Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.
I seem to add a new poem to my course every year due to a student’s choosing to recite it for our school’s Poetry Out Loud competition. This year has been no exception, as one of my former students, who has been an exceptionally strong Poetry Out Loud competitor, brought me “For the young who want to” by Marge Piercy. I’m not sure if she going to actually use it in the competition, but I hope she does because we read it together and had a very good laugh.
This week, I started off my 10th advanced class with the poem:
For the young who want to
BY MARGE PIERCY
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms
is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
They read it to themselves, I read it out loud, and then I projected it onto the board and we talked about the poem’s mood, tone, theme, focusing not only on what she’s saying but how she is saying it. And it seemed to work, especially among my more artistically inclined students who may already be hearing the “When are you going to do something real/what will you do for a job” lines, as they really appreciated her sarcastic, even cynical tone. What’s more is that they took the discussion to where I was hoping it would go and one that you could have with just about anyone–when pursuing artistic talents is justified and how our culture looks at failure.
“We love to watch people fail,” was one of the comments in the class and in essence, that is true, especially when you think of those who are in the public eye. Another student pointed out that very often we remember people not for their successes and victories but for their losses and failures. That bad album, that bad movie, that bad novel–those are what seem to stick to you more than the good ones, they said, and I pointed out the curse of the one-hit wonder, which is both different and the same.
Furthermore, our culture has a tendency to tell people how much they suck because it’s much easier than giving constructive criticism (and yes, my students completely saw the need for criticism and also didn’t like false praise), and loved the poem’s message about perseverance. One of the girls in the class took a copy of the poem home to her mother who is currently working on a book. I took it home and thought about rejection and perseverance in the face of being rejected. But I also thought about legitimacy.
In our constant search for “authentic” stories and “authentic” audiences, I’m curious as to why we still allow some voices to hold more weight than others. Is the same idea more legitimate if it’s coming from someone who’s thrice published and commands audiences with important people than if it’s coming from me? Why is it that we advocate for student voices in the same breath as trumping up our own past experience, number of followers, or awards won? I closed our brief discussion with the poem’s final stanza:
The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.
The hardest thing to do, I mentioned, is to keep going on just for yourself and keep working on things that aren’t ready yet (aside, by the way, from pronouncing “phlogiston,” which I couldn’t do). The audience, after all, will come. And if they don’t, there’s nothing wrong with the personal satisfaction of having done something for yourself.