteen, and you (maybe) haven't been drawing boobs the whole time I've been talking, so you should know better, do yourself a favor, and buy the book already. [TF]