SOPHISTICATION AND ITS ATTRACTIONS
Growing up is wanting growing up to be over: to be grown up; to have been there, to have done things, to have sophistication.
In water-heavy night behind grandmother's porch
We knelt in the tickling grasses and whispered:
Linda's face hung before us, pale as a pecan.
And it grew wise as she said:
"A boy's lips are soft,
As soft as baby's skin."
The air closed over her words.
A firefly whirred near my ear, and in the distance
I could hear streetlamps ping
Into miniature suns
Against a feathery sky.
Write a poem about one of the first times you were told--by a kid who was older and more sophisticated--about the marvelous mysteries of the opposite sex or about some other intriguing subject. Use pictures and sounds to capture the effect that the information had on you. For example, in Rita Dove's poem, what are the effects of the semi-darkness, the fireflies, and the street lamps? What if it had been a sunny afternoon?
She smiles like Sheba, says her name's a gift.
Mother thinks she's catching up on homework.
Her wide mouth freezes as the party hots up,
when they remove the syringe's red cap,
when they ease the needle into her arm,
when the white boys shoot her
full of smack.
An orange sliver of moon drips citrus;
Catherine-wheels spin inside her throat.
A seventeen-year-young roller-coaster
hurtling; blur of policemen, nurses, her mother
who named her.
Back at school she's a star for a week or two.
The prick in her arm heals; not the voodoo nightmare,
her unasked-for gift, lies.
Notice how Linda France uses short lines and how those lines get emphasis because they are short. Notice, too, how she connects the couplets to each other with the short, single lines. (Traditionally couplets were rhymed, but much of the effect can be gotten without rhyming them.)
Write a poem about being lied to by somebody older and more sophisticated who, therefore, had an advantage over you. Somebody who didn't really care about you, and they lied to you for their own reasons, maybe just to be able to laugh at you, maybe for some other foolish and cruel reason. Tell what happened. Tell what it was like to figure out the lie, but don't use the word lie until the last line, or see if there is a way you can make it clear without using the word lie at all. You might try to fit your poem into a pattern of alternating couplets and short lines.
When sophistication comes, it can be a pleasure and a satisfaction, or it can be a horrible shock, as in Jan Barry's poem:
A NUN IN NINH HOA
It was quite a sight for a boy from Tennessee:
a Buddhist nun dressed in fire
sitting proudly amid a solemn, silent crowd,
flames and a smoke plume her terrible costume.
Riding shotgun on a fuel truck convoy,
"just along for the ride,"
Jimmy Sharpe saw a sight this morning
beyond any experience he can describe.
She sat smiling as though mocking the flames.
Her hands, held together in prayer,
slowly parted. Suddenly, she drooped,
sat up, then wilted in the fire.
Safe back at the base, Jimmy's chatter
circled the nightmare he still could taste.
He grinned--shivered--then softly swore:
"Jeesus! How'd we get into this crazy place?"
And, it's odd. When we try to be like adults, they are likely to warn us away. As in this poem by Liz Lochhead.
POEM FOR MY SISTER
My little sister likes to try my shoes,
to strut in them,
admire her spindle-thin twelve-year-old legs
in this season's styles.
She says they fit her perfectly,
on their high heels, they're
hard to balance.
I like to watch my little sister
admire the neat hops-and-skips of her,
their quick peck,
never-missing their mark, not
over-stepping the line.
She is competent at peever.
I try to warn my little sister
about unsuitable shoes,
point out my own distorted feet, the callouses,
odd patches of hard skin.
I should not like to see her
in my shoes.
I wish she could stay
Use this poem as a model to write your own poem about how your little sister or little brother wants to be more grown up, how he borrows your things and imitates you. And tell what you think about it. Or, if you don't have a little sister or brother, tell about how you tried to act grown up.
TO A CHILD TRAPPED IN A BARBERSHOP
You’ve gotten in through the transom
and you can’t get out
till Monday morning or, worse,
till the cops come.
That six-year-old red face
calling for momma
is yours; it won’t help you
because your case
is closed forever, hopeless.
So don’t drink
the Lucky Tiger,* don’t
fill up on grease
because that makes it a lot worse,
that makes it a crime
against property and the state
and that costs time.
We’ve all been here before,
we took our turn
under the electric storm
of the vibrator
and stiffened our wills to meet
the close clippers
and heard the true blade mowing
back and forth
on a strip of dead skin,
and we stopped crying.
You think your life is over?
It’s just begun.
* Lucky Tiger: A perfumed hair dressing containing alcohol.
Not only a first haircut is frightening and then becomes routine as we become more sophisticated. Write about a first haircut or about some other new and frightening experience which was a doorway into sophistication.
EIGHT. DOING THE DISHES
We lived in so many houses, Gloria: Indiana Avenue,
Summit and Fourth, the double on Hudson Street.
And that upstairs apartment on North High we rented
from Armbruster's. Mother thought it Elizabethan,
romantic, with its leaded glass windows and wood-beamed
ceilings. Our entrance was at the side, at the top of stairs
that creaked late at night when we came home from our dates.
You had more of these than I did, even if I was older.
It was 1943, and our brother Harry was in the Navy.
I'd had a year away at college, and you were
still in high school. On this particular night
in the kitchen, doing the supper dishes, you
drying while I washed, you told me that your friend
Monabelle had a premature baby, and you'd been there,
helped to find a shoebox to put the baby in. I tried
to imagine this, kept seeing the cardboard box
with the baby, Monabelle bleeding and crying.
You didn't want our parents to hear, so we talked
softly while we put the dishes in the drainer
on the sink and hung the towels to dry.
The pilot light on the range burned purple blue
and I saw both of us new in that light, you
with so much to teach me, my self-absorbed
studious life, so intent on saving the world.
This is number eight in a series of poems Jeanne Lohmann wrote to her younger sister, Gloria. Choose someone who is and has been close to you. Write a poem to the person about something you did together. Let the person know, now, as you probably didn’t then, how you saw what happened and reveal what it meant to you.
WHISKEY IN WHITING, INDIANA
Watching them drink shots was best.
That fierce color as if it were burned
into the glass--the shot glass itself
so specialized, small and hefty the way
a bullet is. Shots made them talk tough
and say fighters' names: Mickey Walker,
Willie Pep, Beau Jack, Stanley Ketchel,
and Tony Zale. They talked cuts and
knockdowns and recalled whole fights by the
round. I got excited. I'd be Tony Zale, eye
brows obliterated, and told them so. "Jesus
Christ, no!" They'd cock their heads
at the glass, the bartender would pour
another shot. "Jesus, not you, Jimmie."
They did that. Get a dream up, then tell you
it was no good. Like how proud they talked
about the mill, how tough and dirty they got
and then made you promise to do homework
so as not to be stuck like them. They said
don't drink whiskey too. In the bathroom
when nobody was home I'd be famous
in front of the mirror with a shot glass
of Pepsi, watching myself throw one back.
This was after my title fight which I won
after taking awful punishment, just like
Tony Zale from Gary. I'd use my mother's
mascara and lipstick--to make
black eyes and blooded places on my face,
tuck cotton under to swell a lip. I'd study
their Jimmie in the mirror: everything
they loved and warned me not to be.
Sock down another shot, wince the way they did,
and watch myself defy them by loving
what they loved, by fighting my way into
their dreams of themselves and out of
their dream for me.
Write a poem describing something you did when you were pretending to be grown up.
And even we, ourselves, when we are young, can have our regrets about losing our innocence.
SONG FOR A GIRL
Young I am, and yet unskill'd
How to make a lover yield;
How to keep, or how to gain,
When to love, and when to feign.
Take me, take me, some of you,
While I yet am young and true;
Ere I can my soul disguise,
Heave my breasts, and roll my eyes.
Stay not till I learn the way,
How to lie, and to betray:
He that has me first, is blest,
For I may deceive the rest.
Could I find a blooming youth,
Full of love, and full of truth,
Brisk, and of a jaunty mien,
I should long to be fifteen.
DON' GO OVA DERE
Barry madda tell im
But Barry wouldn' hear,
Barry fada warn im
But Barry didn' care.
"Don' go ova dere, bwoy,
Don' go ova dere."
Barry sista beg im
Barry pull her hair,
Barry brother bet im
"You can't go ova dere."
"I can go ova dere, bwoy,
I can go ova dere."
Barry get a big bag,
Barry climb de gate,
Barry granny call im
But Barry couldn' wait,
Im wan' get ova dere, bwoy,
Before it get too late.
Barry see de plum tree
Im didn' see de bull,
Barry thinkin' bout de plums
"Gwine get dis big bag full."
De bull get up an' shake, bwoy,
And gi de rope a pull.
De rope slip off the pole
but Barry didn' see,
De bull begin to stretch im foot dem
Barry climb de tree.
Barry start fe eat, bwoy,
Firs' one, den two, den three.
Barry nearly full de bag
and den im hear a soun'.
Barry hol' de plum limb tight
And start fe look aroun'
When im see de bull, bwoy,
Im nearly tumble down.
Night a come, de bull naw move,
From unda dat plum tree,
Barry madda wondering
Whey Barry coulda be.
Barry getting tired, bwoy,
Of sitting in dat tree.
An Barry dis realise
Him neva know before,
Sey de tree did full o' black ants
But now im know fe sure.
For some begin fe bite im, bwoy
Den more, and more, an more.
De bull lay down fe wait it out,
An' Barry mek a jump,
De bag o'plum drop out de tree
And Barry hear a thump.
By early de nex' mawnin' bwoy,
Dat bull gwine have a lump.
De plum so frighten dat po' bull
Im start fe run too late,
Im a gallop after Barry
But Barry jump de gate.
De bull jus' stamp im foot, bwoy,
Im yeye dem full o' hate.
When Barry ketch a im yard,
What a state 'im in!
Im los' im bag, im clothes mud up,
And mud deh pon im chin.
And whey de black ants bite im
Feba bull-frog skin.
Barry fada spank im,
Im madda sey im sin,
Barry sista scold im
But Barry only grin,
For Barry brother shake im head,
An sey, "Barry, yuh win!"
Write a poem about being caught between the desire for sophistication and the wishes of your parents.
Valerie Bloom wrote this poem in her native West Indian dialect because she thought the dialect the people in the poem speak was the appropriate language for the poem. (Olive Senior did the same in a poem you read earlier in this anthology.) Most poets, however, choose to use the standard written dialect. With each poem you write you need to decide which of the dialects you know or which mixture of those dialects is most appropriate.
You see them in their black carriages along the highway as if they
got separated from some funeral cortege and now must deliver
the dead on their own. The men wear beards but shave their
mustaches. The women wear long dresses and tight bonnets.
The children play with wooden toys and point when they pass
televisions glowing along the roads as if each house had a soul
all its own. They keep bees. Raise crops. Train teams of horses so
large they look like they've been exaggerated. If an Amish man
promises to meet you at noon by the courthouse with a dozen
cages of chickens, he'll be there. When the children are about to
turn into adults, they go on a rumspringa to see which world suits
them best. Girls dangle jewelry from their ears and necks. Smear
makeup on. Boys get behind the wheel of a car. Barrel down gravel
roads. Stop in a field. And baptize themselves with a bottle of gin.
A few go out for football. The girls join the cheerleading squad.
Then return home smelling of perfume or cologne. Giggling as
they stumble up the stairs, long after the candles have been blown
Do you know people whose customs and behavior are different from yours? Can you write a poem that this an honest and accurate depiction of facets of their lives and that is also underlain by your respect for them?
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees."°
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton° by yonder coomb°
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
° According to an old folk belief the
oxen still kneel on Christmas Eve as they
did when Christ was born.
° Small valley
Write a poem about some fantasy ("fancy") which you had as a child which you are sorry that you have lost because you have grown older and more sophisticated.
My father's friend came once to tea.
He laughed and talked. He spoke to me.
But in another week they said
That friendly pink-faced man was dead.
'How sad...' they said, 'the best of men...'
So I said too, 'How sad'; but then
Deep in my heart I thought, with pride,
'I know a person who has died'.
Prose is written with the assumption that it will be read only once (though there are exceptions). But poems are usually written to be read a number of times. They are like paintings which we put on the wall and look at every day. So we keep coming back to a poem to enjoy it again and find new things in it. People have been coming back to the following poem by Ben Jonson for almost 400 years, and we still find new things in it.
STILL TO BE NEAT
Still to be neat, still to be dressed,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powdered, still perfumed;
Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art's hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.
Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free;
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Then all th' adulteries of art.
They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.
We all know girls who look like they were put together by machine. They think they will look more sophisticated when their makeup is perfect and every strand of hair is in place. Like a cover girl from the sophisticated world of fashion magazines. But we would like to see a crack in that makeup that would show them to be human. We wish they were more athletic or that they liked being kissed. Write a note to such a girl in the form of a poem. Tell her to loosen up--that it will make her more attractive.
Poetry began as song, and today it is still very much song, even though today it is usually read silently rather than sung. That is another way that poetry is different from prose. In prose it is the meaning, the sense, that leads us from sentence to sentence. But rhythms and sounds are instrumental in leading us from line to line in poetry. We all know songs that we can hum from beginning to end even though we don't understand or even know the words.
THE RUINED MAID
"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?"--
"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.
--"You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks,*
And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!"--
"Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she.
--"At home in the barton* you said 'thee' and 'thou,'
And 'thik oon,' and 'theäs oon,' and 't'other'; but now
Your talking quite fits 'ee for high compa-ny!"--
"Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she.
--"Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!"--
"We never do work when we're ruined," said she.
--"You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh, and you'd sock;* but at present you seem
To know not of megrims* or melancho-ly!"--
"True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she.
--"I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!"--
"My dear--a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.
* docks: weeds (burdock); *barton: farm yard; *sock:;
*megrims: migraine headache
THE HARLOT'S HOUSE
We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street.
And stopped beneath the harlot's house.
Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The "Treues Liebes Herz" * of Strauss.
Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.
We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.
Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille.
They took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband.
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.
*Dear True Heart
Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.
Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.
Then, turning to my love, I said,
"The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust."
But she--she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.
Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz.
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.
And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.
THE HARLEM DANCER
Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm.
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze.
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
She juliets him from a window in Soho,
A 'business girl' of twenty.
He is a florid businessman of fifty.
(Their business is soon done.)
He, of a bright young man the sensual ghost,
Still (in his mind) the gay seducer,
Takes no account of thinned and greying hair,
The red veins webbing a once-noble nose,
The bushy eyebrows, wrinkles by the ears,
Bad breath, the thickening corpulence,
The faded, bloodshot eye.
This is his dream: that he is still attractive.
She, of a fashionable bosom proud,
A hairstyle changing as the fashions change,
Has still the ageless charm of being young,
Fancies herself and knows that men are mugs.
Her dream: that she has foxed the bloody world.
When two illusions meet, let there not be a third
Of the gentle hypocrite reader prone to think
That he is wiser than these self-deceivers.
Such dreams are common. Readers have them too.
Write a poem about a young person who has illusions about being sophisticated. (Forget the old guy.) Ewart makes us think more kindly of the young woman by reminding us that we have our illusions (dreams) too. Try to find a way of making the reader think twice about the young person and not simply dismiss her or him.
PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG GIRL RAPED AT A SUBURBAN PARTY
And after this quick bash in the dark
You will rise and go
Thinking of how empty you have grown
And of whether all the evening's care in front of mirrors
And the younger boys disowned
Led simply to this.
Confined to what you are expected to be
By what you are
Out in this frozen garden
You shiver and vomit--
Frightened, drunk among trees,
You wonder at how those acts that called for tenderness
Were far from tender.
Now you have left your tittering about love
And your childishness behind you
Yet still far from being old
You spew up among flowers
And in the warm stale rooms
The party continues.
It seems you saw some use in moving away
From that group of drunken lives
Yet already ten minutes pregnant
In twenty thousand you might remember
This dull Saturday evening
When planets rolled out of your eyes
And splashed down in suburban grasses.