That Beautiful Thing: A response to “Please Excuse This Poem” ed. Lynn Melnick & Brett Fletcher Lauer
VIKING/PENGUIN BOOKS, 2015
REVIEW BY AMANDA SILBERLING
When I was fifteen, I spent every mandatory high school pep rally hiding in a storage closet. Sometimes, I shared the space with a girl who dressed up in a fluffy purple cat costume. That’s another story, though.
The point of this story is that when I was in high school, I was afraid to engage with the world around me. I chose to isolate myself, rather than let my classmates isolate me like I assumed they would. But this isn’t just my story. This is the story of countless teens who struggle to find themselves – teens who need to be shown that there is beauty in the world. For me, that beautiful thing was poetry.
In Please Excuse This Poem, editors Lynn Melnick and Brett Fletcher Lauer share a selection of one hundred poems by one hundred contemporary poets. These poems were specifically curated to introduce young people to the versatility and dynamism of poetry. Please Excuse This Poem was designed for people like me – the fifteen-year-old girl who hid in closets, never raised her hand in class, and dreaded searching for a lunch table every day.
In her introduction to Please Excuse This Poem, Carolyn Forché writes, “Most poets begin writing poetry in secret. As with love and other experiences, there is a first time and it is remembered.” I hate to admit it, but I don’t remember the first time I wrote a poem. I do, however, remember when poetry and I fell in love with each other.
The summer after my sophomore year of high school, I found a selection of Bob Hicok poems. It was the first time I had ever seen what contemporary poetry could do. Poetry didn’t need to be a rigid counting of syllables, a 5-7-5, an ABAB rhyme scheme. It wasn’t just something on a standardized test that I didn’t understand – something quantified by multiple choice questions about the “author’s purpose” or “main idea.”
A poem can let simple actions take on new forms, as in Leigh Stein’s “Warning:”
If you read this book/sequentially, bad things may happen to you […]/If, however, you do not read this book sequentially you may/find that you are aboard a sunken pirate ship. (10)
A poem can say what no one else dares to say, as in Ben Lerner’s “From The Lichtenberg Figures:”
I’m going to kill the president./I promise. I surrender. I’m sorry./I’m gay. I’m pregnant. I’m dying./I’m not your father. You’re fired. (133)
A poem can yearn for someone to understand the poet’s culture, as in Tarfia Faizullah’s “Postcards to the Other Brown Girl in My Weightlifting Class:”
Does your mother show/you pictures of eligible/bachelors from Jaipur,/Mumbai, Canada? Does/your kitchen house unused/monuments of your mother’s/immigrant heart? (24)
The poems in Please Excuse This Poem are incendiary, and each poet’s work is chosen for an explicit reason. Eduardo C. Corral, Jericho Brown, and James Allen Hall write about understanding their sexuality; Patricia Lockwood and Metta Sáma use poetry to cope with sexual abuse; CA Conrad, Ken Chen, and Jennifer L. Knox show that poetic form knows no bounds, and any type of experimentation is welcomed and encouraged.
Last February in The Volta, Melnick and Lauer explained their inspiration to develop the anthology:
We were both troubled teenagers who felt, in some part, saved by poetry. Lynn remembers coming across a contemporary poetry anthology in a Goodwill store after having dropped out of high school. Brett remembers two rather traditional anthologies of contemporary poetry of the 1990s, which were given to him as birthday gifts.
Like Melnick and Laurer, I was “saved by poetry.” Poetry allowed me to create art in a realm where I could be wholly and completely myself. When I started writing poetry, I learned to express my emotions in a healthy, creative way. I stopped hiding in closets. For the first time, I felt comfortable with myself. I didn’t write people off without letting them get to know me. I opened myself up to my classmates and discovered that they didn’t want to isolate me – they wanted me to break out of my shell.
Poetry changed me. Until I read those Bob Hicok poems, I never knew that poetry could be anything other than a rhyming mishmash of convoluted literary devices. I didn’t know how to read poetry in a way that wasn’t shaped by the SAT Critical Reading section. Most importantly, I didn’t know how at home I felt within a poem. But most teenagers don’t come across contemporary poetry too easily, nor do they have the desire to seek it out.
In The Adroit Journal‘s interview with Melnick and Laurer, the editors say, “If teachers and students were exposed to contemporary poetry they might see pretty quickly how relevant it is to their lives and concerns.” Instead of high schools only teaching the same outdated canon, I want to see Please Excuse This Poem invade high school English classes across America.
When I was in high school, the English curriculum only included poets like John Donne, Shakespeare, and Homer – and even then, poetry only made its way into my classrooms for a week or two. Every once in a while, we’d get to read Adrienne Rich or Mary Oliver, but we were taught to attack these poems like a puzzle, figuring out the meaning of each word, sound, line, and stanza. This isn’t how to experience a poem.
Poetry isn’t a complicated mess that can only be deciphered by Ph.D students, and I don’t think the average student realizes that. I didn’t realize that for a long time either. That’s why Please Excuse This Poem has such potential to change the way teenagers discover poetry. It’s necessary to understand the roots of literature through writers like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but it’s equally essential to see where literature is today. If I had been exposed to contemporary poetry earlier in life – if my ninth grade English class taught me about poets like Mark Bibbins, Camille Rankine, and Terrance Hayes – maybe my most vivid high school memories wouldn’t take place in a storage closet.
Outsider or not, high school is notoriously rough. But at least now in college, after discovering my passion for poetry, I’ve stopped hiding.
Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation
ed. Lynn Melnick & Brett Fletcher Lauer
Viking/Penguin Books, March 2015
$16.99 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-6700147-9-8