A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did the past two years was participate in public poetry readings. Part three of five tells of some experiences that influenced me and the poetry I read and write.
There was sharing in Middle School where we read Dickens’ Great Expectations. This sharing was reading from your seat to the class. There was lots of giggling and body sounds and the teacher scolding and taking kids out of the class to sit in the hall or the principal’s office. This we all knew was trouble with the threat of getting the paddle with holes in it swung hard down on our bare butts but some preferred this to remaining in the class attempting to read something they could not read. Most of the kids in my class were poor readers. They did not read books on their own. And even for some of us who did read on our own Great Expectations was difficult. Dickens did not write like we spoke or anything we read. He was really of another country and another century. I was never taken into the hall. I read haltingly and fearfully and with some embarrassment. Not embarrassed in the way I was embarrassed listening to the tall tales boys told in the locker room or the school yard about girls I knew or what the boys did to their own bodies for pleasure. But embarrassed just the same because the reading was difficult and the interruptions frequent. Because of this I did not really learn the story Dickens had to tell until later much later.
Most importantly by the end of junior high the 9th-grade I learned that fiction stories were truer then the stories told in the school yard. Most of the sharing in junior high between boys anyway was boasting and shaming. It is good to have some embarrassment but not an overwhelming amount of shame otherwise you begin to retreat or tell tall tales that cover up the real and tend toward cruelty.
This was the reason for many ghastly scenes before and after school. There was lots of fighting after school. These attracted large crowds of boys and girls laughing and egging on the fighters. There was always blood on the faces and someone on the ground being punched and kicked before it was over. The crowd was like a school of fish opening and closing around the fighters as they moved. The crowd never touched the fighters as today. That would have been thought disrespecting the combatants. I have always thought it is interesting that the fighters never spoke or taunted one another before during or after a fight. This is not true of professional fighting where the taunting before is staged for the cameras and microphones. In fighting between two junior high boys I never saw this happen. There is only a few serious words to the point and the arrangement of where the fight will happen. It was all very logical and efficient. Scripted almost. So even the violence at this time had unwritten rules followed scrupulously. After the fighting came to a messy conclusion the crowd would be mostly quiet. The winner left first and most of the crowd would leave following him or her then only a few remained with the loser. Say a brother or sister or brave friend. A few others would stand in small groups talking amongst themselves. Many smoking. That is how junior high school fights happened at that time. There was little or no talking certainly very little sharing of any kind other than the blows to one another. A painful physical kind of sharing. After a week or two the two boys who fought would be seen talking to one another as best of friends.
Worse than fighting was the making fun of others who could not or would not fight. This ridicule seldom ever ended. Usually chubby boys or girls that wore homemade clothes were made fun of. There was a stocky tall girl with watery eyes that seemed not to focus. She was called Horse and I felt sorry for her and even though by this time I stopped going to church with my grandmother I did pray for her more than a few times.
Approaching school one day while still a block away I heard the sounds of a horse. Winning, braying and snorting. The sound was very crisp on this cold and clear winter day with the sun still low in the sky and skiffs of snow here and there. I began to think maybe someone brought a horse to school. I kind of wished it were true because I never saw a horse up close or touched a living one because we lived in city where their were only cars. Along with the horse sounds that day came the laughter of a crowd. The horse would bray and the crowd would laugh. Then a moment of silence and again the horse sound and the laughter. When I saw the crowd of kids in front of the school it looked like a fight crowd. Except fights never happened before school. This crowd moved with someone in the center. When I was close enough to see I saw the girl called Horse. I could hear boys and girls close to her say do it again Horse. Do the horse. And she would oblige. She would gallop around a few times then rear back using her hands to claw at the sky and let go with the amazing sound of a horse as beautiful and real as any horse I have heard since. She did not mind this. She loved to make the horse come out of herself. It was the way she could share with them even though they made fun of her and called her retarded and dumb all the other times at school. So long as she made the horse sound they did not call her names only her nickname that she liked. They laughed but did not call her hateful names. This sharing was beautiful and tragic.
I do not remember her moving on to high school and no one ever talked about her or remembered her even though she had a beauty all her own. To this day I only partly understand how others made fun of her for being who she was or doing what she did so well and that she loved. I always think of her when I see or hear a horse.
Another kind of sharing very close to sharing poetry was singing in chorus. They are close cousins maybe sisters. I loved to sing. I was a tenor. Though I had a trouble staying on key. Mrs Hutty would help me by sitting me at the piano with her and singing in my ear. She helped us all learn to sing in front of strangers. We traveled to elementary schools and nursing homes and the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn before it burnt to the ground. We were embarrassed some singing in public in our white shirts and ties but leaving school early or all day was preferable to sitting still all day. We were not embarrassed to much singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus because there was too much to remember so thinking of being embarrassed was not possible while singing. Even when gave a concert in our own school and our friends squiggled and squirmed and giggled in the audience we rose above it all. Mrs. Hutty instilled discipline. She demanded we smile and always look over the audience’s heads to the wall at the back of the room. This and remembering our part in the Hallelujah Chorus got us through all those concerts.
Sometimes in the hallways some boys who now would be labeled bullies but then were just boys called some of the tenor and bass boys in the choir sissies. Fortunately no one ever called me that to my face. I don’t know why. I was never one to be challenge for some reason. Perhaps because I was naturally athletic. I never boasted about who I was or who I could pound. I knew this was pride. I knew pride was the biggest sin. My Mum taught me that. So boasting or even having the attitude of boasting was entirely impossible for me.
This was how we shared in junior high school and why some of us began not to share in junior high school. We were most of us Pips in the making. And it would be a long time before we could again meet our own authentic selves or share something vulnerable from ourselves. What begins in fear ends in secrecy. When you live a while with an altered image of yourself thinking it is safer to share the image than who you really are you become painfully introverted. You begin to coverup and hide everything about yourself even though you are as most people are quite amazing in your thinking and feeling. Some people do this hiding so long that they convince themselves they’re public made up image of themselves is the bedrock of who they are. They no longer live in their own true place inside themselves but rather live from the self-imposed image of themselves that sells well with the ridicule happy public.
This is why poetry is so important. It deflates the false. It shows us life inside and out. It shows us the bumps and bruises and scars that can obscure the sweet place that is in us all. When we see that place and remember it is inside of us all just waiting there patiently to be reclaimed then we want to reclaim it and live from there. When we read and write from that place we can read to strangers in public because there is so much to say about simply being human and living the crazy adventure that is life. And speaking from that place often brings insight and some joy to others.