To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember my first encounter with poetry. I credit Shel Silverstein as the first poet I remember. I have tender memories of a child-me sifting through the pages of The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, and A Light in the Attic. I still have my childhood copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends on the top of my bookshelf, as a subtle reminder of my poetic Genesis. My mother says that she taught me how to read when I was young, and much of my reading was inspired by my own passion. Silverstein was the poet that brought me to put pen to paper, and write my own poems.
I can’t remember how old I was, but I remember I had a music box. The outside was pink and the inside had a twirling plastic ballerina. If I lifted the little jewelry compartment inside, I revealed a hollow hole beneath. It served as a hiding place for my early poetry. And my early poetry consisted of self-therapy and self-expression. Not to dive into graphic (and, truthfully, triggering) detail, I’m a survivor of domestic violence/abuse. As a child, I didn’t understand much of what was happening around me or even inside of me. Without anyone to bear my soul to, I took to the page. Silverstein taught me how to turn abstractions into imagistic language. After I scribbled poems on paper, I’d fold them into small squares, and hide them in the cave of my music box. Growing up, my teachers praised my reading and writing abilities, and they often commented on my “imaginative” nature. Later, I’d come to realize that my imagination was a coping mechanism.
I remember my parents going through their divorce, and the emerging feeling that I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I fantasized about disappearing, and I imagined how much easier things would be if I wasn’t here anymore. Then, I had a life changing encounter with poetry. I was in middle school, and our Language Arts teacher was introducing our class to poetry. For some, poetry was a foreign language. I was thrilled about it, and I remember reading Tupac’s The Rose That Grew from Concrete that year. During our poetry unit, our teacher had us watch the 1989 drama, Dead Poets Society. In the movie, I heard Walt Whitman’s words. And I wanted to consume every word he ever produced. Simply put, Whitman gave me a new set of eyes to see the world from. As I painfully wrestled in silence with the self, Whitman introduced me to romanticism. And I say he saved my life in a very literal sense. I doubt I’d still be alive if he didn’t whisper through Leaves of Grass: “O while I live to be the ruler of life, not a slave, / To meet life as a powerful conqueror…”
Silverstein taught me rhyme, meter, imagery, and metaphor, but Whitman taught me to live. Not only to live life with new eyes, but to love life. His verse inspired me through some of the bleakest, roughest moments of my life up until this point. I kept thinking to myself: things may be hard now, but they will be so much better one day. It’s been a decade since Whitman first sang to me, and I can confidently say that things are so, so, so much better. Things aren’t perfect (when are they ever though, let’s be honest, nobody is living their best life), but, even in my darkest hours, Whitman encourages me to keep moving forward. Especially right now.
Right now, I’m burdened with the general weight of deadline-driven stress, plus the unhealthy internal monologue that causes me to break into heavy sobs in my car. The internal monologue is created by the general anxiety disorder that turns my brain inside out, and it goes a little something like this: “Don’t screw this up. Because you can. Easily. You aren’t smart enough. You aren’t good enough. You won’t be able to do it. Drop out. Quit before you screw it up. Because you will. You always do. Nothing you do will matter. None of this matters.” The narrative is cyclical, ending back at the start. It goes on in that fashion for hours, until I’m having an emotional breakdown on the steering-wheel in a parking lot. Right now, I’m not feeling very confident or brave. I certainly do not feel as if I’m living my best life.
On this day of love, I wanted a reminder to be gentle to myself, to be kinder and more forgiving, and to show myself the love I want and deserve. Valentine’s Day is popularly a day for couples, but love exists in so many other ways. Instead of being a bitter single person, I’m trying to soak up as much self-love as possible. And who is the voice reminding me to love myself? The same one who has been gently guiding me for the last decade. Here are some excerpts from Leaves of Grass that I hold dear to my heart. When I need to be reminded of all the love and beauty in the world (and in myself), I turn to him.
“And I will show that there is no imperfection in the present, and can be none in the future, / And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may be turn’d to beautiful results, … / … And that all things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.” (from Songs of Paumanok)
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” (from Song of Myself)
“There was never any more inception than there is now, / Not any more youth or age than there is now, / And will never be any more perfection than there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.” (from Song of Myself)
“I exist as I am, that is enough,” (from Song of Myself)
“I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.” (from Song of Myself)
“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (from Song of Myself)
“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” (from Song of Myself)
“I have perceive’d that to be with those I like is enough, / To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, / To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough, / To pass among them or touch any one… / …I do not ask any more delight, I swim as in a sea.” (from I Sing the Body Electric)
“To escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds! / To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous! / To court destruction with taunts, with invitations! / To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicted to me! / To rise thither with my inebriate soul! / To be lost if it must be so! / To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!” (from One Hour to Madness and Joy)
“Each of us limitless — each of us with his or her right upon the earth, / Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth, / Each of us here as divinely as any is here.” ( from Salut Au Monde!)
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Health, free, the world before me, … / … Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, … / … Strong and content I travel the open road.” (from Song of the Open Road)
“I am larger, better than I thought, / I did not know I held so much goodness. / All seems beautiful to me…” (from Song of the Open Road)
“I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” (from Song of the Open Road)
“Forever alive, forever forward..” (from Song of the Open Road)
“O to bathe in the swimming bath, or in a good place along shore, / To splash the water! to walk ankle-deep, or race naked along the shore. / O to realize space! / The plenteousness of all, that there are no bounds, / To emerge and be of the sky, of the sun and moon and flying clouds, as one with them.” (from Song of Joys)
“O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted! / To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can stand! / To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to face! / To mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect nonchalance! / To indeed be a God!” (from Song of Joys)
“O to have a life henceforth a poem of new joys! / To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on! / To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports, / A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,) / A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.” (from Song of Joys)
“The question, O me! so sad, recurring — What good amid these, O me, O life? / Answer. / That you are here — That life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” (from O me! O life.)
Here is an added bonus for those of you who read down to this point. As a token of my gratitude, I present to you, the first poem I fell in love with: Shel Silverstein’s Listen to the Mustn’ts.
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.